2020 has seen many restaurants and businesses making the tough decision to close their doors, even temporarily. Whenever this happens, we think of all the people affected – front of house, chefs, suppliers, customers – but how often do we consider the food that is in their fridges? For Lourdes Juan, founder of The Leftovers Foundation, that’s exactly where her mind goes, and she has been redirecting food to those who need it for almost a decade.

Always passionate about her work, Juan is more than happy to chat about how busy The Leftovers Foundation is currently. The work took on a new urgency in March as COVID-19 suddenly saw a spike in donations like never before. “It’s been crazy,” she says. “March felt like 100 days long, and somehow also not nearly long enough. With Leftovers, it wasn’t a pivot so much as a complete explosion and expansion of what we normally do.”

Juan has been working with food waste and food access for years now. “The spark kind of happened back in 2012, when my cousin asked me to pick up some excess bread. I thought it would be a couple loaves, but when he said he might need an extra car…” Juan laughs, remembering: “there was roughly 200 pounds of bread, and I was completely shocked! I kept thinking that if we hadn’t gone and picked it up it would have all ended up at the landfill, it would have all gone to waste.”

“We took this bread from the bakery to the Drop-In Centre, and the gentleman at the Drop in Centre said that they would have it all used up by noon the next day. That really shocked me again – when you look at it, its so much food but when you start thinking about how many people there are living and working there, how many bagged lunches… it adds up so quickly.”

It’s been crazy…March felt like 100 days long, and somehow not nearly long enough.

Juan has always been an entrepreneur, so that first delivery quickly grew into more. “We really started building what we have today – a 600-person army of volunteers in Calgary and another 100 in Edmonton working seven days a week.” This army of volunteers has continued to grow every year, and in 2019 was mobilized to redirect 6,000 pounds of food every week, but even that could not have prepared them for the surge that they saw in March this year.

“In March, we redirected about 45,000 pounds of food,” Juan says. “Restaurants were closing left and right but even at their most vulnerable, they were giving. As we were cleaning out these refrigerators, which was so sad, people were still smiling. People still loved knowing that they could help someone else.”

Jeraldine Blanchard, co-owner of Yann Haute Patisserie, has long partnered with the Leftovers Foundation. “We have worked with them for years… although they do all the work!” Blanchard laughs. “For us, donations are usually croissants, pastries, breads… it’s all things that freeze well. It’s food we are proud of, and it’s the same quality.”

Yann Haute has remained open and continues to bake up a storm daily. “Even in a crisis, people still want their comfort food and to celebrate special moments. We are happy to bring that moment of comfort, and we have had a lot of love.” Keeping their doors open has also meant that they can continue their weekly donations to The Leftovers Foundation, something critically important as more Albertans than ever are struggling with access to food.

As restaurants struggle to pivot and remain open or close their doors, service agencies have also seen real challenges. They face the same logistical issues around providing care and services while maintaining safety, but have seen rising need following layoffs and financial instability. Whether it’s students, seniors who may need to stay isolated, or those who have lost their jobs, the need is greater than ever.

Luckily, Albertans are stepping up to help each other in a big way. “There are all these service agencies, even smaller ones who are coming out of the woodwork,” says Juan. “We love partnering with them and we love getting to learn about all the different work that happens in our cities.”

“I did a lot of pickups when the restaurants were closing, it was really surreal to see empty restaurants but still see smiling faces. It wasn’t that we rescued tons and tons from every single place, but everyone gave what they had,” she remembers. “It has been really meaningful to see that it’s been everyone from the local places to big guys, even big chains have been reaching out like never before. We are all in this together.”

To find out more about the Leftovers Foundation, go to rescuefood.ca to become a donor, partner, or volunteer.

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