The United Way program put in place to address food insecurity in the area is in danger of closing for good after a last-ditch effort to have it taken over by another agency fell through.
Harvest Algoma has grown over the five years it has been in existence, distributing thousands of pounds of food to the community through its Food Pantry. But as the organization has grown, so too has the need to feed some of the city’s most vulnerable.
David Gearing, president of the board of directors, told SooToday that need has outgrown United Way Sault Ste. Marie & Algoma’s ability to fund the program.
“We have carried it for five years and we have had campaigns year after year, but just not enough to sustain the need for the community,” said Gearing. “If we can’t find someone in the very near future, yes, we will be closing the building. We just can’t afford to run it."
He didn’t have a specific figure at hand for how much Harvest Algoma was losing every year.
“When it comes to a dollar shortfall, it has to be addressed and if it has to be addressed every year it’s not a dollar shortfall, it’s a funding problem,” said Gearing.
For months, the United Way has been in talks with other agencies in the city, looking for help and to possibly have another organization take over operation of Harvest Algoma.
“We have spent the last eight months looking for a partnership,” said Gearing. "We thought we had one and it fell through."
That potential partnership was with the Rural Agri-Innovation Network, a division of Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre (SSMIC). The proposal would have seen Harvest Algoma transformed from a money-losing charity to a social enterprise that would at least break even — or even eventually become profitable.
On Tuesday, SSMIC informed other stakeholders that it would not be moving ahead with the plan to take over operation of Harvest Algoma.
Peter Bruijns, executive director of SSMIC, told SooToday the proposal was scrapped after months of due diligence and trying to find strategies to make Harvest Algoma work as a social enterprise.
“We needed this thing to get on a path where it could at least break even down the road and I didn’t see that happening at all," Bruijns said. "We tried to uncover that path but it wasn’t there."
In June, he co-signed a letter to community partners asking for financial support to keep Harvest Algoma afloat for a few years while it transitioned to an entirely different model. The letter was also signed by United Way’s executive director, Lori Huston, and Rural Agri-Innovation Network director David Thompson.
“We needed the community’s support to make it work, at least for a three-year window because that is how long it would take us to get our part of the business to generate enough surplus cash that it would start back-feeding the community support program,” said Bruijns.
Only a few community partners committed to the idea, he said.
“Everybody else either decided they weren’t prepared to support the activity or, in a couple of cases, decided they weren’t allowed to because it would require a redirection of funding allocated for something else,” said Bruijns. “They were either going to contribute to keeping it going or not contribute and expected the Innovation Centre to shoulder all of the deficit.”
In a letter sent to Huston on Tuesday, Bruijns announced SSMIC would not be pursuing taking over the operation of Harvest Algoma from the United Way.
Gearing said he is disappointed the proposed handover of Harvest Algoma will not be taking place.
“Am I upset that we have to make a decision sooner than later? Very upset, because I was there when we created it and I know what it has done over the past five years,” said Gearing. “I wish I had better news, but I think at some point if we don’t find someone then closing it is our only option.”
Reached for comment on Tuesday, Mayor Matthew Shoemaker said he is disappointed to hear the funding could not be allocated from various community agencies to transition the organization to the Innovation Centre.
"I’m committed to looking at what I can do as mayor to help secure Harvest Algoma’s future including discussions with external agencies to potentially piece together the funding necessary to continue Harvest Algoma’s operations," said Shoemaker.
Gearing said Harvest Algoma is still operating in the very near future to fulfill its commitment of providing meals to area shelters, funded by the District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board (DSSAB).
“Harvest Algoma plays a vital role in food security for the community and for our homelessness system,” said DSSAB CEO Mike Nadeau. “I know Harvest Algoma is struggling, I was hoping the community partners would really rally around a community asset but it appears that may not happen.”
Harvest Algoma’s Food Resource Centre opened on Second Line East in July 2018, with financial support from the DSSAB. From there, fresh and healthy food is distributed within Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma through more than 65 partner agencies.
According to the United Way's 2022 annual report, an estimated 62,535 pounds of food has been distributed through Harvest Algoma, feeding 14,187 adults and 4,469 children.
“We see it as a strategic community asset we hope is around for many years,” said Nadeau.