AN INNOVATE IDEA CUTS DOWN ON FOOD WASTE AND HELPS PEOPLE EAT HEALTHEIR

Over the past year, a bootstrapping socio-eco startup, founded by Laurel Schut and Lindsay Clowes called FOUND Forgotten Food, has harvested and collected 12,980 kilograms of fresh fruit and vegetables from 12 Nova Scotian farms and delivered them to some 13 food banks and community organizations around Halifax, the Annapolis Valley, and Truro. 

Every year approximately 44,000 Nova Scotians rely on food bank assistance. One in three kids from single-parent households in Nova Scotia experiences food shortage everyday, according to Canada’s Food Report Card issued by the Conference Board of Canada. One in three. An astounding 40% of the food we grow and produce never even makes it onto our plates. Perfectly good food goes unharvested, plowed back into the land or composted.

The FOUND founders met while doing their masters at Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies, both researching aspects of food production in Atlantic agriculture, when they had an idea. 

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Lindsay Clowes (left), Laurel Schut.

The goal was simple: help eliminate food waste by harvesting food left behind, collecting leftover fruit and vegetables from farmers’ markets, and gleaning fruit trees and overabundant backyard gardens. A bunch of other benefits quickly followed: a reduction in the impact on the environment, a market for unharvested produce, a tax deduction for farmers, and fresh food for Nova Scotians in need. 

“I’m from Ontario and Lindsay is from Maine and we were motivated and inspired by the success of food-waste organizations across Canada, there are more than 95 across North America, mainly collecting food from restaurants and grocery stores,” says Schut. “We were totally surprised to find there wasn’t already an initiative like ours in place in Nova Scotia. There was no real plan for FOUND in the beginning. It was really a case of, let’s see if this idea we have, works. We figured it was an easy idea that people would get behind, and so we just started, literally a few days after we had defended our theses.” 

And people were quick to get behind them. They soon connected with a local homeowner who gave them 23 kilograms of rhubarb that would otherwise have been thrown away, piled it into their car and showed up at Parker Street Food Bank in Halifax’s North End. 

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“When we arrived and explained who we were and what we were trying to start, the woman working at the food bank started to cry,” says Schut. “She told us that food banks barely ever receive fresh produce, and most of what is received is almost always on or near the ‘best before’ date. It was such an impactful moment for us, seeing this ‘waste’ be truly valued and appreciated.”

A large proportion of the food waste, that constitutes a $31-billion problem in Canada, happens before food even hits the produce aisles. Historically food waste has been thought of as a problem at the consumer end or grocery-store level, but it starts with farmers who are often unable to sell a substantial portion of their produce. Often fruit and vegetables are left in the field and referred to as a “walk-by,” because the farmer simply walks past it. It never reaches the food supply chain and is marked up as a loss. This is where FOUND steps in.

“Originally, we were going to focus on urban areas and glean fruit trees,” says Schut. “But we quickly found out there are a lot of logistical barriers to harvesting food from fruit trees in people’s yards and there is much more food going to waste on farms. We realized we’d have a much larger impact if we focused on farm fresh food.” 

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Often the result of a supply vs. demand mismatch, or the economics of harvesting a crop costing more than what farmers can get for it, or simply unpredictable weather – there is almost always food left in the fields.

“We’ve had farmers who were surprised at how well a crop did and didn’t expect to grow so much of it,” said Schut. ”Sometimes it’s because mechanical harvesting, although efficient in terms of time is often inefficient in terms of picking up every last potato. Often it’s because our preferences as consumers dictate what gets sold and what doesn’t: like sweet potatoes that are too small, or carrots not straight enough.

Working with farmers has two effects. “Volunteers have the chance to see where their food comes from directly, and gain an appreciation for our local farmers and maybe even become interested in agriculture themselves,” Schut says. “The farmer benefits from the provincial tax credit of food donated to registered food banks and charities. Almost every time we’ve visited a farm to harvest, the farmer has come out to chat and help our volunteers. I think they truly see the benefit to what we’re doing and want to help and be as involved as possible.” 

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Since that first delivery of rhubarb, FOUND has grown into a vibrant volunteer driven organisation with seven core members and over 200 volunteers, who help harvest fresh food that would otherwise stay in the fields. Everything from potatoes and squash to cherries and apples have been collected and delivered to food banks directly or through Feed Nova Scotia. 

“Farmers contact us directly if they have any food that could be put to good use. We’ll then send out an email to our volunteer list and organise harvests quite quickly, within a couple days of being contacted. We now have volunteer groups working in HRM, the Valley, and Truro,” said Schut. “It’s important we make lasting relationships with farmers to further our impact. More farmer relationships not only means more food donated, but it also means more people are getting out into the field and learning about agriculture and creating a direct relationship with their food source.”

Currently FOUND’s structure is divided into a series of small hubs of volunteers. The goal for 2018 is to expand the number of communities across the province working towards reducing food waste by creating a Community Harvest Program. The program will allow any community in the province, or beyond, to act as a FOUND champion and start collecting food in that location.    

For volunteer opportunities, surf to foundns.com.

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