Canada: student group bridges gap between food banks and greenhouses

When the pandemic struck, Cindy Zhang, a grad student from Calgary, wanted to do something to help those less fortunate. “I thought it would be great to connect farms to food banks, and also to communities in need and to churches as well,” she said. “We started reaching out to greenhouses when we noticed a lot of farms were experiencing surplus because of restaurant closures.

“I just started to talk to food banks in Calgary and Edmonton, and heard there was an increase in demand. We wanted to connect them with our organization.” Zhang is one of the co-founders of Farms to Families, formally known as the FarmLink Project Canada.

“When I noticed there was a lot of food waste, I wanted to connect any food surplus to anyone experiencing food insecurity,” she said.” At the time, there was another organization doing it called Farmlink U.S. We are an independent organization, (but) it was doing something similar, and it gave us guidance on how to connect with farms.”

Zhang is now studying public health at the University of Toronto, but is still continuing the project, which she and friend Tom Zhao began in May 2021.

Initially, she and Zhao cold-called farms around Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer, and Edmonton, and picked up foods from farms and greenhouses such as Swiss Leaf Farms and Whole Leaf Farms. “In the beginning, we partnered with a few greenhouses because it wasn’t harvesting season yet,” said Zhang. “Then we partnered with hydroponic lettuce farms, and then more greenhouses and regular farms that produce lettuce and tomatoes.”

The anecdotal reports of increased foodbank use that Zhang heard are borne out by a new report from Food Banks Canada, the national organization representing about 650 food banks across the country.

Despite Ottawa’s unprecedented pandemic support for low-income Canadians, the number of visits to food banks grew by 20% this year compared to 2019, the organization’s latest HungerCount report says. There were 1.3 million visits to food banks nationwide in March of this year, with about 9% of those in Alberta (116,000 during the month).

The group is still looking for farmers who may be interested in donating produce. Interested parties can learn more here.

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