A small program addressing a big problem

Cast your mind back to spring 2020, when the world was scrambling to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19. Restaurants closed their doors. Hotels shut down. Catering services lost their bookings. Organizations up and down the food supply chain suddenly had nowhere for their products to go.

And while there was an excess of food in some areas, there were shortages in many others. Grocery store shelves emptied, leaving many people wondering how they would ever get their most-needed products. 

At the same time, an increasing number of Canadians were struggling to put food on the table.  Beyond Hunger by the Community Food Centres Canada reported that food insecurity grew by 39% in the first two months of the pandemic alone, affecting 1 in 7 people. Charitable organizations were rushed off their feet – CityReach Care Society, for example, reported a 1000% growth in their Food for Families program. 

These dramatic events made one thing very clear: the food supply chain was in crisis.

“We received an urgent request from a supplier with two truckloads of milk, needing a way to donate it quickly and economically,” explains Jessica Regan, CEO and Co-Founder of FoodMesh.”

“It took us a significant amount of time and energy to find organizations across BC that could take all that milk at that time and coordinate the logistics of getting it to them before it went off. We managed to save all the milk from going to waste, but only because of the enormous goodwill displayed by the supplier, Saputo, and logistics partners, Associated Grocers, who delivered the milk – free of charge – to the organizations that could use it.” 

“This example made it very clear to us at FoodMesh that we needed to build the infrastructure to support these types of large-scale, time-sensitive, ad hoc diversions, in a way that didn’t depend on stakeholders operating on goodwill – which is inherently unsustainable – and ensure they are fairly compensated.” 

We received an urgent request from a supplier with two truckloads of milk, needing a way to donate it quickly and economically

Jessica Regan, CEO and Co-Founder of FoodMesh

This is when the idea behind the Wholesale Food Purchasing Program was born. 

The objectives were simple:

  1. Provide suppliers along the food chain with direct access to consumers that had a consistent need for large volumes of food.
  2. Provide charitable organizations with a reliable supply of low-cost food. 

Led by James Rowe, Head of Product, the team got to work figuring out a service model that would be useful to charitable organizations, viable for suppliers and sustainable for FoodMesh. “The more we investigated, the more we realised that it would be impossible to divert this kind of surplus food to consumers quickly and reliably without incurring considerable costs to everyone involved,” explains James. 

So rather than focus on building a program that was solely designed to divert surplus, the team had the idea of building a program that could be used as a vehicle to divert surplus.

It was very clear to us at FoodMesh that we needed to build the infrastructure to support these types of large-scale, time-sensitive, ad hoc diversions, in a way that didn’t depend on stakeholders operating on goodwill – which is inherently unsustainable – and ensure they are fairly compensated

Jessica Regan, CEO and Co-Founder of FoodMesh

That’s where the concept of a purchasing program came in. It was a means to connect charitable organizations to suppliers high in the value chain (who they wouldn’t otherwise have access to), to buy what they can’t get through donations so they wouldn’t be reliant on what was available in the grocery stores. And buying wholesale inventory meant they could take advantage of wholesale pricing. 

It also connected suppliers to charitable organizations – a new customer base for them – who have a consistent need for food, and who will always want to buy heavily discounted surplus food when it becomes available.

“If we could get this purchasing service up and running, adding surplus product on top of existing orders would become a cost-effective and convenient way of distributing that food,” explains James.

So the team spent the next few months building a charity-centric food procurement service through which organizations could buy food directly from wholesalers, with FoodMesh acting as their concierge. 

The more we investigated, the more we realised that it would be impossible to divert this kind of surplus food to consumers quickly and reliably without incurring considerable costs to everyone involved

James Rowe, Head of Product at FoodMesh

The program was piloted with the United Way of the Lower Mainland’s Local Love Food Hubs – non-profits, schools, faith-based organizations and local residents that were focused on providing food to people in the community who were facing food insecurity due to COVID-19. 

The market need was clear, and today – six months later – this service is being used repeatedly by a number of charitable organizations across the Lower Mainland to purchase wholesale food at 30% – 50% below retail prices.

This summer, it is being offered to members of Food Banks BC located around the province so they can buy their most-needed food items using funding provided by the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction through their Emergency Food Purchasing Program

If we could get this purchasing service up and running, adding surplus product on top of existing orders would become a cost-effective and convenient way of distributing that food

James Rowe, Head of Product at FoodMesh

Now that the infrastructure connecting wholesalers with charitable organizations is established, the focus for FoodMesh is figuring out how best to leverage it to increase the flow of surplus food between suppliers and consumers around BC in a way that is sustainable, cost-effective and convenient for everyone involved.  Industry heavyweight, David Van Seters, CEO and founder of SPUD.CA, has been brought in to help FoodMesh do it.

“While it is a challenging task to uncover all the many sources of surplus food and to find cost-effective ways to get it into the hands (and mouths) of those who need it, it is really fun and inspiring to work with the talented and dedicated team at FoodMesh, who are laser-focused in their mission to root out and eliminate food waste,” says David.

“This is a massive and daunting undertaking, but once we have a steady stream of surplus food flowing through the program, we will be in a position to help bridge the gaps in the supply chain exposed by the pandemic,” says Jessica. “And ultimately, we will be one step closer to eliminating large-scale unnecessary food waste, and helping organizations feed more people.”