It was a lesson in the disparities of life. After watching cafeteria staff throw out “an abundance of food” at closing time one evening in 2016, McGill undergrads Sanchit Gupta and Milton Calderon were walking back to their campus residence rooms when they came upon some homeless people trying to collect enough money to eat.
“On our way home, we saw an abundance of poverty,” said Gupta, who graduated last year with a major in Anatomy and Cell Biology and a minor in Entrepreneurship. “We were hit with these two realities. At one location, you have an abundance of food, and very close by, you have an abundance of food insecurity and of poverty – in downtown Montreal.”
Out of that seemingly innocuous experience, MealCare was born, a social enterprise Calderon and Gupta co-founded based on the belief that food is a human right and aiming at food sustainability for all on a permanent basis. The project is a bridge between two solitudes – donating untouched fresh food that food providers would otherwise throw out, to homeless shelters, where food is a major expense.
One in eight Canadian families face food insecurity
After that evening, the pair looked into the statistics and issues around food waste and insecurity more closely. They were shocked to learn that in Canada alone, about $31 billion worth of food is wasted annually -- and that one in eight Canadian families face food insecurity or don’t have access to healthy food on a sustainable basis.
They also found that in poorer socio-economic areas, “food deserts,” or neighbourhoods where junk food outlets are ubiquitous, far outnumber areas with easy access to grocery stores.
Gupta said that each meal costs a shelter between $3 and $5, “and you can’t buy much in terms of healthy food for that amount.”
Mentoring from McGill’s Executive Chef
Calderon and Gupta approached McGill Executive Chef, Oliver de Volpi, whom the two credit for his receptiveness and aid in getting MealCare off the ground.
“McGill was the institution that showed us we could do this,” said Calderon, “and De Volpi in particular is passionate about sustainability. Chefs like him play a key role – they know how long food is good for and they know all sorts of outside organizations.”
De Volpi, Calderon and Gupta worked out a framework in which MealCare would gather surplus food from McGill cafeterias and campus food vendors and transport each shipment to Montreal homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Non-perishable food is delivered to Sun Youth, the long-serving Montreal social services organization.
The core MealCare team at McGill consists of 10-15 people, and in normal circumstances an additional group of up to 10 volunteers to carry out various tasks at McGill.
On top of providing food to the less fortunate and reducing McGill’s environmental impact, MealCare also looks to raise the University community’s awareness regarding food waste.
“Our team of students and volunteers gathers surplus edible food from cafes and cafeterias around campus, transports it with our delivery partners (such as Drivesafe), and redistributes it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens in our communities,” says Mathilde Ensminger, a third-year student at the Desautels Faculty of Management and the Co-President of MealCare’s McGill Chapter, along with Kristina Wolff. “Food waste is carefully tracked during each collection with the goal to share this data with donors for long-term waste reduction.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting on-campus operations, MealCare during this semester has been working to develop partnerships with other local food vendors, Ensminger says.
At the annual gala in October of Forces AVENIR, a Quebec nonprofit organization that recognizes and promotes student engagement, MealCare was awarded the top prize in the Environment category.
The success of MealCare hasn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere in Canada, either, with chapters opening at Western University, the University of Ottawa and the University of Guelph. “We are focused on opening University chapters and are working with interested people all over Canada to see how they can best apply the MealCare model to their specific situation,” Ensminger says.
There are now over 65 students involved in MealCare chapters across Canada.
Co-founders Calderon and Gupta continue to oversee national operations. Since making its first delivery in Montreal in 2017, MealCare has served over 30,000 meals to its community partners across Canada, diverting thousands of pounds of food waste from landfill, says Calderon, who completed his BA in International Development and Economics last year and now works for an international consulting firm in Toronto.
Calderon was born in Guatemala, and moved to Canada with his family when he was about seven years old. He attended McGill on a Loran scholarship, Canada's largest undergraduate merit-based award.
Gupta, who grew up in Ottawa, was honoured by that city last year for helping to found the MealCare chapter there.
McGill “has become the mirror for this model,” says Gupta, who is now pursuing a medical degree at the University of Toronto. “If McGill hadn’t started this, it would have been very hard for other institutions to sign up with MealCare and follow.”