Vancouver chef tackles food insecurity one meal at a time

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      TJ Conwi grew up surrounded by food. His grandma owned a restaurant underneath their house in Manila. He considers it part of his culture.

      “Just being a Filipino, our greeting is like, ‘Did you already eat?’” he tells the Straight with a chuckle.

      Conwi's connection to food didn't lead him to just becoming a chef, but also to sourcing meals for people facing food insecurity. The Vancouver-based chef is featured in The Interceptors, a new documentary following his kitchen consulting company Ono Vancouver and the Vancouver Food Runners, who are together trying to bridge the gap between food waste and food insecurity. The food runners play an integral part in Conwi’s ability to get food to various charities around Vancouver.

      “When I started cooking, there [weren't] even compost bins—everything just went to the garbage,” he says. “Hopefully through a new generation, people get inspired to be like ‘hey, let’s look at our food waste.’”

      Ono Vancouver’s most recent venture, ReRoot, will sell frozen pre-packaged meals by the pound, to be available through an online store or at local businesses. The funds raised will go towards making meals for people facing food insecurity. Conwi says each frozen meal will raise enough money to feed about 10 people.

      The program is an extension of Conwi’s work that he began during the pandemic. Over the past couple of years, Ono Vancouver has typically served between 1,200 to 1,500 meals a week to Vancouverites facing food insecurity.

      This number fluctuates due to a lack of consistent funding. He and his team work out of the Coho Commissary, which lets him store ingredients there for free and rent the kitchen at a hugely reduced cost. 

      He had been able to serve almost 3,000 meals a week for a time due to funding from La Tablée des Chefs, a Quebec-based organization fighting food insecurity. While funding allows Conwi to hire more cooks, part of what dictates the number of meals he is able to make is what ingredients are available and how creative he is able to be with them, he explains.

      Recently, 800 pounds of salmon and 20 cases of eggplant were dropped off to the kitchen where Conwi and his team work, which were used alongside donated soy milk, apple juice, and assorted vegetables to make stews, curries, and other hearty dishes.

      “Mushrooms, arugula, you name it—better quality even than what you get at the grocery store,” Conwi says. “We made mac and cheese but we used some soy milk in it, and now we’re able to divert all these things that would have just probably gone to waste.”

      What many people don’t realize about the surplus food and overstock is that it comes from restaurant suppliers, meaning that it’s high quality.

      “People think that it’s that aisle in the grocery store that’s blemished apples and rotten avocados, but this is perfectly good food,” Conwi assures.

      The partnership with the Vancouver Food Runners is just the latest, broadest iteration of Conwi’s work in connecting surplus food with people in need. When he was a chef at a hotel in downtown Vancouver, he used to freeze leftover buffet food and drive it to the Union Gospel Mission.

      He realized during the pandemic that there was a great deal of food waste happening at a supplier level. Food suppliers stock their warehouses months in advance, Conwi explains, often ordering extra just in case restaurants request it. This was exacerbated by the pandemic causing restaurants to keep opening and closing—so Conwi tried to salvage as much of the suppliers’ stock as possible. Word of his work spread within the industry, leading to other restaurants and suppliers asking if they could send over their surplus ingredients, too.

      Still in the midst of a pandemic, Conwi says of his mindset, “Okay, we’re just sitting around and doing nothing; might as well start cooking.”

      He got involved making elementary school meals, and met the Vancouver Food Runners through a COVID-era effort by the Vancouver School Board to ensure students could access five meals a week.

      During one of the bigger calls that included everyone from Conwi to city councillors, Vancouver Food Runners founder Tristan Jagger asked if anyone had any food to spare. Conwi responded, “Well, I have 80 litres of yogurt and a bunch of vegetables, come on down.”

      Vancouver Food Runners had about 50 volunteer drivers at the time, and still needed to call in reinforcements.

      That was the beginning of a lasting partnership between the Vancouver Food Runners and Conwi. They’d bring him the ingredients, which he’d then transform into those 1,200 to 1,500 restaurant-quality meals ready to be picked back up by food runners. The meals would then be taken to six charitable organizations across Vancouver: Directions Youth Services, Aboriginal Front Door, Health Initiative for Men, Kilala Lelum, Tamura House, and TWCA (Crabtree Corner).

      While Conwi is happy with the difference his company is making and how kitchen practices have evolved over time, he continues to question why there aren’t any other large scale programs addressing food waste in the same way that he is.

      “Why is there no system for this?” he asks. “If I’m doing it at a large scale like this from a small shared kitchen space—we just need something to be set up, and we’ll pretty much be able to feed everybody in Vancouver … with this amount of food that goes to waste, coupled with people that want to do it.”

      For those with a busy schedule, he suggests volunteering with the Vancouver Food Runners.

      With more than 13,000 tonnes of healthy, edible food thrown out each year, and more than one in ten households struggling with food security in Vancouver, Conwi hopes that future generations will be inspired by his work and take similar action to divert and re-purpose food.

      “Imagine how much more is out there,” Conwi says.

      The TELUS originals film, The Interceptors, can be viewed here.