For Halloween, many people buy pumpkins, carve them into jack-o-lanterns and swiftly discard them afterwards.

This year, instead of throwing out your pumpkin on Nov. 1, environmental advocacy groups such as Ottawa South Eco-Action Network, recommend finding alternative, sustainable uses for your gourd.

One option is Pumpkins for the Planet, an annual event encouraging Ottawa residents to drop off their carved or intact pumpkins at local collection points, where volunteer drivers deliver them to local farms and food-sharing centres.

OSEAN says the 2022 program gathered more than 800 carved pumpkins for feeding animals and 400 intact pumpkins to help feed people in need.

“It is a very fun way to bring up issues that people might not think about — circular food usage, food waste and food insecurity,” said Marianne Ariganello, a member of OSEAN and one of the organizers of Pumpkins for the Planet.

What started as Pumpkins for Pigs five years ago in Ariganello’s driveway grew to include intact pumpkins in 2020, when a few people dropped off food-grade pumpkins. Not wanting to waste usable produce, OSEAN members asked local kitchens whether they could use the pumpkins to provide meals for those in need.

“Part of the challenge is you never know how many pumpkins you’re gonna get until you get them. Two years ago, we had so many pumpkins we didn’t know what to do with them,” said Ariganello.

“That’s gonna be the challenge this year and as we grow, there’s never a lack of farmers who are interested, but there is a lack of getting the pumpkins to those farms.”

This year, OSEAN will benefit from the help of local businesses that have volunteered trucks and drivers to transport pumpkins from Ernie Calcutt Park, the central collection site that becomes “Pumpkin Alley” in early November, to farms in the Ottawa area.

Food bank demand growing in Ottawa

As for donating pumpkins to local food kitchens, the need is there. One in seven households in Ottawa is food-insecure, according to Ottawa Public Health data from 2022. The same data found that people lacking access to affordable, healthy foods are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health disorders, chronic diseases and infections.

Local food banks and food-sharing centres are reducing their services because of cuts in funding even as demand grows, said Susan Hopkinson, acting executive director of Caldwell Family Centre. “For us, overall the food bank [usage] seems to be increasing an average of at least 30 per cent … I can tell you that I compared June 2023 to June 2021 and it was doubled,” she said.

“We’ve had to share what we’ve got with more people. So when people … receive less, they’ll have to go to another food bank to try to get more.”

Other food banks in Ottawa are facing similar budget constraints. Tricia Jonson, director of communications at Ottawa Food Bank, told CTV News Ottawa that demand there is also expected to increase.

Elizabeth Kristjansson, a psychology professor specializing in food insecurity and neighbourhood health at the University of Ottawa, wrote in an email that food banks are most effective when people also have access to other food centres and better income support policies.

“Food banks started out as a temporary response to economic downturns and are now firmly entrenched in our society and essential for many people,” she wrote. “In our work, we found that clients of food banks connected with community resource centres, which offer many social services, improved their food security status to a small degree.”

Finding solutions in your neighbourhood

For residents outside Ottawa South, Ariganello suggests looking for local alternatives to cook or compost Halloween decorations, instead of driving across town to drop off one pumpkin at an OSEAN collection site.

“What I would really encourage people to do is if you like this idea, then look around your own neighbourhood. It doesn’t have to be huge, you don’t have to try to aim for 800 pumpkins, you can just ask your local neighbours, ‘Hey, do you have intact pumpkins?’” said Ariganello. “And talk to your food centres because sometimes they could use things that you might not think of.”

The list of OSEAN pumpkin collection sites will be available on its website closer to the event date.