Community Approach to Food Distribution: Part 1

Posted on Monday, 26 October 2020 under Engaging Eaters Stories

chefs cooking in the kitchen

Photo courtesy of Chef TJ Conwi

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light many challenges that we face around the issues of food waste and long supply chains. It is impossible to reduce the carbon footprint of our food without considering food system emissions. While the pandemic has drawn attention to the shortcomings of our systems, it has also given committed, motivated individuals an opportunity to get creative in their approach to food production, distribution, and waste reduction.

In March 2020, Chef TJ Conwi, co-owner of Ono Vancouver, recognized that there was going to be an increased need for nutritious food for those in need in Vancouver. “When COVID hit, me and a few other chefs from town, we’re talking and trying to figure out how we can make good use of our time and our skills and try to see how we can help people,” recounts Conwi.

“We started cooking food that was already prepped and ready to go for service during that time, because obviously after it [COVID] hit, there were several different restaurants that were still cooking and then trying to figure out how to get rid of the surplus,” says Conwi.

He would use sauces and items that were already prepared for the week from restaurants, finish preparing the meals, then distribute them to local charities in the Downtown Eastside. Ono and his partners prepare over 1200 meals per week and distribute them to organizations like Aboriginal Mothers Centre Society, Watari Counseling and Support Service Society, and A Loving Spoonful Foundation.

Ono Vancouver’s COVID Food Security Response Mission reads, “To keep chefs working, protect Vancouver’s food security and help feed the most vulnerable in our community by sourcing food supplies, quickly setting up and maintaining kitchen operations for these services, training and mentoring cooks, and cooking delicious restaurant quality meals.”

Chef Conwi is also involved in LunchLAB, a program operated by Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society, that provides meals to school children. Due to the closure of schools and out of concern for the children who would not be able to access the nutritious food they would normally get, LunchLAB pivoted the program to continue to provide meals. More than 5,500 chef-prepared meals for approximately 260 families in need are supplied each week, a total of 70,000 meals from April to August.

“More and more people are falling under the poverty line that could really [use this] service. And we have the capacity to cook for it,” says Conwi.

“[It’s] just a matter of funding. Some organizations are willing to take it on, like Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots, which is amazing that they’ve been able to do this,” adds Conwi.

Growing up in the Philippines, Conwi experienced food insecurity and this drives his passion to help others, along with his commitment to divert food waste. “The passion of being able to turn food waste into something else, as a chef, I have a say in how to divert food waste,” says Conwi. Conwi accesses surplus fruits and vegetables from local farms:  Fresh Roots, Cropthorne Farm, UBC Farm, and Zaklan Heritage Farm. He credits his years of working as a head chef for helping to develop those crucial relationships and partnerships. By diverting food waste, supporting chefs, and feeding those in need, Chef Conwi exemplifies a very creative, positive response to the COVID-19 pandemic.