WORDS BY CHRIS TIESSEN (WITH OUR FOOD FUTURE, REIMAGINE FOOD); PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN 

It’s late afternoon – almost five o’clock – on a Wednesday in early September when I round the corner from Wood St onto Ontario St in the heart of Guelph’s Two Rivers neighbourhood. Just a few dozen metres down the block, spread across the driveway and side yard of a house almost directly opposite the historic Tytler school building, I spot the serendipitously choreographed melee I’ve come to experience: ‘Community FEWD’ in action. 

A handful of volunteers, led by Chef Yasi Zorlutuna, buzz around a long wooden table laden with an array of chafing dishes – each filled with something wonderful. Ribs in orange barbecue sauce. Lentil vegetable coconut curry. Brussels with caramelized onion and ham. Citrus harvest slaw. And more. Yasi spots me as I approach and grabs an empty plate. ‘Are you allergic to anything?’, she asks as she plunges a large spoon into a pile of fragrant rice. ‘I eat everything,’ I reply. She loads a plate and hands it over. I take a first bite of the curry and swoon. It’s five o’clock now, and folks have begun to line up in front of the serving table– some with empty Tupperwares, others with plates, and yet others with nothing at all. Chef Yasi and I step aside and find a quiet corner where, while I continue to enjoy the curry, we can talk about what’s going on. 

‘At its core,’ Yasi tells me, ‘Community FEWD [Food Equity With Dignity] is about offering equitable, dignified, and nourishing meals made from fresh produce and food items to anyone who wants to eat well – no matter their economic status.’ What distinguishes this food is that it was made from ingredients that were destined for landfill. Yasi explains: ‘Many food security programs lack the labour force and facilities required to safely process, 

on an ongoing basis, and in a timely and food- safe manner, mass quantities of perishables. Community FEWD does this.’ Fantastic. And so tasty too. While we chat, I note FEWD volunteers fill a family-size container with ribs and brussels for someone in line. ‘We offer as much food as these folks request,’ Yasi tells me. ‘Some of our clients are here to feed just themselves, while others are here to collect meals for their entire families.’ 

And the cost? ‘Whatever anyone feels like paying – if anything,’ Yasi notes, pointing to a donation box. ‘Our goal is to offer delicious food for anyone who wants a good meal. No questions asked.’ And so how does Yasi make her money to keep FEWD going? ‘When we’re not doing pop-ups like this one,’ she tells me, ‘we do traditional catering jobs for the for- profit and non-profit sectors. And we also get help from wonderful funders.’ Makes sense to me. 

Over the next hour and a half, Chef Yasi and her small but mighty team feed between sixty and one hundred people – a number that’s reached each time Community FEWD hosts a pop-up like this one. Some weeks Community FEWD sets up in Two Rivers. Other weeks they pop up in Onward Willow, Brant Ave, Grange Hill East, Parkwood Gardens, or the North End Harvest Market. Always weekly. Always over the dinner hour. (Visit fewd.ca for the schedule and to learn more about its catering services.) 

‘Since early May,’ Yasi tells me as I clean a
rib from its bone, ‘we’ve served over four thousand meals to folks.’ Fantastic. ‘What’s more,’ she adds, ‘over this same time period we’ve diverted almost two thousand kilos of food that was destined for landfill.’ Incredible. Community FEWD is a phenomenal program, to be sure, and just one of a number of local initiatives that’s supported by Our Food Future – a Guelph-Wellington program working hard to create a regional, sustainable circular food economy. 

So what’s a circular food economy? Listen up. In our current food system, we tend to use
a ‘take-make-waste’ model; that is, we take resources from the earth, we make products,
and then those waste products end up in our landfills. Not exactly sustainable. A ‘circular’ food system, on the other hand, designs waste out of the cycle and also aims to regenerate our natural systems to boot. This can include alternatives to plastic packaging, smart agricultural practices that use fewer resources and build soil health, and creative use of by-products from the production of our produce and/or proteins – including spent grains to make delicious bread, meat bones to make nutritious broth, and more. 

A network of collaborators in the Guelph- Wellington region, armed with a ten million dollar first-prize finish in Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge, are driven by the belief that
the only way toward a better food system for all is to adopt more sustainable, climate-friendly practices while boosting the local economy with circular businesses. This bold initiative, dubbed Our Food Future, promises to double current access to affordable, nutritious food, and address food waste by discovering opportunities that create value from food by-products. It’s also set to launch a host of local circular products and businesses through its sister project borne of the movement, the Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad (COIL), separately funded with five million from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. 

Working together has proven to be the recipe for success. COIL has been supporting circular transitions in businesses across southern Ontario, helping them to identify opportunities through funding, education, mentorship and resources. While business competitors are working shoulder to shoulder, local governments are sharing resources and responsibilities. Local social enterprises and food access organizations are pooling their energies, working collaboratively to get more food to people in need. 

And the efforts are working. In 2020-2021, over five thousand tonnes of food were diverted from landfill (equal to about thirty six million apples); more than three thousand people saw increased access to affordable, healthy food; enough GHG emissions were cut to heat more than one thousand Guelph homes for a year; and over sixty businesses received funding and support. Incredible (and inspiring) numbers, to be sure. 

Transitioning the regional food system to one that is more circular, equitable, and sustainable will require data, partnerships, and a willingness to take risks and experiment. It also requires residents to join the charge. There are many ways community members can support the circular food economy movement. Launching this season, Our Food Future’s Reimagine Food campaign will invite local communities into conversations about our regional food culture – exploring the food system we have and imagining the one we want. Watch for them around Guelph and communities in Wellington County. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT:
Reimagine Food: reimaginefood.ca