When it comes to making donations to community food banks, most of us think about think about non-perishable foodstuffs, and fishing cans of beans or soup out of the back of the pantry for holiday food drives or adding donatable packages basics like mac ’n’ cheese and other essentials to our grocery cart at the till. But as welcome as those kinds of donations are, those in need of food also need some fresh produce on their plates, which is where an industrious initiative called
Alberta Farm to Food Bank comes in.
Alberta Farm to Food Bank is spearheaded by Steve Breum, who farms on a property near Pigeon Lake in Central Alberta. In 2018 the farmer looked at his vegetable garden and thought about how the potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and beets he was growing could be used to feed people who may be struggling to get food on their own tables. Knowing that there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 90,000 Albertans were accessing food banks throughout the course of a (pre-pandemic) year, Breum contacted the food banks in Calgary and Edmonton and worked out a partnership so that he could get his vegetable harvest to the people who needed it most. Since that first brainwave, Alberta Farm to Food Bank has donated more than 100,000 lbs of fresh food to various food charities throughout the province.
Breum says that the idea to donate root vegetables stems from the Alberta farm traditions that his family grew up with. With the fragility of supply chain systems being brought into light with the COVID-19 pandemic, more than ever he’s come to embrace and be inspired by the principles that kept generations of Albertan farmers before him fed through the winter, including the tradition of the humble root cellar. While a lack of modern-day root cellars means that most of Alberta Farm to Food Bank’s produce is eaten fairly soon after harvest, Breum is focusing on vegetables that have a longer shelf life than items like fresh lettuce or greenhouse tomatoes.
“I went back to thinking about my childhood and what we did when we needed food or how Grandma and Grandpa would have survived,” Bruem says. “Root vegetables would have been stored and lasted until spring. They’ve got the nutrition, they’re cheap to grow, they don’t require a lot of expensive packaging or labour — it’s a way to feed people very efficiently. For a lot longer than we’ve had just-in-time delivery, there have been potatoes stored in buckets in people’s cellars and garages.”
Another farm family tradition is, of course, the idea of people looking after their neighbours, which is also core to Alberta Farm to Food Bank’s mandate. Since starting his program, Bruem has moved away from partnering with larger food banks that already have a good infrastructure when it comes to securing both monetary and in-kind donations and is now working with smaller food-based charities to make sure that his produce is going to Albertans who may otherwise be going hungry.
For the 2021 harvest season he partnered with a wide range of service providers including the Rock Soup Greenhouse and Food Bank in Wetaskiwin, Calgary’s Made by Momma, the Giving Garden in Dewinton, and Edmonton’s Canadian Volunteers United in Action Society (CANAVUA), to share his food as far and wide as possible.
“The smaller organizations don’t get the help that the bigger entities get. People kind of forget about the little outfits,” Bruem says. “We’ve got everything from a walk-in food bank, where you grab a shopping cart and take what you need, to restaurants that provide soup for people who need a meal. There are some really unique ideas out there.”
There’s no denying that Bruem’s idea is a good one that could have an even stronger impact if other farmers were able to jump on board and even further increase the quantity of food donated, but as with almost everything in the charitable sector, funding is an issue and while Bruem would love to expand and get other farms involved, he is running Alberta Farm to Food Bank as a grass roots endeavour. He does have some corporate sponsors helping things along, but is always looking for more funding, both from partner companies and individual donors through albertafarmtofoodbank.com.
Either way, Bruem and his family are committed to getting their food to the people who need it, no matter what it takes. “We’re doers,” he says. “We’re farmers. We go out and we get things done.”