‘The People’s Pantry’ Gives Free Food To Torontonians Experiencing Food Insecurity

The grassroots project has delivered hundreds of meals since the pandemic hit.

This is part of an ongoing HuffPost Canada series on food insecurity and how it’s affecting Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this edition, we talk to volunteers from the People’s Pantry, a grassroots hunger relief project that delivers hundreds of free meals and groceries to Torontonians.

“If someone asks for food, it’s because they need it,” is how Yann Gracia would sum up the motivation fuelling The People’s Pantry. And many Torontonians are desperately asking: with one in five households going hungry, Gracia and 300 fellow volunteers are on-call to feed hundreds of people every month, and they’re dependent entirely on donations.

Two volunteers from The People's Pantry, seen with food they've prepared for delivery to those in need.
Two volunteers from The People's Pantry, seen with food they've prepared for delivery to those in need.

The premise behind the crisis relief project is simple: If you’re a hungry local disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, contact the group for free food.

Depending on what you pick, a grocery bundle and/or two days worth of meals will be safely delivered to your doorstep, no questions asked. If you have no fixed address, like several homeless people whose case workers have inquired on their behalf, a volunteer will meet you at a street corner. They won’t ask for anyone’s story, take anyone’s photo, or ask for gratitude, but they receive plenty of the latter.

Why no questions? Generosity with conditions prevents those falling through the cracks of pandemic relief efforts from reaching out, co-founder Andrea Román Alfaro told HuffPost Canada. The different walks of life that ask for meals range from people who say they “haven’t eaten in days” to people who are “having a really bad week, in terms of mental health.”

“We don’t seek to ask people whether they qualify for help or not,” she told HuffPost Canada.

What’s in the pantry

Deliveries: In their first month, CBC reports they made 200 deliveries. Now they average 300 deliveries and 160 grocery bundles per week.

Total expenses: Up to $8,000 a month, buffeted by an online crowdfunding campaign. Since April, they’ve spent $18,000 on food, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. Grocery deliveries on average are enough to feed a family of four for two days, with costs depending on how big families are.

People fed weekly: Román Alfaro estimates nearly 900 Torontonians. Most households are made up of three to four people, but they’ve served anywhere from single-person homes to families of 11.

Grocery bundle contents: A breakfast bundle includes milk, eggs, and oats. A pasta-based bundle and a legumes-based bundle are geared for lunch and dinner. Baked goods and kids’ snacks like Rice Krispies are also offered.

Bundle contents are mainly sourced by bulk grocery purchases by the team, financed by donations. Freely given products from bakers and other sources may also be included.

A volunteer poses with the contents of a care package, which include breakfast and hearty meal options. 
A volunteer poses with the contents of a care package, which include breakfast and hearty meal options. 

Meal contents: Subject to change, based on what’s available. Slow-roasted pork or chicken with vegetables, vegetarian lasagna, casseroles, tofu dishes, lentil stew and other hearty meals are among their recent offerings. Dietary needs like halal and allergy restrictions can be worked with.

Volunteer hours: Commitment levels vary, with one highly involved co-founder estimating they work around 15 hours per week on the project. While the pool of volunteers is large, helpers for the project’s sister initative, which serves the Halton region, are greatly needed.

The meals provided are all homecooked or made by charitable professional chefs currently unemployed because of economic downturn. 
The meals provided are all homecooked or made by charitable professional chefs currently unemployed because of economic downturn. 

Feeding hundreds is a tall order for any established organization, let alone a team of volunteers united through a Facebook post by local community advocate Ellie Ade Kur two months ago. She reached out with an offer to cook and deliver meals to disabled locals, as well as queer, trans, Black, and Indigenous people of colour. The proposal started in Kur and her partner’s kitchen, but soon was echoed by several others.

The direct delivery style was inspired in part due to concerns around hoarding and panic buying she heard, that made grocery shopping impossible for friends. The project’s core group — mostly women, people of colour, and queer, with Gracia as an openly trans co-founder — recognize that traditional aid like food banks have roadblocks for those who share their identities (which we discuss further down), as well as others on the margins.

It’s that same ethos that propels the group’s actions. Many involved with the group supported the Toronto anti-racism protest about Regis Korchinski-Paquet and police brutality. The Afro-Indigenous woman was a beloved gymnast and loved helping out at her church. Her death last week, following a 911 call meant to support her through mental distress, and the family’s statements about police being involved with Korchinski-Paquet’s fall off her family’s balcony has led to widespread calls for police accountability.

Since its inception, the group has made it a priority to support Black and Indigenous locals.

Who falls through the food relief cracks?

Low-income families, the immunocompromised, and students are among the predictable groups who have asked for no-strings-attached care packages.

For the People’s Pantry, who make up the city’s most affected became clear to them based on the frequency of requests, which can come from upwards of 300 households weekly: they make around 80 deliveries to North York, a borough in Toronto with high populations of visible minorities.

Over a million Torontonians access food banks per year, according to the Daily Bread’s latest annual report, which also notes that a quarter of users are Black and most spend 74 per cent of their salaries on rent.

Thanks to outreach efforts, older Afghani women, sex workers, and Latinx people are also communities the People’s Pantry has received requests through. Upon hearing that the latter had a hard time navigating English resources, the group set up a request team with Spanish-speaking volunteers.

Co-founder Jade Crimson Rose Da Costa, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably, coordinates deliveries for cities outside Toronto. Many of her calls come from single mothers in Hamilton living in food desert neighbourhoods; areas where fresh, affordable food is in short supply.

“They’ll have the choice between chicken and milk, but they’ll pick fruit. I think that says a lot about where they live, areas where they can’t get fresh produce,” they remarked. “I live in Burlington, a white middle-class space … I’m just transferring produce from the grocery stores here to lower-income places that don’t have access.”

For recipients, being truly seen by kind-hearted strangers is an important part of the process: volunteers trained to take calls note that they’ll spend longer on calls with seniors sometimes because they haven’t had a human connection in a while.

For those hoping to volunteer, filling out an online form is the first step. Besides cooking and delivering, administrative support helps behind-the-scenes work run smoothly.

“You need something? We show up,” Da Costa said. “Food is sustenance and obviously, that’s important. It’s what people need. But also people showing up and showing care, especially in the face of governments and institutions that aren’t showing up to take care of them.”

Roadblocks keep hungry locals away from support

How much money do you make? Where do you live? Can you show legal ID?

These are questions that hungry Canadians accessing food banks may need to answer, as prerequisites to using services. Should you not meet intake criteria or “means-testing” as Vancouver Food Bank does, it’s possible to be turned down. Several Toronto food banks collect information like income and housing status from prospective users in order to serve them.

Canadians that are eligible may find food banks lacking. They may need more food or visits than allotted; offerings may not meet dietary restrictions or be culturally-appropriate; they may not have time or capacity to arrange a trip. The pandemic has seen food bank usage spike tremendously across the country, making access even harder.

There are many reasons why Canadians go hungry, spanning beyond having little money or food bank access. As Gracia points out, racialized communities may historically be deprived of food aid and are therefore unable to get help.

“For Black, Indigenous, people of colour, they’re used to grinding, not having a lot, and never asking for help,” he said. “It’s hard for a lot of us, we put up with [food insecurity] no matter what ... it’s not that racialized communities don’t seek access to food; the system is so colonial and racist that folks have such a hard time trying to get access to it.”

Historical and continuing settler colonialism, such as policies that disrupted Indigenous’ ways of food production or the connection between land displacement and agriculture, are just some factors that may contribute to hunger among racialized communities.

What hinders The People’s Pantry, its lack of an institutionalized presence like a long-standing neighbourhood program or food bank might have, is also one of its biggest strengths. Unlike non-profits or registered charities, it isn’t beholden to legal rules that may dictate how they help people either. It’s made them a low-barrier proxy for like-minded community partners, like FoodShare Toronto, Unit 2, and Black Creek Community Farm, to distribute aid.

While it’s still too early to estimate when Ontario will enter the next stage of its pandemic reopening plan, the group believes it’ll be needed even once a vaccine is found; lost jobs and debts go hand-in-hand with food insecurity.

And although the project’s recipients are grateful for the support (comments on their Facebook include calling the volunteers “angels” for their work), Gracia points out that the relief distributed by initiatives like the People’s Pantry pale in comparison to what the City of Toronto could accomplish if they further fund groups like their partners and treat pandemic-related food insecurity with the same urgency that the project is.

“At the end of the day, this is political. Food is a basic right ... this is all to tell the City of Toronto that we need a better system,” he said.

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