Student-run program helps redirect surplus food to those in need

Ana Laura Noda González, a second-year student, is co-leading the U of T chapter of MealCare, which partners with campus eateries and grocery stores to collect, redistribute and deliver surplus food to local shelters and meal programs (photo by David Lee)

Upon moving to Toronto, Tamara Altarac and Ana Laura Noda González were shocked by the mountain of food thrown away every day in Canada’s largest city – even as many residents face ongoing barriers to food access.

“Coming to the city, I got to see how people interact with food here and how it is taken for granted,” says Altarac, who is studying criminology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto.

She adds that it is a similar story on campus, where “I saw a similar pattern as in the wider city.” 

So, she and Noda – both second-year undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts & Science – sought a way to tackle the problem.

Enter MealCare, a non-profit organization whose mission is to decrease food waste and fight food insecurity in Canada. MealCare teams up with partners such as campus cafeterias, restaurants and grocery stores to collect, redistribute and deliver surplus edible food to shelters and soup kitchens, while ensuring food safety. Volunteers also sort, weigh and record food waste data to help businesses track waste-management and their weekly, monthly and yearly trends. 

The initiative was originally founded by Sanchit Gupta and Milton Calderon Donefer when they were first-year undergraduate students at McGill University. Similar to Altarac and Noda, the two co-founders wanted to build a sustainable solution while helping people in need.

“We wanted to address these two large social issues of food waste and insecurity,” says Gupta, who is now operations lead at MealCare and a second-year medical student in U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

“In having conversations with other large-scale food donations companies like Second Harvest, we found that there is still a gap in cutting food waste for small and medium-sized grocery stores and university cafeterias.”

One in seven Canadians face food insecurity, yet a study for Second Harvest found that nearly $49.5 billion worth of food is wasted annually in this country – enough to feed every person living in Canada for five months. MealCare is hoping to break this cycle by ensuring surplus food doesn’t end up in landfills – and by building awareness about how Canadians can reduce their food waste footprint through workshops and events.

“MealCare is providing a meaningful solution by contributing to sustainability while helping people find food security, a basic human right,” says Noda, a 2020 Pearson Scholar from the Faculty of Arts & Science who will lead U of T’s MealCare chapter with Altarac. 

“We also want to spread awareness and education about how to maintain practices to reduce waste – and it's all a community effort.”

MealCare recently took home the top $10,000 award from the Adams Sustainability Innovation Prize Competition. The annual competition – which offers $25,500 in prizes and is part of the annual Adams Sustainability Celebration – was established to fuel U of T start-up companies that present innovative solutions to sustainability. The second-place $7,500 prize in the competition went to Arbre, an environmentally-friendly sun care brand producing dry shampoo for all hair types. The $5,000 third-place prize was scooped up by the Yayra-Si Youth Foundation, an early-stage NGO which seeks to empower women and youth in Ghana with equal access to economic, educational and health development through the manufacture of Banana Fiber Bags, a sustainable alternative to plastic bags.

The three $1,000 runner-up prizes, meanwhile, were awarded to: Reper Technologies, which turns post-consumer plastic waste into polyethylene precursors, providing waste collectors with landfill alternatives for contaminated plastic waste and plastics manufacturers with recycled material identical to virgin plastics; BioBlends Diesel Solutions, a biofuels and diesel company providing Albertan farmers with high-quality recycled fuels at discounted prices; and Lente, a one-stop-shop for ethically produced slow-fashion brands.

As for MealCare, the startup has delivered more than 50,000 meals to people in need since inception – and continues to function in the midst of a global pandemic. The initiative is operated by more than 100 student volunteers at universities in eight cities in Ontario and Quebec.

“We decided to create hubs around universities and leverage young talent who are passionate about these issues and want to address them in their local communities,” Gupta says.

Altarac and Noda are building a team of volunteers to help operate the project before expanding to U of T Scarborough and U of T Mississauga. 

The pair have already secured a partnership with U of T Food Services and hope to secure another one with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). That, in turn, would allow them to create a program that will see surplus food donated back to the U of T community, including the U of T Emergency Food Bank.

The university’s food bank currently provides fresh food to 50 students per week – but Altarac and Noda want to help more people.

“We believe we can help expand this program,” Altarac says.

From the university’s perspective, the MealCare partnership is part of a broader U of T effort to contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and build a sustainable, climate positive St. George campus. By addressing the often invisible – and stigmatized – barrier of food insecurity among students and reducing hunger, MealCare is helping contribute to the second SDG of zero hunger.

“When MealCare approached us, it was an important opportunity to work with a student-led organization on campus that would address something that is real and happening in our community, which is food insecurity,” says Colin Porter, executive director of U of T’s ancillary services.

“Food Services continues to look at how we can play our part in building towards a climate-positive campus and this is one for us in terms of reducing our environmental impact and salvaging food for its intention – to feed people.”

MealCare plans to use the money raised through the Adams Sustainability Innovation Prize to develop analytics software for food vendors to track their food waste efforts. It also hopes to expand into eight new cities and grow the footprint of its current chapters – including at U of T.

To that end, the Toronto-based team will purchase essential equipment for handling and transporting food, including packaging, coolers and backpacks. 

As Altarac and Noda work to launch MealCare’s U of T chapter, they are already thinking about its potential long-term impact.

“The main thing we want to do is establish a sustainable relationship with the university and make a difference, not just on campus but in the city,” Altarac says.

“The goal is to look back years from now and know we’ve made a difference.”