The Food Bank’s new strategy to tackle hunger in the city

By following the “know your customers” credo, the new CEO of  the Greater Vancouver Food Bank is restoring dignity and efficiency

Aart Schuurman Hess says that everybody has a story about food. Here’s his: “My mother wasn’t the best cook in the world. She liked to boil endives in such a way that, to me, was a disaster. One day I was injured in a field hockey game. And I was so happy that ball was in my eye because I didn’t have to eat endives.”You might expect the CEO of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society to choose a recollection with a bigger moral point. But in fact it’s a perfect story from the man with the enormous task of reinventing the 33-year-old institution. Schuurman Hess loves food. He tells you the recipe for French dressing with the reverent tones of a sorcerer. For those who think of the Food Bank as the purveyor of Kraft Dinner and canned beans, think again. Last year the Food Bank started saying no to certain poor-quality donations and pushed instead for fresh and healthy food. No one, he believes, should have to eat wilted endives.As a young man in the Netherlands, Schuurman Hess worked as a waiter in Michelin-starred restaurants, and then all over the world producing onboard meals for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. His three children were born on different continents, and in 2007 he and his wife settled in Calgary. After a year of job hunting, he was hired as chief administrative officer of the Mustard Seed, an inner-city not-for-profit that helps people in poverty. In 2012, the family moved to Vancouver, attracted by the mild weather.When he took over the Food Bank, he was “shocked” to find out that there were many third-generation users. No one knew why. Since 2008, the Food Bank’s membership has grown 10 percent annually; today, it exceeds 26,000 people.Early on in his tenure, he visited each of the 14 depots in Vancouver, Burnaby, the North Shore, and New Westminster and was taken aback to see people waiting outside the buildings, usually churches. “I find it very disrespectful when people have to line up. It shows the outside world, ‘Look, I’m poor. I have to stand in line for food.’”Paul Michael Taylor, the executive director of Gordon Neighbourhood House (GNH) in the West End, had stood in similar line-ups as a child. He also has a story about food: “I grew up near Kensington Market in Toronto with a single mother. One of the hardest things I learned as a child was that the beautiful mangoes and grapes in the market were not for me. So I avoided that area. I’ve never forgotten that experience.”In early 2012, Taylor was an aggravating thorn in the side of the Food Bank. He was heavily involved in protests against the annual CBC fundraising drive. Emergency food, he tells me in an elegant argument, is something we provide to make ourselves feel better, rather than seeking a political solution to poverty.“People at the office were scared of Paul Taylor,” recalls Schuurman Hess. “I said, ‘Who is this guy? Let me talk to him.’”After Taylor started at Gordon Neighbourhood House in 2013, the team began working on how GNH could host a community food hub to replace the weekly West End food depot. The Food Bank had just created this new model at the North Shore Neighbourhood House, featuring more store-like food displays, an area for coffee and snacks, and in-season produce offered for cut-rate prices by the Edible Garden Project (50 cents for a bunch of carrots). Following their shared belief in the power of food to bring people together, the two groups opened the hub at GNH this past February, with room for people to sit, eat homemade soup, and talk. Schuurman Hess hopes to replace all 14 depots without the indignity of lining up.Schuurman Hess also believes in the power of data, and he recruited a group of researchers from SFU and UBC to look at questions like why people use the Food Bank. “In business terms,” he says, “it’s about knowing your customers.” That information is valuable for advocacy. The Food Bank used to state proudly on its website that it was independent of governments, but Schuurman Hess wants them at the table. So far, the Food Bank has worked with the City of Vancouver to help set up a Curbside Fresh Market, with the goal of adding four more in the next few years to improve food access. These street vendors offer well-priced local produce (30-cent tomatoes) in low-income areas that have no grocery stores nearby. The Food Bank also completed a pilot project with Vancouver Coastal Health to improve the nutritional content of infant and youth programs. The team currently works with social, health, and welfare agencies, such as the library and community nurses, to attend the hubs and help people with the root causes of hunger.Thanks to the Food Bank’s partnerships with local farmers, started in 2013, more fresh produce is available in the groceries that people take home. (A $1 donation to the Food Bank buys $3 worth of eggs, in-season potatoes, or plums.) There are also initiatives around food literacy, including a revamped community kitchen program that teaches people to cook healthy, simple meals. This is a new story about food, and maybe the institution needs a new name. Schuurman Hess’s proposal? “The Centre for Urban Food Excellence,” he says.Want to donate to the Food Bank? Check out their list of most wanted items