I didn’t know any of those things until I sat down with the founder of B12Give, Tony Colley. B12Give (Be One To Give) is a for-profit social enterprise that delivers surplus prepared food from retailers to shelters and food banks. Tony was recently named a CBC Community Champion for his endeavours. He describes himself as an entrepreneur and an environmentalist but he didn’t always see himself that way.
Tony’s been a bartender, a dancer and an event manager at some of the hottest clubs in Toronto. He was ‘Tall Tony’. He’s also managed a multi-billion dollar real estate development portfolio as an analyst at a bank. But Tony’s also been food insecure with less than $300 to his name.
When I arrived at Tony’s apartment one cold February morning, he was in the middle of a cup of yogurt. I sat on the couch getting my recording ready as Dragon’s Den played on TV. Tony told me that he likes the show and hopes to be on it someday. I started our conversation by asking him to define food insecurity.
In a nutshell, it’s just a state of being without reliable access to or a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. There are 4 million food-insecure people in this country. Not all of them are homeless, a lot of them are the working poor. They get up every day to go to work, but they just don’t have enough food either to feed themselves or their children. in my case, nobody knew I was going through this, I didn’t tell anybody. In July 2016, my work experience consisted of 16 years with two national banks, four years as a business development manager for a nonprofit organization and two years as an entrepreneur. On the flip side, I’d been working weekends in nightclubs for 20 years. So I was working six days a week the entire time I was living in Toronto.
But on that day, in July 2016, I had $270 to my name, I had no job, I had a failed business venture and became food insecure. For the first time in my life at 44 years old, I had to apply for social assistance to have an income. And nobody knew. My mother knew because she’s my mother but nobody around me. My roommate didn’t know and she lived with me. So it was kind of crazy. I just hid it. She would go to work every day, she didn’t understand that I wasn’t eating breakfast, she wasn’t here. She knew that I was eating dinner every night because she saw me sitting here at this table and that’s all that mattered.
I decided to put my money towards paying my bills and I would just go without breakfast. And it was the easiest way for me. I didn’t expect to be food insecure but I needed to make a decision, eat or keep up appearances. And I decided to keep up appearances. So I just simply moved into another state of, I don’t know, I guess acceptance of where I was and what I was dealing with. It affects you mentally, I fell into a depression.
During this time, my sister didn’t know what I was dealing with. She knew that I was in a situation, but she didn’t know how bad it was. But my sister would always say, “If He brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it.” And so I said that to myself, so many times, throughout the process.
Was there a point of you recognizing that you were food insecure?
“I didn’t recognize it right away. I mean, I knew I didn’t have food anymore but my attitude was, “I’m just not eating breakfast.” That was it. I didn’t label it as being food insecure because I had never been food insecure. I heard the term before but I had never put my situation and food insecurity together. It didn’t hit me that I was food insecure until I read a story about food waste and saw the amount of food that Canada had. And within that study, it shared that there were roughly 4 million people who were food insecure and only 25% of those food insecure individuals were using food banks. So I was like, “Whoa, wait a minute. Should I be using the food bank?” But I didn’t want to walk into a food bank, I was embarrassed. I mean, I was too embarrassed to tell my friends what was going on so for me to walk into a food bank, it would have been me actually recognizing that you don’t have food.”
What are some of the things that you learned about food waste in Canada in terms of its impact on the environment and the economy?
“Well, right now we have a $49 billion food waste issue. And that’s billions. Yes, that’s annual. Right now 58% of all food produced in Canada is wasted. The majority of that, about 40% roughly is from producers and manufacturers. But typical households waste about $1700 worth of food every year. So that’s a lot of money.
Retailer food waste is 10% of our national food waste issue, which is $5 billion annually and this is the market that I’m targeting. 86% of that food isn’t donated or redistributed which means it’s going in the garbage. So that means they’re only receiving 14% of the surplus food that we have in this country, which is crazy.
I first read the article on food waste in April of 2017, six to eight months into being food insecure. I said out loud after reading it, “they should feed this food to the homeless.” We have so much surplus food, who’s gonna eat it other than people who need food? Then I never thought about it again.
In September 2016, I secured a part-time job working in hospitality for various catering companies. In September of 2017, I was scheduled to work an event with our largest catering company and at the end of a 12-hour shift, the CEO of the catering company offered me a job. Two weeks later, I was on-site managing my first event and at the end of that event, we had 100 box lunches left over. I was told to share the surplus with the staff and throw the rest in the garbage. And right away I was like, “wait, why are we throwing this food in the garbage?” So I was now witnessing the cause of our food issue right first hand in front of my face. It had never dawned on me before.
I couldn’t rescue all the food, so I just offered to rescue what I could that night and did so every event thereafter until July of 2018. And it was that moment that triggered a lot of frustrations, I was mad at myself for putting myself in this position. I knew that I couldn’t stop rescuing the food because I had been doing it now for eight months. All I saw was surplus food going in the garbage and I was like “No, no, we can’t do this.”
Tony Colley. Photo courtesy of CBC.
When you were doing these food rescues, were you ever able to see the impact you were having on the people receiving it?
“There was one moment that actually stays with me because it was the moment that I, for the first time, saw a soup kitchen live in action. It was late at night and I was coming from our main kitchen at Carlaw and Lakeshore and I was always on my bike. So I would bike to work, then we would drive one of the vehicles to the event and they would have to drive back to the kitchen. I would always go to this one shelter because it was directly on my way home. One day I walked in, and I had one of those large black garbage bags and I’m going to say eight to 10 aluminum containers of food. I had already done rescues and already delivered to this shelter in the past but earlier in the day, this is probably close to 11 o’clock or midnight.
There were about 30-40 people spread across the floor all in sleeping bags. And there was a gentleman at the counter getting his cup of soup, and I walked in and I said to the lead “this is all surplus food from an event.” She said, “Oh, what’s in the bag” and I started rhyming off what was in it. And the guys’ eyes were like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe it, you’re a godsend.” She said, “all we have to give them tonight is the soup.”
And a couple of people started to get up because they realized there was additional food as I was pulling the food out of the bag, onto the counter. And it’s funny because one thing she said to me “was any of this vegan or vegetarian?” And initially, in my head, I’m like, woman this is surplus food. But she said to me, “The reason I asked is because we do have vegetarians here so we want to be able to serve everybody.” That’s something I never really considered or thought about before. But seeing the reaction from the gentlemen at the counter, her reaction, and then a couple people coming up and starting to “Wow” because they didn’t have anything else other than that styrofoam cup of soup.
I left and that was the first time I cried because of what I was doing. I got overwhelmed with the fact that their reaction was so sincere and so humble, that they just were glad to have food that wasn’t a styrofoam cup of soup. And I thought, “holy shit, look at what’s actually happening here.” Because I had never interacted like this. So it was the first time I saw that this is what real life is like for these individuals.
I wasn’t anticipating any of this at the time. It wasn’t even part of my psyche, it really wasn’t. I stumbled upon this. I tell people, and I still believe this to be true, I feel as though I was chosen to do this. Because food waste wasn’t a thing for me. I worked in events for 20 years at various nightclubs, People call me ‘Tall Tony’. I’m known as this tall black guy that worked the front door of most of, if not all of, the biggest parties in the hottest clubs for 20 years.”
Tony’s plan is to scale and build. Part of his five-year plan is to expand B12Give to cities outside of Toronto and across the world. Tony also hopes to include other initiatives under the umbrella of B12Give to address other social issues such as homelessness, education and social inclusion.