Local man raises concerns over expired soup from food bank

Originally published in The Casket on Nov. 27, 2013

Joseph MacGillivary uses the Antigonish Community Food Bank as a way to supplement his disability cheques, ensuring his cupboards are stocked. But MacGillivary said finding expired cans amongst his food bank collections is both concerning and insulting.

“That just makes me want to throw everything right out the door,” MacGillivary said. “When you’re only getting limited food and you get something that’s bad that you’re scared to eat or that’s gone bad, it doesn’t make it easy.”

MacGillivary has been going to the food bank since 2000.

His disability cheques cover his rent, utilities and phone bill, but he relies on the food bank and cheques from the St. Vincent de Paul Society to ensure he doesn’t go hungry. The St. Vincent de Paul Society gives him $30 each month, and his food bank supplements last six to 10 days.

He receives the food bank contribution every 21 days.

MacGillivary said his experience with the system has been frustrating. He struggles with heart problems and mobility issues, and he said the food bank doesn’t accommodate his health condition or concerns, something that is done for logistical reasons, he understands, but that doesn’t override the frustration.

“As someone with coronary artery disease, I have to watch and be picky about what I eat, but the food bank, it’s all salt,” he said. “And when you get something that’s so far beyond its best before date that it smells rancid, that’s not healthy for anyone.”

Food bank manager Ted Cogan said the food bank delivers fresh vegetables when possible, but said much of what they pass out depends on donations from the public and shipments from the provincial organization, Feed Nova Scotia. The food bank did receive a large shipment of potatoes on Nov. 21, Cogan told the Casket. Those were to be handed out on Nov. 25, when the bank opened again.

“It’s not a grocery store,” Cogan said. “It’s a food bank and people give to us. We have no government funding, we operate on the charity of the people of Antigonish. We can only do as much as others do.”

Cogan added that the food bank does spend between $45- and $50,000 annually on food. While this money does allow the food bank to buy items that are needed to round out the items given to users of the food bank, Cogan said much of the money is spent at Christmas, to ensure the food bank baskets include a turkey and extra food for the holidays.

Cogan also spends a portion of that money buying fresh milk and cheese for the regular food bank bags.

The Antigonish Community Food Bank follows the provincial and national guidelines set out by both Feed Nova Scotia and Food Banks Canada.

Cogan said the Antigonish food bank doesn’t have its own set of policies or guidelines, but follows the paperwork and rules set out by the organizations above them. A code of ethics and safe handling and re-packaging guides hang on the wall behind the table used for separating incoming donations.


Joseph MacGillivary shows off a can of soup he was given from the Antigonish Community Food Bank in one of his recent orders. The can’s best before date is 2008. MacGillivary said it’s insulting to be given food no one else wants. PHOTO: Laura Hubbard

These guidelines state that the best before date on pre-packaged and canned food is not for food safety, rather for flavour, quality of the food and nutritional content.

Feed Nova Scotia allows canned and jarred food to be distributed up to one year past the best before date. Infant formulas and nutritional supplements are the only listed food by Food Banks Canada that cannot be distributed past a best before or expiry date.

Dianne Swinemar, president of Feed Nova Scotia, said food that comes to the provincial organization is checked over for best before dates.

“We’re checking for the dates, but then if it’s coming from a manufacturer, we get a code date and information on how long the product is good even if the date is older,” she said. “Sometimes the dates mean the product can’t be in the marketplace but we’re still assured that it’s OK for consumption so it’s sent to us.”

When food arrives at the Antigonish food bank – whether from donations or Feed Nova Scotia – it’s checked again. Every box, can and bag, then, is checked at least twice before being distributed to those who rely on the food.

But MacGillivary doesn’t think they’re checked well enough. His recent collection of a can of Campbell’s Chunky soup was dated 2008. Another can was also outdated.

“It’s not the first time it has happened and I know I’m not the only one who has seen this,” he said. “Having stuff that’s three, four, fives year old. This isn’t a third world country: why am I being given the garbage food no one else would feed themselves?”

MacGillivary said he’s raised the concern with those who distribute the food at the food bank, but has wanted to keep the empty can – which had it’s contents flushed down his toilet – “for evidence.” Before coming to the Casket, MacGillivary raised the concern with the mayor and Central Nova MP Peter MacKay.

Cogan said that he’s never heard from MacGillivary.

“I apologize to him but the message was never passed on to me,” he said. “We receive notes on the door telling us our food is crap, but we rarely have people coming in asking to see our policies and look at what we have to work with.

“If he had brought in a can that was outdated, we would have traded it for two cans.”

Cogan said the Antigonish food bank also receives memos from manufacturers regarding dates for food, and how to properly store them until they’ve been handed out. He said that the group keeps this information to show their policies and what they’re handing out – even if past the best before date – is safe.

In talking to the Casket, Cogan gave a tour of the Antigonish food bank. Food is stacked in boxes in the basement: each can, box or bag of food is looked over and organized by the best before date year. Cardboard boxes are piled to the ceiling with Sharpie scribblings on the end: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015. When the shelves upstairs – the food that is used to fill the bags that are distributed to users – are empty, boxes from downstairs are moved up.

Boxes labelled 2012 and 2013 are currently being used up.

“We do have shelves that would have extra things or cans that are beyond the policies for best before dates that we follow,” Cogan said. “Those are left in a certain area where people pick up their bags and people are told they can take them at their own risk if they want it.”

He said people are aware that the cans are more than a year past the best before date before they take them.

But MacGillivary said it’s not only the soup cans he’s received that weren’t safe.

“I’ve received milk that smelled like it was going sour when I got, despite what the date said,” he said. “Maybe it was a fluke, but it’s a catch-22 with poor people. With a poor person, you never win, it seems.”

MacGillivary said he understands the food bank has policies for one year beyond the best before date, and said he is aware of the justification: that it is for food quality, rather than safety. But even still, he feels insulted.

“Most people wouldn’t use something past the best before date, so why is it being handed to me just because I don’t have money?”

“I know it’s a non-profit organization and they use what they get, but we, the people on the street, have feelings too,” he said. “Don’t I deserve flavour and nutrients, too?”