As one of the biggest metropolitan centres, Toronto is also one of the nation’s leaders in food security work. There are dozens of community based food organizations targeting the many issues that get between Torontonians and their dinner plates.
Perhaps most notable (and most famous) is ‘The Stop Community Food Centre’. The Stop started as a food bank in the 90’s and under the leadership of Nick Saul, progressed into a ‘post-food bank’ initiative. The food bank concept initially started about thirty years ago as a short-term, emergency response to an economic downturn. Food banks soon became an institution in society, and an everyday reality for many people. While they do provide a useful immediate solution for hungry people, they do little to address any of the root causes of hunger. Saul was one of the first people to radically question the food bank model through the creation of the ‘Community Food Centre’ model.
The Stop views conventional food banks as a polarizing force in society, categorizing people into poor and rich. Many food bank recipients report feeling shame in accepting emergency food relief. Saul believed that food should never be a source of shame and embarrassment for members of society, and set out to create emergency food relief that would provide healthier food, community experience, and education while retaining human dignity.
Many emergency food recipients are not looking for a handout, and The Stop empowers recipients by providing skills development and enabling people to become their own farmers and cooks. The Stop still runs a food bank, but also facilitates educational programming (including gardening and cooking), community kitchens and dining, urban agriculture, farmers’ markets, and community drop-in services.
We tried to visit The Stop, but ended up walking a great distance only to find it closed. It was well worth the humid walk, as we we discovered a nearby corner store selling homemade ‘injera’, an Ethiopian fermented flat bread and tasty reminder of Toronto’s strong multicultural presence.
On our walk home from our attempted visit to The Stop, we accidentally (and serendipitously) ran into the head office of Saul’s new initiative. Saul stepped down as the Executive Director of The Stop and is now taking this model across the country through a new initiative called the ‘Community Food Centres of Canada’.
The goal is to raise twenty million dollars and build 15 centres across Canada by the year 2017. The centres will be based on the same principles that created The Stop and will collaborate with other local organizations. It’s an incredibly ambitious undertaking, but considering Saul's track record, it doesn’t seem impossible. There are now 3 Community food centres established under this model (Toronto, Perth, and Stratford) with three more due to launch in 2014 (Dartmouth (NS), Winnipeg (MB), and another in Toronto).
Toronto is certainly a national leader when it comes to community food initiatives, and we can’t wait to see how Saul’s ambitious new project will create a more inclusive and nutritious Canadian food scene.
Sometimes a forced change in plans gets you all you were looking for and more. We really should walk more.