Ahead of the Heard
The summer months have brought forth idealistic notions of growing food for charity by well-intentioned city folks. A group called Grow Calgary was recently espousing the virtue and value of the fresh vegetables they were growing on leased land near Canada Olympic Park. The produce grown there is given to the Calgary Food Bank and other charitable institutions. That’s a noble deed and the folks involved should be commended for their time and effort. These types of charitable food growing activities are carried out around many cities across North America. To many folks it’s a more direct and tangible way to alleviate the misfortune of others, much more real than giving cash to a charity agency, where it seems to disappear into some vault never to be seen again.
Local charitable growing efforts do contribute to what food banks are able to hand out to needy clients. But they are usually not a significant factor in the total volumes of food handled by food banks, being it’s usually a limited seasonal contribution. Most food banks get far more donated vegetables from grocery stores who continuously contribute surplus products as they near expiration dates and quality levels. Clearly growing produce for charity by city folks can only be done on a limited basis. The use of small plots of land is usually donated along with volunteer labour to grow and harvest the crops. It takes a different approach to translate that approach into large volumes that can feed many thousands of hungry people. That can only be done by commercial farmers and they have been doing that for at least the past 50 years.
The big player in growing food for charity and hunger relief is the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (a partnership of Christian churches and agencies), they coordinate local projects that grow, harvest and distribute countless thousands of tons of grain and other crops from many thousands of acres every year. All the land use, production and harvesting costs are donated by farmers. Outright grain donations are also accepted by the Foodgrains Bank which is in a position to issue tax receipts for most any type of donation. The donated food aid is sent to hunger-prone areas around the world. That effort dwarfs any charitable vegetable growing project by local city groups. To be fair, regardless of the volume it’s the intention that counts.
One does sense an underlying ideological tone from some of the folks involved in city-based charitable vegetable growing efforts. Comments are made that the produce they grow and donate is organic, local and serves to provide food bank clients with healthy alternatives to donated packaged foods. Be that as it may, I suspect many folks receiving food bank aid have a limit to how much organic kale, beets and turnips they want to consume. I also expect many would prefer a plate of mac and cheese over a brussels sprouts casserole. Having said that the concern isn’t these noble local efforts, the concern is some of the comments made by the chief organizer of the Grow Calgary effort – Paul Hughes. Waxing on the success of his local effort, which involves a few acres, he is suggesting that it be expanded to 245 acres, supposedly making it the largest such charitable vegetable growing operation in the world. As admirable as such an ideal may be, one suspects that an operation of that size will require subsidization, professional management and mechanization. It’s also going to require considerable labour. One can’t help but suspect that the taxpayer will sooner or later be hit up for large grants to cover input and management costs.
The point is that small growing efforts involving a couple of acres is manageable with a group of dedicated and idealistic volunteers. However, once you get into large volumes and many acres – the effort and labour involved will quickly exhaust the energy and interest of even the most committed volunteer. Soon enough paid management and labour will be demanded to keep the operation going. Once that taxpayer can is opened you can see the cost and bureaucracy expanding. I expect at that point it would be cheaper for the government to buy produce in volume and give it to food banks than to subsidize seasonal growing efforts. Hopefully wiser heads will prevail and it will never get to this point. For the generous city folks involved in growing food for charity – in this case – smaller is better than larger. Keep up the good work.