The power of food – Food banks evolve into community centres inspiring social change


They don’t work.

By simply handing out emergency hampers of donated food and sending people on their way, food banks to do little to solve or even address the profound problems of hunger or poverty, say veterans of these community organizations.

“In a way, giving out food is a bit of a black hole,” said Kimberly Martin, executive director of the NDG Food Depot.

“A Band-Aid solution,” said Nick Saul. When he took over as executive director of a Toronto food bank known as The Stop in 1998, it was a cramped and dreary space focused on what he called “a single demoralizing transaction”: handouts of food hampers featuring tired produce, overly salty canned goods and mislabelled food industry castoffs.

But on his 14-year watch, The Stop became something else entirely. It expanded to include among its services a garden, communal dining and cooking initiatives, a health and nutrition group for low-income pregnant women, breakfast and lunch drop-ins, education programs for children and civic engagement projects.

It went from being about service delivery to being about community and social change, as he and Andrea Curtis observe in The Stop: How the Fight For Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement (Random House Canada, 2013), a deeply human and inspiring story.

“Food is this powerful way to connect with people,” Saul said in an interview. “In eating with others, you can build community and you can express your background and culture. It’s a good way to do community organizing, a good way to get at big issues.”

The Stop has come “a long way from when we offered members wilted iceberg lettuce,” he writes. “The Stop is truly a place where people come to cook, grow, eat, learn about and advocate for good food.”

When Saul started, it had a staff of five and a $200,000 budget. When he left in 2012, there was a staff of 40 in place, a budget of $4.5 million and 300 volunteers.

Saul’s work now is to try to replicate the innovation he brought to The Stop in other Canadian communities. Since last summer, he has been president and CEO of a new organization known as Community Food Centres Canada; the hope is to create a national movement in which food banks are replaced by community food centres.

Food banks, which became widespread during the economic recession of the early 1980s, were intended as a stopgap measure, Saul explained. But they’re still here.

And people are still hungry.

“Food bank use continues to rise dramatically. And hundreds of thousands of people — including many children — in towns and cities across the continent report that they don’t know where their next meal will come from,” he writes. (Although Saul and Curtis, an award-winning writer and editor, wrote the book together, the book is written in his voice.)

“Indeed, instead of regarding food banks as the embodiment of a good deed — a compassionate response to hunger in an affluent society — I think we should view these small, ephemeral, volunteer-run places serving up inadequate, unhealthy food as symbols of the breakdown of our social fabric, the end of whatever collective understanding we have about our responsibility to each other.”

More people are paying more attention these days to what they are eating; television chefs are rock stars. But as in other areas, a class divide endures.

“The rich and middle class get organic — and the poor get diabetes,” Saul said. There is proportionately more diabetes and heart disease in low-income communities, he said.

“If we agree that good food is best, we have to figure out a way to ensure that everyone has access to it. We are trying to view food less as a commodity and more as a public good.”

The Stop still operates a food bank, but “it’s only one in a complete roster of food programs, all aimed at meeting people where they’re at and also working toward larger political and social change,” he writes. “This marriage of advocacy with community-driven programs makes us very different.”

To test whether the model of the community food centre “had legs,” two pilot projects were established in Stratford and Perth. Other community food centres are slated to open this year and next — in the Regent Park neighbourhood of Toronto, in Dartmouth and in Winnipeg. The hope is to open three centres a year for the next five years, for a total of 15.

More than half of a $20-million fundraising goal has been reached, with funders including the Sprott Foundation, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the Metcalfe Foundation, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Ontario’s Trillum Foundation, BMO, Greenshields Canada and the Borden Ladner Gervais law firm. Le Creuset Canada has agreed to equip the future kitchens with cookware.

To be considered as a community food centre, an organization must already be a strong presence in the community, Saul explained. The role of Community Food Centres Canada is to nurture prospective partners and help them.

The centres feature what he described as three “buckets” of programs: a dignified emergency or healthy food program, such as a drop-in meal program; a food skills component, such as a community garden, a kitchen and after-school programs; an engagement and education component, such as community action groups and peer advocacy to support people as they speak out.

“It’s to get to systemic change,” he said. “The vehicle is a good meal, but the underlying question is ‘Why are these people marginal?’”

The NDG Food Depot would like to become part of the Community Food Centre network; although the door is open to a collaboration, “there are a lot of components to get into place first, before we are eligible,” director Martin said.

One is to find a space of its own — in NDG. With a kitchen. And access to green space.

“We are big believers that the physical drives the social,” Saul said. It is important, he said, that these community food centres be “dignified spaces that aren’t in basements with flickering fluorescent lights.”

The NDG Food depot “has its momentum and it knows what it is doing,” said Saul, who has had conversations over the years with the directors of the NDG Food Depot. “I hope they would say I have been a helpful voice.

“We are supportive of their work. With our expertise, supporting them with program systems, the model and fundraising, and with their long-standing trusting relationships, there is a possibility for doing something really interesting.”

Focus groups are being held with clients, so that decisions can be made based on the needs of the people who actually use the food depot.

It’s about “creating programming and shifting things based on what they are saying,” Martin said. “We want to do more relationship building, community building and work around sustainability.”

But sometimes life gets in the way of the best-laid plans. The NDG Food Depot has had to move twice in the past six months, the first time with two weeks’ notice from a rented space at Oxford Ave. and de Maisonneuve Blvd. it had occupied for 20 years. It recently signed a one-year lease in the basement of Trinity Memorial Church on Marlowe Ave. below Sherbrooke St., as the search continues for a permanent location.

Participation in the cooking program, which began in 2009, has dropped — not surprising considering the two moves — but is being rebuilt.

“We want people to stay and share a meal together,” Martin said. “Ideally, it would be a meal cooked by a group. We are going to start with volunteers cooking and inviting people who are here for baskets to come in for a meal.”

Users have suggested that one way of helping to create community could be with cooking classes based on the cuisine of cultural communities whose members use the depot.

There are always people who need emergency food, but over the past few years, there has been a shift away from the organization operating almost exclusively as a food bank, Martin said.

Used to be, people would just come in for their food baskets and leave, said development director Bonnie Soutar. “Now we ask them, ‘How else can we help you?’”

People struggle with issues from loneliness to mental health difficulties as they struggle to live on impossibly low income, she said. Half the clients receive social assistance. Many are socially isolated. Some are new to the country. Some speak no French. Some are older adults without up-to-date skills.

“We try to work with people one to one,” Soutar said. “It is how we are dealing with hunger and poverty.”

For more on Community Food Centres Canada,

The NDG Food Depot is at 2146 Marlowe Ave.,