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Hunger pains: How Harvest Algoma feeds a city while fighting for its own survival

The hub for food assistance in the Sault faces possible closure, but that hasn't stopped a skeleton crew of staff and volunteers from working tirelessly to address food insecurity

Harvest Algoma's Food Resource Centre on Second Line is still making an effort to support the city's most vulnerable, even as the program that supplies food to just about every agency in the city is in danger of closing due to years of funding shortfalls.

As SooToday reported earlier this month, a last-ditch effort to have the program taken over by the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre (SSMIC) fell through, leaving the future of Harvest Algoma in serious jeopardy.

On Friday, SooToday spent time with staff and volunteers to get a better idea of how it works to combat food insecurity in the city, even as it faces the imminent possibility of shutting its doors for good.

Harvest Algoma is operated by United Way Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma and serves as a hub of sorts for food assistance in the city. Food comes in and is stored for later use, with some agencies either coming in regularly to select items for clients or receive deliveries of prepared food, like the meals provided to Pauline’s Place and the men’s shelter at the Verdi Hall. 

Deron Barlow is the current general manager of Harvest Algoma and one of only three full-time staff members remaining at the organization. He told SooToday that the operation based out of the Food Resource Centre on Second Line is being held together by duct tape, spit and glue.

“It’s like the Red Green Show,” said Barlow. “What was his saying? If they don’t find you handsome they should at least find you handy.”

With only a skeleton crew of three full-time staffers, the organization relies heavily on the help of volunteers.

“They’re the backbone,” Barlow said. “Being a social service agency on a shoestring budget, free labour is what we really rely on.”

The large building that houses Harvest Algoma once served as the Canadian Croatian Hall. It contains warehouse space, multiple walk-in fridges and freezers and a full commercial kitchen. 

Two CMHA Algoma case workers came into the depot Friday to "shop" for one of their clients. They leave with a selection of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, that will last a few days.

“The reality of food insecurity, especially in a place like Sault Ste. Marie, is over 60 per cent of the people who are food insecure are working,” said Barlow. “A huge percentage work or have money, they just can’t afford it with their bills or they live in a food desert where they don’t have vegetables. They have Kraft Dinner, Zoodles and processed meat.”

Poverty is very real in our community, said United Way executive director Lori Huston.

"Every day there are individuals and families who have to make impossible choices like whether to put food on the table or pay rent," she said. "It touches every aspect of a person life and can make it very difficult for them to see a bright future ahead."

Barlow said CMHA Algoma accessed the Food Resource Centre 387 times in 2022, distributing an estimated 14,000 pounds of food to its clients. It is one of the agencies that most relies on Harvest Algoma, along with the Social Service Hub, Phoenix Rising, St. Vincent’s Place, Algoma Family Services, Nogdawindamin Family and Community Services, as well as the food pantries at Algoma University and Sault College.

A few hundred feet from the back door are two greenhouses intended for the production of fresh year-round produce that helps the organization expand its offerings. One of those greenhouses is fully functional, growing cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, carrots, kale, beans and more. Last year alone, that greenhouse produced an estimated 6,000 pounds of food.

The doors are kept closed between January and March but the heater keeps the greenhouse at eight degrees Celsius, just warm enough to grow spinach and kale. It also means the earth inside never freezes over, helping the organization to get right back to planting in the spring.

“It is one of our major expenses to keep it going, but it does allow us to keep producing food literally all year round,” said Barlow.

A second adjacent greenhouse was intended to operate as a partnership with a local high school that was going to build and donate the raised beds. That greenhouse has never been put into service.

“The problem was I didn’t want to commit and have them donate it and then have us shut down,” Barlow said. “We just didn’t have the funding to fill it, put beds in it or soil and all of that, plus we don’t have the manpower.”

The second greenhouse is already in place, if Harvest Algoma had stable funding and adequate staffing it could ideally double the amount of food it produces on site.

Jeff Socchia is the operations coordinator for Harvest Algoma. On Friday, SooToday followed him as he conducted one of his regular pick-ups at a local grocery store. The food he collects is close to being thrown out by the store, either because it is approaching its best before date or for some other reason deemed not fit for the shelves.

“There’s an issue in our culture around food,” said Barlow. “We will get food donated if a label is ripped or the cardboard is stuck on it. It’s not aesthetically pleasing so they throw it out because people won’t buy it — there’s nothing wrong with the food.”

On or slightly before its best before date, the meat is frozen by the grocery store. Boxes of frozen meat are accompanied by boxes of produce, some bread, a few cases of bottled water and other goods.

A national organization called Second Harvest is the main reason all of that food isn’t otherwise thrown away. It offers grocery stores an opportunity to broadcast to local agencies that the food is able to be picked up instead of thrown in the garbage bin.

After mostly filling the back of Harvest Algoma’s delivery van, Socchia returns to the Food Resource Centre for processing. “This load is actually on the lighter end of what we usually get,” he said.

Back at the depot, five volunteers make short work of sorting out the load. Cucumbers, asparagus, peaches, pears and bagged caesar salad are among the offerings that morning.

“If the broccoli is yellow,  people aren’t going to take it,” said Barlow. “If people don’t take it we blanch it, freeze it and it goes into soups and other things. It makes no difference once it’s pureed.”

Some of the produce is deemed not fit for human consumption and is thrown in the bin, but even that isn’t wasted. Those fruits and vegetables are composted or sent home to feed Socchia’s goats, who are a lot less picky about eating bruised or wilted fruits and veggies.

In the kitchen, volunteer Vince Volpe is washing broccoli that will be blanched and frozen for later, while fellow volunteer Vi Sharp prepares sandwiches.

Those fruits and vegetables might be taken by another agency to feed a client or become a part of ready-to-eat meals that are cooked in the kitchen for clients like Social Services, who pay for the dinners to be distributed to Pauline’s Place and the Verdi Hall shelter.

Barlow said last year, a total of 38,211 meals were distributed to local shelters.

The commercial kitchen at the Food Resource Centre was intended to also serve as a place for people to learn how to cook and make them more comfortable with food they may not be accustomed to.

“A big part of solving food insecurity is education and teaching people how to cook and introduce people to food,” said Barlow. “If your parents never bought broccoli, you’re probably never going to go into a grocery store and buy it yourself.”

“Instead of just giving them a can of soup for that person every day, give them the skills to eventually provide for themselves,” added Socchia.

Barlow said the organization was making progress with that part of the organization’s mandate before the pandemic and budget woes cut it short.

“It was too little too late, financially, and we didn’t have the time to build it into something big,” he said.

Huston said rising costs and reduced fundraising revenue has severely impacted United Way's ability to sustain Harvest Algoma operations.

"If we are unable to identify another community stakeholder to initiate a partnership to ensure the sustainability of the long-term operations, the unfortunate reality is, we will no longer be able to continue this much-needed service," said Huston.

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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