Western Canada initiative sees fresh produce go to food banks as shoppers buy local vegetables

How an Alberta growers’ co-op is helping people in need
WATCH ABOVE: Normally, when you donate to a food bank you give non-perishable items. But the less fortunate need fresh, healthy produce too. Sarah Kraus explains how an Alberta growers' co-op is trying to address that.

Food banks often receive donations of non-perishable items, but the less fortunate need fresh, healthy produce as well.

To help get vegetables into food hampers for the hungry across western Canada, Red Hat Co-op came up with the idea of “Grower Give Back Packs.”

The boxes of vegetables – including two peppers, two cucumbers and two tomatoes – are on sale at Sobeys, IGA and Safeway stores for $4.99. For each one sold, Red Hat Co-op is donating 2.5 pounds of fresh produce to local food banks.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to put together a pack that would be great value for people buying the pack,” said Red Hat Co-op’s general manager Gillian Digman. “A fantastic opportunity to support local growers and give back to the community via the food banks.

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“It’s a really good win-win situation for everyone.”

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Dirk Vis is one of the growers contributing to the packs. His family has been growing cucumbers and tomatoes in Cypress County, Alta. since 1990.

“We just thought it was a good idea because we are so involved with our community,” he said. “To give back – and not just to our small community here in Medicine Hat – but to Alberta and then western Canada,” he said.

His staff were hard at work picking all kinds of tomatoes for the boxes heading to Red Hat’s packaging facility.

“I think it’s very important for everybody to be able to have fresh vegetables… because it’s an important part of a diet – anybody’s diet. Food banks so often have non-perishable items.”

The produce packs hit shelves on May 26 and have already been a huge success.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Weylin Willis, the store manager at Sobeys Newcastle West in Edmonton, said. “All the staff – as soon as we heard about it – were very fired up.”

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“[We] let the customers know,” he said. “We have our signage here and a display at the front and our cashiers are also very excited to let customers know through the tills.

“At Sobeys, one of our missions is to help people eat better, feel better and do better and this is now something where we can donate fresh vegetables – with the help of Red Hat – to the less fortunate.”

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More than 182,000 pounds of vegetables have already been purchased – and therefore donated – to local food banks. Initially, Red Hat had a target of 250,000 pounds but the growers will now match donations up to 400,000 pounds.

“We see that it is essential for everybody to have access to fresh vegetables,” Digman said.

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For Edmonton’s Food Bank, the produce couldn’t be coming at a better time.

“At this time of year, we don’t see a lot of fresh produce coming in – so it’s really, truly appreciated,” said the food bank’s executive director, Marjorie Bencz.

She said low-income clients often struggle to eat enough healthy fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We’re serving between 20,000 and 25,000 people each month through hamper programs, plus we’re providing food to soup kitchens and shelters. This food is really excellent, nutritious food that will really enhance our hampers and the quality of food that we’re distributing to other agencies.”