A South Surrey farmer who says he has donated more than 420,000 pounds of fresh produce to the needy since 2011 is this week defending the operation against claims it lacks accountability and transparency.
Jas Singh of God’s Little Acre said he was “snowballed” by criticisms outlined in an open letter penned by Food Banks BC executive director Laura Lansink and made public last week.
The letter cites concerns with food quality, requests for “seed money” that yielded produce “worth less than the amount invested,” volunteers being led to believe that crops they assisted with would benefit their local food bank and that God’s Little Acre is not a registered charity.
“We welcome any and all organizations who seek to work alongside us to fulfill our vision, including the principal of God’s Little Acre,” writes Lansink. “At the same time, we must always ensure that all actions taken and all monies expended are done so with integrity and complete transparency.”
Singh – describing God’s Little Acre, at 16582 40 Ave., as the province’s “poorest farm” – questioned the timing of the criticism, which comes nearly two years after Surrey Food Bank officials advised him they will no longer accept his produce. Up until that time, the farm was dedicated to SFB, he said.
He said he’s never been given a definitive answer as to why the decision was made, but believes publicity of it now is linked to a crowdfunding campaign he launched last month to raise $50,000 for farm equipment and to support a goal of growing 150,000 pounds of food for charity this year.
“For the first time, we started asking people for money for the farm,” he said. “The public’s response was absolutely huge.”
As of Wednesday morning, nearly 600 people had donated a total of $31,650 to the cause.
Tim Baillie, president of the Surrey Food Bank Society, said Wednesday that the timing was simply a result of media inquiries.
“For two years, we’ve been silent on this,” he said. “And that’s been very deliberate. We don’t like slinging mud.”
Baillie said the society gave Singh two years to get himself established, then “asked for accountability on our participation and made the judgment it was no longer to our benefit.”
Jaye Murray, manager of Sources White Rock/South Surrey Food Bank, told Peace Arch News she believes the open letter was an ethical move and that she was not surprised by its content.
She said the food bank has never received produce directly from God’s Little Acre, despite three years ago arranging twice to have a volunteer pick some up. Both times, the volunteer came back empty-handed, so a decision was made to not invest any more time into it, she said.
“A couple of times it didn’t work out and that was it,” Murray said.
She said she has been frustrated by the number of times volunteers have told her they helped out at the farm with the understanding that food harvested would benefit the local food bank, when that hasn’t been the case.
“What’s been annoying is hearing people are going there, expecting it’s coming here and it’s not, and then you don’t know what to say to people,” she said.
One of those volunteers told PAN she felt betrayed after seeing produce from the farm for sale at a local store, and thinks an audit is needed.
Singh disputed the allegation he misled people. He said that after the tie was severed in 2013, “nobody ever was told that was going to the Surrey Food Bank.” “That never happened.”
And, he said, he has never claimed to be a registered charity. He estimated 10 of the farm’s 70 acres are used to grow food that is sold to help pay expenses, and the balance is dedicated to people who need it.
“We’re a business and our business is charity,” he said.
He noted changes to better organize the operation were underway “well before this thing broke.” Those changes, however, do not include detailed tracking of who benefits from donated produce.
“You give things to people and lift their spirits, you don’t humiliate them,” he said. “That’s the system we have.”
Describing Lansink’s letter as “a false document, full of stuff that I’ve already countered,” Singh said he has been flooded with support in its wake.
In addition to posting “hundreds and hundreds” of online comments praising the farm and Singh, volunteers have organized a rally for 11 a.m. this Saturday.
Steve Genik, an Aldergrove resident whom Singh describes as the farm’s “volunteer of the year,” said he hopes people will come and see for themselves how God’s Little Acre operates.
Genik said volunteers were offended by the suggestion they were being tricked into harvesting produce that was later sold for profit.
“See us, experience it, educate yourself firsthand,” he said. “We’re not a bunch of people hanging around that don’t know what we’re doing.”
Singh said he will continue to offer produce to food banks, and plans to send a representative to speak with SFB officials next week.
“The offer’s on the table, publicly,” he said.