Kitchener-Waterloo

Thousands of pounds of food diverted from landfill, donated to charity by University of Guelph students

Two University of Guelph students are running a project to donate food that might end up in the garbage to people in need. Their prioritizing food security despite the pandemic and barriers they're facing.

A student-run MealCare project donates food to charitable organizations in the city

Kiana Gibson (left) and David Sahai (right), are two University of Guelph students that are donating freshly-made and nutritious campus prepared meals, to charitable organizations in the city of Guelph. (Submitted by Kiana Gibson)

A new student-led project at the University of Guelph has diverted thousands of pounds of food from green bins and donated it to local charities.

The MealCare project's objective is to take unsold campus-prepared food and instead of seeing it thrown out, it's donated to local Guelph charitable organizations.

In the past three years, along with 20 volunteer members, 16,000 pounds of food has been kept out of the garbage.

Kiana Gibson and David Sahai have led the MealCare team. Their top priority has been to provide food security to those in need, but with the pandemic it's been a challenge. Sahai says the pandemic's restrictions have caused barriers in the economic and occupational factors to accessing food in the city, even at food shelters.

"We have an added barrier which is the maximum capacity people even have within the food shelter and also just the fact that some food shelters aren't even in a position right now to actually provide food," said Sahai.

"The pandemic itself made it difficult for MealCare to actually continue to carry our duties."

Process more complicated for now

In 2016 when both Gibson and Sahai began the initiative, they borrowed a cart from the Central Student Association's office, the campus kitchen chefs helped them acquire the food and put labels on each bags that indicated ingredients and expiring dates.

Then, the food was weighed and put in a cart that was taken to the university centre's loading dock where their donation partners such as Lakeside HOPE House, The Guelph Drop-In Centre and Royal City Mission would come and collect it.

With COVID-19 in place, Gibson and Sahai continue going through the same procedures but do so while following COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Now, they're required to maintain a six-feet or two meters distance between one another while preparing the food, wear face masks and other personal protective equipment. Also, they had to reduce the number of volunteers who helped complete the donations.

"We found it was definitely a learning curve at first, being able to actually communicate and to carry on these tasks while distancing from each other," said Sahai.

"Having the masks on, doing the social distancing and still being able to communicate ... being able to label them at a distance from each other and also be interacting with the chefs ... from a distance, is something that has been definitely complicated by this process." 

Stopping stigma around food affordability

When the duo initially began the MealCare project, they started off by donating food to the university's food bank. Gibson says it was important for them to do this as they recognized student food insecurity is a prevalent issue and highly stigmatized.

According to research article by the Canadian Food Studies, the regularity of student food insecurity is much higher than many presume. Studies frequently find student insecurity rates range from 30 to 40 per cent. 

"People think that just because you're in university and you're paying tuition, that you must be able to afford eating food," she said.

"There's this sort of idea that you're supposed to survive on Kraft Dinner and ramen noodles as a university student and that shouldn't be the standard."

Food insecurity rates are highest among international students, as well as Black, Indigenous and students of colour in Canada. 

"A lot of students do struggle to acquire sufficient food or have the cooking skills that they need to support an active and healthy lifestyle," Gibson said.

"That's what drew us initially to the student food bank."

Left to right: Volunteers Madaleine Banks, Erin Smith, Liliana, Marie Pinto, Sophie Weiss sorting through trays of quiche and pasta bakes. This food was weighed, dated, and labelled before being donated to the Guelph Drop-In Centre, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Kiana Gibson)

Groups appreciate donations

Donating partners have responded positively to MealCare's food donation. Gibson says their first external partner was Lakeside HOPE House, a poverty release program that supports underprivileged individuals in the Guelph community. The group would always provide them with feedback about the food.

"They operated a café where they would serve our food as a hot lunch option and they would send us pictures sometimes of displays of them putting out the food," said Gibson.

"It's been really cool to hear the stories ... people who we've been working with at HOPE House have consistently told us how much they appreciate the quality of the food and the fact that it's fresh."

MealCare donates a variety of different food including fish, meat, vegetarian options, gluten-free, vegan and Halal. 

Sahai says reaching the achievement of 16,000 pounds of food is significant for MealCare Guelph and it all started off with 20 to 40 pounds of food.

Madaleine Banks in one of the University of Guelph kitchens displaying corn chips and loaves of bread to be weighed for a MealCare donation, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Kiana Gibson)

"Our very first donation we were carrying food in the cart that we borrowed and in front of us we saw food that could help people, but we didn't actually realize the magnitude of what this could become," said Sahai. 

"We're at 16,000 pounds of food and [it] really comes down to the fact that a little bit every day has the opportunity to make a very massive impact overtime."

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