It was a beautiful spring morning when I arrived at the Church of Ascension in Toronto’s Don Mills neighbourhood. I was there to visit Community Share Food Bank, one of the larger North York Harvest member agencies, who are trying to bring a higher degree of dignity to the food bank experience.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably created a composite sketch in your mind of what the typical food bank would look like: cramped quarters, long lines, and worried faces might come to mind. But walking in the front door of Community Share I was struck by the warm and familiar environment that was in front of me. I was greeted by several smiling volunteers who walked me past tables and chairs that were arranged throughout the large gymnasium space to create a waiting area that felt like a neighbourhood café. Clients sipped coffee, ate some cake and chatted with neighbours and volunteers.
“Sometimes people come just for the fellowship”, said Sherrie, a delightfully enthusiastic volunteer who has worked at community share for the past two years. “We have clients who will come multiple times before they take any donations; they just feel accepted and want to be part of a welcoming environment.”
Sherrie is one of the nearly 100 volunteers that help support Community Share’s weekly programs. The food bank runs twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and offers clients pre-made food hampers, as well as access to a clothing closet, and a referral service. On any given day they can serve up to 70 families.
Beyond food and clothing distribution the organization has evolved into a multi-purpose community agency partnering with neighbourhood organizations like Better Living, Overland School, Don Mills Family Health Team and Toronto Employment Services. They are currently working on building a community kitchen program in partnership with the Flemington Community Health Centre, and have a very successful and beautiful garden which provides produce to the food bank. They recently offered a Safe Food Handling training certification course that was well attended, and in the near future hope to offer a container gardening workshop.
When I remarked to Sherrie how upbeat the mood of the room was, she seemed happy, but unsurprised. “We try to make coming to the food bank a more intimate experience. We get to know our clients and try to find out what they need. Maybe that’s trying to remember their taste in food, or keeping an eye out for specialized clothing items like a warmer coat or maternity clothes.”
With food bank use up across the province, Community Share has seen an influx in first time users, and from what I saw it’s clear that they have endeavoured to make it their initial experience a dignified one. “Obviously most of these people are not in a place where they want to be”, said Sherrie. “We try to be extra welcoming, because it’s got to be difficult for new users, the idea that this is reality.”
When I spoke with Melissa, a client, she was candid about how hard the adjustment can be. “Many of the people who come here are smart people who had good jobs. But things can happen. I know, because they happened to me” she said. “I worked at a corporate company for 40 years, but had to leave after a very bad bout of depression. Soon my money ran out and I had to start coming here, which was difficult at first, but becomes easier after some repetition. It helps that everyone is so nice, and non-judgemental. “
Like many of the clients, Melissa also volunteers her time at Community Share, feeling a need to contribute to the place that had provided so much assistance. “I can’t imagine just coming here and getting the food. Being a volunteer gives me sense that I’m giving back, and working for what I’m getting”
When it comes to food distribution, Community Share works with North York Harvest Food Bank, and also has a small purchasing budget to make sure their shelves are full. Joyce, one of the longest serving volunteers has been with Community Share since the beginning and has seen first-hand the progress the organization has made. “I started volunteering here about 12 years ago, and it’s been exciting to watch whole thing grow over time” she told me. “The process has become so much more organized, and standardized which has allowed us to establish a better and more regular service”.
Still, she stressed that working at an organization so dependent on donations can be hard, and that sometimes the demand can outweigh their ability to provide. “One of our biggest problems is getting too much of one type of food, and not enough of another. We are always short on canned fish, canned fruits and vegetables, chickpeas and lentils. Diapers as well are something that our clients are consistently looking for, that we can’t always deliver.”
Around 11:30 am the food bank began to shut down for the day. Some clients had left by this point, but others stuck around to help pack up and share a few words with many of the volunteers. The warm, smiles that had greeted me when I first arrived had not faded away from frustration. Instead, people seemed more optimistic than ever. It was clear to me that Community Share has become more to its users then a place to get their next meal. To them it represented acceptance, understanding and hope for the future.
To support our member community agencies like Community Share, please make a donation to the North York Harvest Food Bank today.
Please note: some of the individuals interviewed for this piece have had their names changed for privacy.