University of Guelph students Kiana Gibson and David Sahai are celebrating a major milestone this month: 16,000.
That’s the number of pounds of campus-prepared food they’ve been able to help divert from landfills and donate to local Guelph charities in the last three years through an initiative they helped to co-found called MealCare Guelph.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has made all too apparent, many in the Guelph community struggle to access high-quality food. The 20 volunteers who make up MealCare Guelph are helping to address that by collecting leftovers from food outlets on campus and donating them to charitable organizations across the city of Guelph.
“To reach 16,000 pounds feels incredible and it’s exciting that we’ve come so far,” said organization co-founder Sahai. “It feels really amazing that we have been able to continue to have an impact through this pandemic, because food insecurity is a problem now more than ever.”
MealCare was founded in 2016 by students at McGill University to divert campus dining hall “food waste” to community organizations. Gibson proposed founding a Guelph chapter in her first year after asking about what happens to leftovers on campus.
She learned that while the University’s Hospitality Services regularly donated to the student food bank after large events and sent compostables to the Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming on campus, a busy, fully operational kitchen lacked capacity to coordinate regular donations of food.
“As anyone who has eaten on the U of G campus knows, the food that is served here is absolutely incredible, and it made no sense to me that of all the chefs’ effort went to waste, especially when it’s perfectly edible,” said Gibson.
She did some research and found that there’s a lot more to donating leftover food than just setting food aside. It needs to be packaged, labelled with ingredients and stored in fridges in accordance with public health guidelines. Volunteers are then needed to arrange pickups and find out which local groups are in need each week.
“So that’s where MealCare comes in. We really act as the middle person to make those arrangements and to ensure the food gets to those who could benefit most from it,” she said.
At first, Gibson and Sahai were just a two-person operation, carving out time between classes to transport donations to the campus student food bank.
“We would carry food across campus in a borrowed wheelbarrow that got stuck in every snowbank and while we got a great workout, we quickly realized that MealCare had the potential to become something far greater than ourselves. So we went to classes in search of volunteers to join our mission,” she said.
This past fall, MealCare became an accredited Central Student Association club, which allowed them to do further outreach events on campus and recruit an executive team. They were also able to expand operations to donate food to organizations like the Lakeside Hope House, a poverty relief centre in downtown Guelph.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, the organizations accepting donations had to shutter their doors, including the student food bank. Hospitality Services also scaled back as students left campus.
“That was quite the challenge and there was a time we weren’t sure we would be able to keep it going,” said Sahai.
But by working with coordinators at the Royal City Mission, they’ve continued food donations. The Child Care and Learning Centre on campus also contributes, creating individually packaged meals that are donated to the city’s youth shelter, Wyndham House.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Gibson said she has learned as much in founding and leading MealCare as she has in four years studying nutritional science and international development in class.
“This experience has taught me so much about communication, coordination, leadership — and really, the power of students and community. MealCare has become so much more than just Dave and me; it’s a whole team of passionate volunteers working toward a common goal,” she said.
Sahai, who dreams of a career in medicine, agrees.
“I’ve learned not only about collaboration, advocacy and team management, I’ve gotten a good look at the origins of food insecurity, which we know affects mental health and is such an important factor in chronic physical disease.”
MealCare Guelph will continue operations under COVID-19 guidelines throughout summer and will welcome a new team of volunteers in the fall.
[Transcript of the video below]