For Lee Newton, watching a TV program changed her life. In 1982, a documentary about Helen verDuin Palit, the creator of City Harvest, a food-rescue program in New York, attracted the attention of Newton. It instilled in her a desire to do something about feeding the hungry in her hometown of Winnipeg.
With the help of friends, she spent more than a year researching sources of surplus food, especially food that was going to landfill. Armed with the information she had collected, Newton and her friends opened Winnipeg Harvest on July 1, 1985, on her 33rd birthday.
She thought it would be a temporary enterprise — a few years at best until things got better — but from starting out with a half dozen volunteers, a small warehouse and an old truck, Harvest has been transformed into an organization that feeds nearly 62,000 people in Manitoba each month, 43 per cent of whom are children.
Harvest provides more than 13.2 million pounds of food to nearly 400 food distribution agencies across the province, including food banks, soup kitchens, youth programs and drop-in centres.
In a November 21, 2002, Free Press article, Newton told journalist Holli Moncrieff: “I’m blown away by how big it is now. Our business is booming, but that’s not a good thing. I’d be much happier if I were out of a job.”
While she many not have worked herself out of a job, she did create a food bank that, over the years of its existence, has helped so many needy people.
“In many respects, I see Lee Newton as a social entrepreneur, an inspirational one at that, as she identified a real community issue — hunger,” said Cliff King, the chair of the WinnipegREALTORS® Citizens Hall of Fame program, who announced that Newton will be the 44th inductee into the hall of fame, which honours Winnipeggers who have made an outstanding contribution to their community.
Newton was inducted posthumously — she passed away in 2014 at age 61 — into the hall of fame at a special ceremony on Thursday held at the Manitoba Club. Her husband, Jim Crawford, and her brother, Blaine Newton, accepted the Citizens Hall of Fame bronze medallion on her behalf during the induction ceremony.
Past inductees include former Mayor Steven Juba, businessman Israel Asper, suffragette and author Nellie McClung, educators Daniel McIntyre and Carl Ridd, authors Carol Shields and Gabrielle Roy, artists Lionel LeMoine Fitzgerald and Leo Mol, journalists Cora Hind and Vince Leah, among other highly-deserving individuals.
Perhaps the inductee showing the same level of compassion for those in need as Newton was another posthumous inductee, Sister Geraldine MacNamara, the founder of Rossbrook House, an inner-city safe haven for children.
Other inductees, who, like Newtown, entered the hall of fame in the volunteer category were Isabel Auld and Terry Fox.
“It was Lee’s life purpose and passion to found Winnipeg Harvest to effectively and immediately address the issue of hunger on our streets and within our communities,” according to the group who nominated Newton for the hall of fame. “Through raising awareness, feeding the hungry, and providing hope and opportunities through its many programs and endeavours, Lee Newton’s legacy, Winnipeg Harvest, has given hope to and changed the lives of thousands of people in our communities.”
After serving as president of the Harvest board in its formative years, Newton moved on to run its volunteer program, focusing her attention on high-profile fundraising efforts that continue to this day. One of her successful undertakings was the Empty Bowls Celebrity Auction that has raised over $400,000.
“I’ve had bowls from David Suzuki, Bob Geldof, Michael Bublé, Jamie Oliver, Martha Stewart and Elton John,” Newton told Flannery Dean for a July 2009 Chatelaine magazine article. “Last year, the Rolling Stone bowl raised $5,000.”
She also established The Huron Carole, which features Tom Jackson and other celebrity musicians.
Other Harvest programs she helped found until her retirement in 2010 were Grow-A-Row and Kids Who Care.
“She literally did not leave any stone unturned in her outreach to the community to build awareness and support for feeding our hungry,” said King.
“She put the seed in the ground that’s grown and helped many, many families, said David Northcott, the former executive director of Winnipeg Harvest (February 10, 2014, Metro).
The Lee Mae Newton Excellence Award has been created in her memory by Winnipeg Harvest, which “will be dedicated to an individual or volunteer family that contributes to the spirit and operations of Winnipeg Harvest in a way that strengthens individuals or families who struggle with low-income issues in Winnipeg.”
In fact, nearly 60 per cent of Harvest volunteers are the very people who use a food bank. Newton considered the Harvest volunteers her “big family,” who shared their lives, dreams and a laugh or two. She told Moncrieff the volunteers come from all walks of life — from people with PhDs to the illiterate — working side by side, “but they all share the same belief that everyone should have enough to eat.”
Newton said Harvest helps its less privileged volunteers build self-esteem in order to get a job so they won’t have to rely upon a food bank.
One Harvest volunteer used the word “heart” to describe Newton, and “love on two legs.”
Over her 30 years with Harvest, Newtown herself has received numerous awards. In 2005, she was named a YMCA/YWCA Woman of Distinction for community volunteerism. On December 12, 1992, she was awarded the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Annual Conference of the Confederation of Canada “in recognition of the values of service, individual respect and community effort in Winnipeg and to Canada.”
“I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate ... to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all,” said Newton.
Following her passing, Jody Hecht, a former president of the Harvest board, said that Newton established Winnipeg Harvest “in an effort to reconcile the troubling asymmetry between food going to the landfill and people going hungry .... Lee’s vision for reclamation (which today would be called a ‘green’ initiative) lives on. At least 25 per cent of the 12 million pounds of food we distribute annually is reclaimed; perfectly sound, non-perishable food that would otherwise go to landfill.”
Northcott reinforced Newton’s goal of Winnipeg Harvest eventually closing its doors due to a lack of business.
“Lee Newton, my friend and the founder of Winnipeg Harvest,” he said, “won’t be here to witness us closing our doors one day, but she will be here in spirit continuing to walk with us on our journey of caring for hungry people in Manitoba.”