Sometimes, success stories come out of the most unexpected places. And then what really makes them take flight is when they domino into a series of other success stories that positively impact people’s everyday lives in other ways.
In 2015, the United Way Sault Ste. Marie & Algoma District (UWSSMAlgoma) made a commitment to focus entirely on poverty reduction in Sault Ste. Marie and the Algoma District. “We wanted to focus on helping children succeed, for families to become stronger and to help the community become stronger and a better place to live,” says Gary Vipond, CEO, UWSSMAlgoma. Twenty-three organizations subsequently met to create the Poverty Round Table and a plan to reduce poverty, under the direction of Vipond, Gayle Broad of Algoma University and Jennifer Miller of Algoma Public Health. The Plan was then taken to the city and mayor and council approved it as a community plan.
UWSSMAlgoma committed to address three of the five priorities identified in the Plan; Food Security, Workforce Entry and Essential Services.
Filling Algoma’s food void
“In 2016, we discovered that transports of food offered to our community were declined, due to a lack of infrastructure to receive and store the food,” says Vipond. “People are hungry and we’re turning away truckloads, how can we fit this into our plan?”
Vipond says they realized that a new food hub needed to be established. Harvest Algoma was founded and respective partnerships and receiving agencies and organizations identified. Many conversations were also held with local agencies and politicians. The District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration board provided some start-up funding.
“Our board said, just do it,” says Vipond. “We looked at space all over town and many locations needed significant renovations. When we saw the former Croatian Hall, we knew we had found our ideal spot, as it had freezers, refrigerators, a commercial kitchen and storage.”
In July 2018, the Food Resource Centre was officially opened at the former Croation Hall site. By the end of 2018, the Centre was certified as a food rescue organization. Contact was made with banquet halls, grocery stores and restaurants; food that is fresh and not sold can be retrieved by accredited staff from those locations and brought to the Food Resource Centre for processing.
The conversation was then directed to regional farmers where a request was made for surplus crops. “The response was incredible,” says Vipond.
Next up was the truckloads of food.
“We then wanted to tie into those truckloads of food that we’d been hearing about; the hurdle was that they typically had to be picked up in Toronto,“ says Vipond. The Sault and Algoma communities come through time and time again, he says. This time, Lock City Dairies stepped up and agreed to transport food that was often coming from Toronto, Montreal and London. Second Harvest of Toronto has been an excellent partner in this endeavour.
“We pay a transportation fee of $2,000 per load, however these truckloads contain $100,000 to $150,000 worth of food.” So far, they have seen over $6 million in food surplus make its way to the Food Resource Centre.
“Whenever we know we have a truckload coming in, a team from Ken Brown Recovery Home come and unload and they have been super about responding to that need,” says Vipond.
A chef has been hired, at the Food Resource Centre, so healthy meals can be prepared and delivered hot to partner organizations or frozen for future use. Part of his wage is through a grant from Amazon Canada, made available through United Way Centraide Canada. These nutritional meals ensure a balanced diet and minimal preparation for the recipients, many who are seniors. Harvest Algoma supplies food to 45 partner organizations, which in turn provide the food to those in need. Harvest Algoma does not provide food directly to clients.
“The kitchen is amazing, we were told that if we had to go out and build the same kitchen, it would cost about a half-million dollars to get it equipped as it is now,” he says.
“Last spring, the pandemic saw many restaurants closed and there was a huge surplus of food,” says Vipond. “You quickly learn that when someone says they have frozen vegetables for you, you can’t think about the size of bag you have in your home freezer … the packages are massive, each about 6 feet x 6 feet in size and then you need to re-portion them into smaller sizes.”
Next up: completion of the second of two 24 x 96 foot heated greenhouses, purchased through an Ontario Trillium Foundation Capital Grant, that will enable food to be grown year-round. The Lakeshore Kiwanis Club provided funds to cover a portion of the installation expenses.
Trillium Capital grants also enabled Harvest Algoma to purchase two vans and one refrigerated trailer so that food can be delivered to points north and east. United Way has partnered with Algoma Family Services and the Salvation Army to deliver food to seniors. More than 300 seniors receive food each month. A portion of the Federal Emergency Community Support Funding for COVID-19 Relief supports these deliveries.
“Back in the 1990s, there were 29 organizations that received money from the United Way and now we send large amounts of food to 42 organizations and at no charge,” says Vipond.
“We’re not always 100 per cent sure what might be on the loads, when they say it is a mixed load, it can mean anything,” says Vipond. “Meat, cheese, cereal, granola bars, coffee, tea and hygiene products,” he says. Tampon Tuesday, a United Way national event, has also been an asset in providing feminine products.
Ironically, the budget for 2020 was for $10,000 which was to cover the cost of five truck deliveries. The budget was exceeded very early on.
“Between March and December 2020, we received 46 truckloads,” says Gary. “We had to go out and market the fact that these are the costs of feeding our community and we have been truly overwhelmed with the support we’ve received. We could have never imagined that there was a demand for this amount of food.” Funds to support deliveries have been received from McDougall Fuels, Rotary International and the Algoma District DSSAB. Going forward, three to four truckloads of food are anticipated monthly and funds will have to be generated to cover the cost of these deliveries. The United Way 50/50 draw has been initiated to raise funds to cover these additional expenses.
In 2018, the Innovation Centre, City of Sault Ste. Marie, Nordik, UWSSMAlgoma, Algoma Workforce Organization worked together to create a snapshot of the community in a Community Indicators Report.
“At that time, Harvest Algoma had just started and our community is so different to where we were then, it is amazing,” says Vipond.
Further information on the funding, projects and events of United Way Sault Ste. Marie & Algoma District can be found at www.uwssmalgoma.ca or by contacting them at 705-256-7476.
To purchase your United Way 50/50 Draw tickets in support of Harvest Algoma Food, click here.