The rescuer

Lori Nikkel boosts food security and sustainability through the three Rs of food waste: recovery, redistribution and reduction

Photograph by Mike Ford.

Photograph by Mike Ford.

Lori Nikkel laughs when asked what she does in her free time. “That’s a hard question, because I work a lot. But I don’t consider it work—I love what I do!” Nikkel is CEO of Toronto-based Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food recovery organization with a 35-year history of matching surplus food with the charitable groups that need it.

“Second Harvest is unique in that we focus on perishable food recovery and we are B2B, so we understand the logistics and safety compliance that’s required for moving perishable and prepared food,” says Nikkel, whose leadership has been a huge part of the organization’s recent growth and re-focus on environmental issues such as climate change. “Second Harvest has always been a dual-mission organization—no waste, no hunger— but we had always focused on the latter in terms of how we operated. So about three years ago we turned to focus on the environment. It supported an extreme growth in the organization in terms of balancing our dual mission.”

Nikkel’s own interest in food security and recovery began “very organically. I was a low-income single parent and was experiencing food insecurity myself.” Nikkel volunteered to run the child nutrition program at her boys’ school, and in the process gained hands-on experience fundraising and recovering food. After seeing how access to fresh, healthy food could dramatically impact the lives of children and women, Nikkel began working as a funding advocate for student nutrition. “But it wasn’t until I came to Second Harvest that I understood the connection between climate change and food waste,” explains Nikkel, who joined Second Harvest in 2014 as director of programs and partnerships and became CEO in 2018. “So it’s not just about feeding people anymore—we have a planet to protect.”

She says one way Second Harvest is making its message heard is through research like The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste, published in January 2019 with Value Chain Management International. As well as showing the dramatic impact of food waste going to landfill, the report revealed that $49.46 billion of potentially recoverable food is wasted in Canada annually. “We have enough food to feed every Canadian for five months, for free, that we are currently throwing away,” says Nikkel. “We’re losing 58% of all food produced in Canada, so let’s use that food.”

In October 2018, Second Harvest launched, a national online platform that currently connects food donors in Ontario and British Columbia with local non-profit organizations. The site started as a way to handle smaller donations outside the Greater Toronto Area, but has spread to include large donations from producers, grocers, farms and food distributors, says Nikkel, who is also the program’s executive director. will launch next in the rest of Western Canada, followed by the Atlantic region and Quebec.

Second Harvest is also committed to helping donor businesses recognize “where waste is happening” in their operations. “What we’re really trying to do is embed food recovery in the supply chain … Our goal is to eliminate as much waste as possible, and then when you have extra food, please donate it.”

To date, Second Harvest has rescued and redistributed more than 155 million pounds of food. The organization receives food from more than 1,200 donors, 750 of those through Perishable foods comprise 93% of donations, while 65% of recovered food is protein, produce and dairy, the categories Nikkel says are the most necessary and the “hardest to access.”

The organization will also open a global centre for food rescue research in 2020, allowing it to offer “an applicable, scalable model for other groups to adopt in their own communities,” says Nikkel, who regularly speaks at conferences on food waste. “We also work internationally with countries that want to do this, so we’re supporting them with all the tools and knowledge that we have.”

Nikkel was recently recognized with the Clean50 Award, which she says has been a wonderful acknowledgement, but “the whole purpose is to get the message about food loss and waste out on any platform possible. Everybody wants to support their community, and this is an easy way to do that.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’December 2019/January 2020 issue.