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Fresh fruits, vegetables saved from the trash bin

Immigrants taking language classes at Vanier distribute surplus food to needy families in Coquitlam, New Westminster and Surrey
Food waste
Olesea Oprea, a member of the Immigrant Link Centre Society, packs hampers at the former Vanier school with fresh fruits, vegetables and prepared food and meats from local grocery stores that would otherwise have been wasted because it has reached the best before date or has slight imperfections. She’s one of more than two dozen volunteers, including Reihaneh Mirjani, and Igor Bjelac, who founded the society.

When Reihaneh Mirjani isn’t delivering meals for Skip the Dishes or looking after her family, she’s delivering food another way — for free to needy families.

A small initiative by immigrants taking Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes at Vanier Centre in Coquitlam has grown to a seven-day a week program. Hundreds of families each week are getting fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and prepared foods near the best before date to supplement their meals.

Now with five stores contributing food collected by the Coquitlam-based Immigrant Link Centre Society and 11 agencies distributing it to those in need, the program is about to outgrow its humble beginnings outside the former Vanier school.

Indeed, a visit to Vanier on food distribution day is like a visit to a high end grocery store and is a testament to the success of the program started by immigrants taking language classes at Vanier.

Hampers are packed with fresh fruits and vegetables — including delicious red strawberries and green grapes — as well as prepared meals close to the best before date — and not a tin of beans or a package of pasta in sight.

There’s even a lovely chocolate cake in a plastic dome ready to be served up for a family celebration.

“I just love this job,” Mirjani says of her volunteer work that allows the immigrant from Iran to give back to her adopted country while also enabling her to work on her English language skills.

Igor Bjelac says the program is looking for a new location so it can distribute more food and also needs money to help with costs to make the program sustainable — volunteers don’t get reimbursed for gas or mileage, and pay out of pocket hundreds of dollars.

“We’re stretched too much,” said Bjelac of the society that he started three years ago with his classmates.

All the clients are people in need because of low income, vulnerability, refugees in transition, single moms and volunteers who are also giving back, Bjelac said. Many tell him the food has helped them put a decent meal on the table or helped them save money for other necessities.

There is no such thing as “ugly food” in Serbia where he comes from and the best before date is really the best taste date; it’s still good and should be eaten, he said.
“Imperfect food is still healthy, it’s providing more nutrients,” Bjelac said.

But by repurposing food that otherwise would be thrown away, the small program started by immigrants taking language classes at Vanier Centre has grown to distribute annually 140,000 pounds of food, worth over $750,000.

Some of the stores contributing include Save-On-Foods, Thrifty Foods, Inno Bakery, JJ Bean and Shoppers Drug Mart while places getting the food include Coquitlam’s 3030 Gordon shelter, Suwa’lkh school, Aunt Leah’s Place, and the Union Gospel Mission, and others.

As well, more than 400 families taking English classes at LINC also get food through the Win Win Program.

Bjelac would also like governments to make it mandatory for grocery stores to distribute left over produce and food to the needy instead of throwing it away.

But until then, he’s content to keep distributing what Canadian stores would otherwise toss into the compost or trash bin while also hoping for funds and a new home for the program so it can continue to grow.

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