Food banks across the country are always seeking new ways to provide nutrition to those experiencing food insecurity, and thanks to volunteers from Ottawa's Community Harvest program, those nutritional needs are closer to being met, locally.
Beth Trobridge, a retired software engineer, has been volunteering since her time in high school and has been with the Ottawa Food Bank since 2005.
“Volunteering has always been a part of my life. I got involved with the Ottawa Food Bank through a manager I had in the early 2000s. Instead of going out and playing golf or going bowling as a team building effort, he had us sort food as a team at the Food Bank,” says Trobridge.
“We would go in once a quarter to volunteer, and when the community harvest program started up the Ottawa Food Bank sent out an email to all volunteers asking for people to come try this new opportunity.”
Trobridge has been a part of the Community Harvest program for the last nine years and is on track to reach 250 volunteer hours in this season alone. Working from the Black family farm in Richmond, the program aims to produce 130,000 pounds of produce for donation this year.
While Trobridge has also volunteered in the food bank’s warehouses, she says that despite the hard work that comes with planting, harvesting, and packaging the produce, she prefers working outdoors.
“It’s a wonderful program where we grow amazing produce that is donated directly to the Ottawa Food Bank, and they distribute it to their number of agencies,” says Trobridge.
“Helping people and them being allowed to feed themselves and their children nutritious meals, I think that’s hugely important. I value that it’s really local, I’m not just signing a cheque -- you’re helping your neighbours and the people who you might not know needs the help.”
While the program aims to provide nutritious and high-yield crops like carrots, potatoes, and onions, it also sets aside land, time, and effort to cultivate produce that someone experiencing food insecurity might not otherwise have. Additives to meals like garlic and seasonal melons are added to the crops to add extra joy to food hampers.
“I know a fresh head of local garlic is a couple of bucks, so if you’re having problems with food security, you’re not going to spend the money on garlic, or treats like watermelons and cantaloupes. People won’t necessarily spend their own money on them, they’re too expensive to buy,” says Trobridge.
“A lot of harvesting starts at the end of June, the first harvest is usually lettuce and broccoli, but the first harvest is in the summer. Once the harvest is on, the trucks will deliver the produce almost every day of the week.”
Trobridge says that after reflecting on her own childhood she feels as though there were some lean times growing up and uses that as her inspiration to volunteer.
“I’ve seen pictures with my mother from those years, and it’s pretty obvious she wasn’t eating enough. My sister and I are chubby cheeked, but my mother is looking gaunt. It’s not something we talked about, and not something I remember directly. But I do get the feeling that there were a couple of lean years there, when I was quite small,” says Trobridge.
“That resonates with me, the idea that parents can’t feed their children… The way that I was brought up is, food is love. To not be able to give that to someone you care about is horrible, so really, I think that’s why I stayed with the Food Bank.”
Trobridge encourages people to sign up and try their hand at farming. Even without any experience in crop cultivation, it has quickly become a tremendously important part of her life.
“There are times when the work might be hard, but you’re there to volunteer. Nobody is going to ask you to do things that will hurt you or be too much,” says Trobridge.
“The thing that I think has allowed us to grow is the increase in volunteers. I’ve heard the farm manager say, ‘You can only plant what you can get out.’ There is no point in growing something that is going to sit and rot because you can’t harvest.”
The success and rapid growth of the program is attributed to the sheer number of people who sign up or continue to show up to the farm to help.
“It’s just so many different people that find us and come out to help,” says Trobridge.
“I think it’s important at a macro level, and I’m just one little piece of that.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the Community Harvest program are encouraged to visit the website for the Ottawa Food Bank.