Quest Food Exchange

Geneva Guerin, Sustainability Solutions Group
Yuill Herbert, CRC Board Member, Principal, Director, Sustainability Solutions Group
Published May 2, 2007

Case Summary

Quest Outreach Society is a Vancouver-based organization that intercepts, processes and then redistributes non-marketable food to social service agencies and others in need in the region. Food is sourced through a network of suppliers that donate products otherwise destined for the landfill because they are oddly sized, blemished, nearing their expiry date, mislabeled, or the packaging is damaged.  From these donations, Quest feeds over 60,000 people a month with a team of 11 employees and a network of 2,000 volunteers, many of whom are from the low-income Downtown Eastside community. A zero waste policy means that all items collected are either used, or recycled. As a result of these activities, 40 tonnes of food are diverted from the landfill daily and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from anaerobic break-down of food in the landfill are prevented.

Quest Map

Sustainable Development Characteristics

Quest has succeeded in reclaiming significant volumes of food, otherwise  a waste product, and using the food to provide healthy meals for those in need in the lower mainland. The process of transforming what was previously a waste product involves the cooperation of funders, volunteers, non-profit organisations and private sector companies, thus creating a new web of social agency and economic activity.

With its zero waste project, 100% of all food products obtained are diverted from landfill through human consumption, or by one of the three ways outlined below (Fitzpatrick et al, 2006):

  1. trucking it to the UBC in-vessel composting facilities several times per week;
  2. pick-up by local farmers for use as feedstock, and
  3. delivery to a community garden for composting.

Additionally, 100% of associated non-organic waste such as food packaging is diverted from the landfill through either reuse or recycling by appropriate programs, part of Quest's zero waste policy. In total, Quest estimates that it diverts one percent of the total food waste headed for the landfill in the lower mainland.

A corollary benefit results because organic materials in a landfill degrade anaerobically and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). By diverting organic materials from this process, Quest is therefore also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Biodiesel fuel, however, is used in its delivery vehicles, contributing to the GHG reductions.

According to Hungercount 2001, over 20% of the Lower mainland's population cannot obtain either enough or appropriate food to maintain a healthy diet. Quest has developed a comprehensive and sophisticated system to deliver food to more than 60,000 people each month. A network of 290 suppliers drop off food products that cannot be sold because they are oddly sized, blemished, nearing their expiry date, or because its packaging is damaged. Two thousand volunteers and seven of the 11 person employee team then work at a 575 square metre warehouse and nearby kitchen in Vancouver's east side preparing:

  1. Eight thousand nine hundred hot meals each month, for distribution by Quest’s social service agency partners to the hungry and homeless in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
  2. Other food products to feed 29,000 people each month through Quest’s 156 social service agency partners in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), ranging from women shelters, neighbourhood houses, half-way houses, mental heath consumers, food-banks, daycares and school programs.
  3. Emergency food hampers to feed 22,000 individuals and families each month.
  4. Soups made from food scraps, sent out internationally to groups feeding 100,000 people each month.

Volunteers, many of whom come from Vancouver's poor East Side, are entitled to a food hamper for each shift they work, in return for their labour. Furthermore, the volunteers are able to assemble their own food hampers and select the food items they want from the shelves as remuneration, thereby reducing the association of being given a ‘handout’.

With over 5000 financial donors (individuals, corporations, grants, awards), 290 food supplier partners, 156 social service agency partners, and 2000 volunteers, Quest connects thousands of community members in Vancouver through the initiative. As an added benefit due to Quest’s ability to successfully manage food collection, preparation, and distribution, its partner social service agencies are better able to focus their time, money, and effort on their core competencies and operations.

Quest employs 11 people on a full-time basis including two administrative staff, two outreach staff to work with the social service agencies, and seven front-line workers consisting of drivers, food handlers, and kitchen staff. The $7 million dollar annual budget includes $6.28 million of in-kind food donations from wholesalers, supermarkets, restaurants, airlines, freight lines and farmers. Other significant in-kind donations are donated space, vehicles and other equipment.

Many of Quest’s 2000 volunteers are socially disadvantaged, experiencing low points in their lives who happen upon volunteer opportunities through word of mouth, largely through Quest’s social service partner network.  Quest aims to provide volunteer opportunities in a family-like setting that respects all individuals no matter personal circumstances, through a series of volunteer empowerment programs. This plays a dual role in the development of job market re-entry skills by nurturing self-esteem in volunteers, and providing meaningful work experience that imparts hard skills. Several volunteers working with Quest have gone on to successfully re-enter the job market.

Critical Success Factors

  • Proactive policy development by government. The context in British Columbia for donating food products during the development of Quest’s food re-distribution program was instrumental in the success of the project. In 1997, BC adopted a Good Samaritan Food Donor Encouragement Act (Government of British Columbia, Bill 10, 1997), which protects groups donating food with good intentions from any liability associated with that food. This policy enables suppliers to donate food without fear of legal liability from any potential negative impacts incurred, such as food poisoning. The policy played a key role in facilitating and solidifying relationships between food suppliers and Quest.
  • Leadership, One person in particular, Shelley Wells, played a key role in catalyzing the development of Quest’s current Food Exchange program. Working initially as a volunteer, and with help from the Quest Outreach Society volunteer Board, Shelley Wells led the in-kind effort to get the food exchange program off the ground. The motivation for her efforts was a lack in funding available to purchase food for distribution to those in need, and the discovery that tonnes of consumable food was being sent to landfill every day by large scale food distributors. Ms. Wells sought to create partnerships that would see food that would otherwise be sent to landfill diverted to a food exchange program, administered by Quest.
  • Volunteers. Volunteers have been crucial in Quest’s development. Quest’s large social network enables volunteer recruitment mainly through word-of-mouth communications. Most of the volunteers find their way to Quest via the recipient groups of Quest’s Food Exchange program.


Community Contact Information

Shelley Wells, Executive Director of Quest Outreach Society
Telephone: 604-602-0186
Mailing address: PO Box 2156, Station Main Terminal, Vancouver, BC V6B 3V3.

What Worked? 

  • Strategic relationships with food suppliers.  A key factor in the development of these relationships was the time that Quest invested in understanding the operational context of food suppliers, which included knowledge of the food suppliers’ schedules, routines, food storage and disposal practices and delivery capacity, and contributed to the development of a solid foundation from which the relationships have continued strongly. With the contextual information, Quest was able to propose a system that could be easily integrated into the food suppliers’ current processes, and which could further optimize overall efficiency.
  • Strategic relationships with service delivery organizations. By centralizing and focusing, Quest offered efficient and cost-effective provision of food to organisations that support disadvantaged people, thus presenting a compelling case to these organisations and allowing them to concentrate their efforts on their particular mission.
  • Financial support. Quest has been able to attract financial and in-kind support from a wide diversity of organisations, comprising approximately 5000 donors.

What Didn't Work?

  • Start-up financing. There was no initial seed money, and as a result, many in-kind hours were required to guide the idea through to fruition. The lack of funds, however, encouraged creative problem-solving in developing alternative cost-free strategies, which ultimately contributed to the strong foundation of in-kind contributions that continues today.

Financial Costs and Funding Sources

As of 2007, Quest’s annual budget was approximately $7 million a year. A significant portion of this overall budget comes in the form of in-kind food, labour, equipment and space donations, leaving approximately $600,000 annually in hard costs.

In order to meet annual cash requirements (2007) of nearly $600,000, Quest generated revenue from three streams.

  • Cost recovery: In return for the food that Quest provides, social service agencies donate one-third of its market value to Quest to help them cover their delivery costs.
  • Donations and grants: Quest receives donations and grants from a wide range of individuals, corporations, foundations and other groups.
  • Entrepreneurship: Quest is developing a business around the sale of its compost.

Research Analysis

The research involved a literature review, a review of the media coverage, an interview with the executive director who requested that they be the sole spokesperson for Quest. 

Detailed Background Case Description

Originally founded in 1990 as a registered not-for-profit organization, the Quest Outreach Society began its operations as a hot sit-down meals service for the hungry in Vancouver’s Lower East Side. At the time, money was raised to purchase food for preparing meals to feed people in the low-income neighbourhood. With the arrival of a new Executive Director, Shelley Wells, in 1999, Quest began transitioning its programing from a focus on emergency meal provision to a larger scale food exchange. This transition grew out of increased difficulties in obtaining enough money to fund the purchase of food, along with the new executive director’s vision of obtaining food at no cost by seeking donations from various food distributors, and her commitment to avoiding waste.

The goal of the Quest Food Exchange is to salvage non-marketable food from various wholesalers, supermarkets, restaurants, airlines, freight lines and farmers, food that would otherwise be sent to the landfill. Given the success of the initiative, Quest is now pro-actively approached by food suppliers who want to donate, and as a result it no longer needs to spend time on food donor recruitment. After nine years in operation, the program currently provides food for 60,000 people in a region that includes Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, North Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey, the Tri-cities and Maple Ridge. An additional 100,000 people are fed each month through a partnership with the Fraser Valley-based organization Gleaners, which ships soups made from Quest food scraps internationally.

Many in-kind hours were put toward getting the project off the ground by volunteer Shelley Wells and Board members. Initial research revealed the extent to which consumable food items were being sent to landfill because they were no longer marketable, and revealed options for reclamation of food. After the source of food was identified, the next step was to analyze the disposal processes employed by food wholesalers and distributors to identify feasible strategies to divert this food to Quest for redistribution. At this point, Shelley Wells was engaged by the Board as the Executive Director (ED) of Quest on a part-time basis.

The Executive Director's primary tasks were the coordination of the food donors, the social service agencies that were to receive the food items, the volunteers, and the financial donors. The Food Donor Encouragement Act was passed by the BC Government in 1997, thus protecting donors from any liability associated with the donated food. The legal context was therefore prime to develop a system for large food donations with various suppliers. Delivery and pickup systems were established, and clearly defined for all participating organizations. Quest picked up food products from the same location as the garbage trucks, resulting in limited additional work for the food supplier and the additional bonus of financial savings from reduced transportation and disposal costs. Three food suppliers engaged in the piloting of the project, and then Quest was ready to begin developing its social service agency food recipients network, as well as further developing its volunteer network and financial foundation.

Quest is currently engaged with 156 social service agency partners in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). Social service agency partners include neighbourhood houses, inner city schools and other school lunch programs, children's daycare centres, hospices, mental health organisations, employment training programs, seniors' centres, women's shelters, recovery homes, street youth organisations, and HIV/AIDS organisations, among others. In order to qualify as a social service agency partner with Quest, three conditions apply: 1) the organisation must be non-profit with legitimacy and accountability; 2) food must be given away and not used it for resale; and 3) no conditions can be attached to receiving the food, such as attending a religious service or being required to work.

Since the launch of the Quest Food Exchange program in 1999, the project has enjoyed a rapid growth rate of 30% annually. Today, its network of food suppliers, social service agency partners, volunteers, and donors has become a considerable operation with two administrative staff responsible solely for coordination.

Food is picked up using Quest’s vehicle fleet and taken to its warehouse space, where up to 30 volunteers a day work to sort and re-package food. Approximately 50% of the food received is perishable and 50% is non-perishable. Food that is not fit for human consumption is either composted or sent away for use as animal feed. The remaining food is divided up and sent to the social agencies—either prepared as meals in the Quest kitchen for social services agencies without cooking facilities or distributed as emergency food hampers for individuals. Additionally, of the perishable food items, roughly 20% are either blemished or can not be given away in time, so it is turned into preserves, sauces, pastes, or blanched or frozen for later use. Finally, leftover food scraps are sent to groups in the Fraser Valley, which produce a vegetarian soup that is sent out internationally to organisations feeding 100,000 people a month throughout the United States, Middle East, South America, and Africa.

Quest’s work is shared amongst 2000 volunteers recruited by eleven full time employees. A volunteer Board oversees the entire organisation. Members of the Board in 2007 included Sonja P. Sanguinetti, Johan T. Dooyeweerd, Gordon A. Alteman, Linda Thiessen, Hwan Lee, Patrick Beirne, Malouf Obraham, Shawn Ostheimer, and Robert Meggy. While early in the development of the project the Board played an active role in the day-to-day work, it is now primarily active in a strategic planning capacity. The Quest employees are responsible for overall project coordination, outreach to the social service agencies, and food pick-up, sorting, preparation, and delivery. Volunteers play an enormous role in Quest’s capacity. With over 22,000 in-kind hours annually, volunteers are involved in the warehouse to help take care of the food when it first arrives, as well as in the kitchen to help prepare the meals and preserves. As part of Quest’s volunteer empowerment strategy, all volunteers are entitled to a food hamper for which they can select their own food items from the warehouse, in return for their labour.

With a current operating budget of approximately $7 million annually, $600,000 represents hard costs, leaving the majority of this budget met through in-kind contributions. Both the in-kind and cash fundraising is done principally by Quest’s Executive Director, Shelley Wells, with some support from the Quest Board. Revenue is generated through individual and corporate donations, grants, and government funding. Not all financial donors wish to be recognized, but some of the contributors include:

  1. British Columbia Technology Social Venture Partners
  2. CCF Community Care Foundation
  3. CKNW Orphan's Fund
  4. Canadian Geographic Magazine
  5. FleetLOCATE
  6. Gravity Incorporated
  7. The Great Little Box Company
  8. The Leon and Thea Koerner Foundation
  9. Lotus Light Charity Society
  10. McDonalds Restaurants of Canada
  11. Paul Hardie Mitchell Foundation
  12. Vancouver Foundation
  13. Wendy D Photography
  14. Environment Canada, Eco Action (BC chapter)
  15. Vancity Credit Union

Food donors include:

  1. British Canadian Importers
  2. BC Hothouse
  3. Capers Community Market
  4. Dan D Pak
  5. Ecco il Pane
  6. Emperor Specialty Foods
  7. Falesca Importing Ltd.
  8. Happy Planet Foods
  9. Horizon Distributors
  10. Premium Brand Food Group
  11. Que Pasa Mexican Foods
  12. San Remo Food Importers
  13. SPUD: Small Potatoes Urban Delivery
  14. T & T Supermarket
  15. Uprising Breads Bakery

Quest’s Zero Waste Policy

In an attempt to divert as much waste as possible from landfill, Quest developed a Zero Waste project with support from Environment Canada’s Eco-Action program (BC section). The project aims to reduce all of Quest’s food waste to zero while contributing to public education on the benefits of a zero-waste, closed-loop waste management system. To attain zero-waste production, spoiled and expired foods are either composted using various community composting facilities, with the compost then used by local farmers and community gardens; or it is given away for livestock and animal feed to various animal shelters and farms. As well, all non-organic materials such as food packaging or receptacles are sent for re-use or recycling within the community.  In total, there are ten composting/recycling/re-use community partners to ensure that Quest is able to divert 100% of its waste away from landfill. This diversion not only benefits landfills by reducing the amount of waste being buried, but it also has an significant impact on reducing harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by anaerobically decomposing organic matter. Quest estimates that it is able to reduce GHG emissions by 360 tonnes a year, through the landfill diversion of 260,000 kg of organic waste.

Quest’s recycling partners include K-Bottles, Pacific Metals, MD Recycling, Metro Waste Recycling and Technotrash. Composting partners include UBC Waste Management and Strathcona Community Gardens. The animal feed partners are DD Farms, Small Animal Rescue Society and the SPCA – Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

A pivotal moment for Quest was the award of the 2006 Vancity Credit Union $1 million award. Introduced in 2001, the Vancity Award is a $1 million annual investment in an organisation, which supports the social, environmental and economic well-being of the community. Projects are nominated and voted on by Vancity members (account holders), and in 2006 members voted for Quest. The award allowed Quest to increase its capacity, with plans to expand the operation at least threefold.


Despite its $6.28 million in in-kind food donations annually, Quest estimates that it diverts only 1% of the total consumable food sent to landfill each year. Quest estimates that if it could increase its collection rate to 3-4%, it would be possible to feed all those in need in British Columbia. Quest has simultaneously managed to drive a significant wedge into a major waste flow in the Lower Mainland, but also has succeeded in providing quality food to those in need. Additional efforts are made to involve those who receive the food through a range of service agencies as volunteers in different stages of the effort. The combination of the volunteer effort and the donated food means that Quest is economically efficient. Executive Director Shelley Wells indicates that “for every dollar contributed, Quest is able to generate $12.51 worth of food, which in turn feeds six hungry people.” While Quest is highly effective at providing food for those in need, besides an effort to increase the self-esteem of those who volunteer and therefore help them to find employment, Quest does not challenge the consumption that generates the waste or the economic system that results in the poverty of those to whom food is delivered.  Whether this critique is meaningful or not is beyond the scope of this case study, and in any case, Quest is a highly successful model of identifying an opportunity in a waste product and extracting the maximum possible social and environmental benefits from it.

Strategic Questions

  1. What are the legal provisions for waste food donations in other provinces?
  2. Why is there so much waste food?
  3. How many people are in need of food support and what are the factors that result in this need?
  4. Can the QUEST model be easily replicated in other urban centres?
  5. What role can governments and their policies play in helping to diffuse this model to other communities?

Resources and References

Fitzpatrick, Elaine, Gabelhouse, Lauren and Hanson, Dawn (2006). The Quest for Zero Waste: Moving Quest Outreach Society One Step Further.  Simon Fraser University.

Wilson, Beth and Tsoa, Emily (2001). HungerCount 2001: Foodback Lines in Insecure Times. Canadian Association of Food Banks.

BC Food Donor Encouragement Act (Bill 10, 1997) (last accessed May 8th, 2009)

Quest Outreach Society (last accessed May 8th, 2009)

Articles in the Globe and Mail, Vancouver Courier and Burnaby Now: NO LONGER AVAILABLE

Canadian Geographic (last accessed May 8th, 2009)

Vancity Credit Union (last accessed May 8th, 2009)


This amazing organization sparked my interest regarding an issue that I have always found fascinating. I was able to find information regarding why so much food is wasted in Canada every day, Maclean’s magazine reports that in Canada nearly 40% of all food produced is wasted. Aesthetic standards and uniformity laws in many places divert huge percentages of produce to the landfill before it even reaches the supermarket. The world fisheries are the largest contributor to this waste stream which see an average 90% of the fish based protein caught is wasted. Consumers are also equally guilty of wastage, in the US the average American throws away 96kg of edible food each year. The main driver for this phenomenon of food waste is that food prices have reached an all time low due to industrialization of agriculture.

As mentioned in the case study; the Quest program diverts 40 tonnes or approximately 1% of food from the landfill in the Vancouver lower mainland daily. The food donated consists of oddly sized, blemished, nearing expiry date, or damaged packaging that cannot be sold in retail food stores. Quest also has a zero waste policy which means that all items that are collected are either used, composted or recycled. Quest sources food and is able to feed 60000 people a month and they also feel approx 100000 people per month internationally with soup made from food scraps. This diversion of landfill waste also has the environmental benefit of reducing methane gas emissions from the landfill as well as conserving valuable landfill space.

In addition to the obvious social benefit of feeding the hungry Quest also offers volunteer employment to people accessing services, gives disenfranchised people a sense of ownership and community and offers job market reentry skills to the socially disadvantaged people that take part in the program.

There are many other urban areas in Canada and the US that have similar programs an example is the Second Harvest program in Toronto and the Diversity Food Services group in Winnipeg. ( Ontario also has “good Samaritan” legislation that absolves donors of any liability associated with the donation which seems to be the key to successful implementation of these initiatives.

In addition, there is the example that I gave in a post in the class online forum for a Winnipeg based program called Diversity Food Services at the University of Winnipeg. “Diversity Food Services is a unique food service operation designed around the four pillars of sustainability: cultural vitality, economic health, environmental responsibility and social equity.” The program is a joint venture of the U of W’s Community Renewal Corporation ( ) and SEED Winnipeg. (… ) Diversity Food Services has a mandate to develop nutritious, fairly-priced and ethnically diverse food options at the university. They are committed to focusing, wherever possible, on locally sourced foods, organic ingredients, and a commitment to fair-trade practices. It is an on-site restaurant and catering group has a vision of becoming a premier onsite restaurant with a commitment to socially responsible practices. They have a commitment to create nutritious, high quality food, made from scratch, using fresh, local and seasonal produce as well as providing meaningful employment and training opportunities to immigrants, newcomers and aboriginal people in Winnipeg. Since the program was implemented in June 2009 they have created over 46 jobs, 57% of which were immigrants/newcomers/visible minorities.

I am a public health inspector and have also worked in the food service industry and have witnessed firsthand the volume of food wastage that can occur in food supply/service facilities. In Alberta, our food regulations limit the ability of many sources of food donations and although we do have a Charitable Donation of Food Act which applies to charities that donate or distribute donated food it does not seem to offer the same level of protection or be exercised in the same way that the BC legislation is applied. In my opinion, it would take a major shift in the perception of Alberta public health inspectors to enable a program like Quest to become a success in Alberta.