Agency Profile: Room to Grow Empowers Participants

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When you picture a trip to a food bank, you probably don’t envision the most pleasant experience. And hey, that’s fair. While food banks are a vital community service, accessing them can sometimes be an embarrassing and anxiety inducing experience. To deal with this reality, North York Harvest, and food banks around Canada are investing in a model that helps make the experiencing of coming to a food bank more empowering and dignified for the participant.

If you read last week’s blog you know all about the “choice food bank model”, and have an understanding of why many food banks are making the switch to this system. But while you likely agree with the theory behind the choice model, making it work in practice, and having it fully adopted by a food bank is another story altogether. Has the choice model been successful with North York Harvest member agencies?

For the answers I went to Aja Peterson, North York Harvest’s Agency Development Coordinator who has been championing the choice model for many years and as part of North York Harvest’s Agency Investment Project. The program, generously funded by Trillium, the RBC Foundation and individual donors like you, is a three year pilot project designed to build the capacity of our member agencies and ensure that agency clients are receiving the most dignified service, are being connected to other support systems in the community, and are able to focus on their lives without worrying where their next meal will come from. The choice model aligns with all of these goals, making it a natural fit for agencies participating in the project.

“I think at its core the choice model helps people to better understand each other” Aja told me. “It breaks down stereotypes, and creates a more empowering environment, which is one of the Agency Investment Projects main objectives.”

Over the last few months Aja has been hard at work helping North York Harvest member agency Room to Grow Food Bank make the switch to the choice model. Operating out of Westway United Church, Room to Grow partners with the Room to Grow Child Centre, and serves low-income residents in the Central Etobicoke area.

When participants arrive at Room to Grow, rather than receiving a box of pre-picked items, they are encouraged to put together their own food hamper which will suit their own cultural and health requirements. The process has gone a long way towards empowering participants, but how has it worked for food bank staff and volunteers?

“Like any change, it was a bit scary at first, but the volunteers at Room to Grow were so receptive to new ideas, and really supported the transition to the choice model”, said Aja said. “They tell me all the time how great it is to interact with their fellow community members and how they are building more meaningful relationships, getting more face-to-face time with participants, and getting to know their stories and more about their families”.

Of course beyond volunteer adoption, there are many other factors that go into choice model integration. A project of this size requires capital, space, training, shelves, purchased food and staff support, which necessitates a large investment of time, resources and money. This is why we continue to look to your donations, as they ensure that programs like the choice model will continue to thrive.

When I ask Aja if she’s noticed any changes at Room to Grow since the transition she seems thrilled with the progress.

“Before the switch to the new model the division between the participants and volunteers was very pronounced. All the food was behind dividers which made the room feel dark and cramped, and bit suspicious because you couldn’t really see what was going on behind the walls. Now we’ve taken down the dividers and the room feels brighter, warmer and more welcoming. We have more space to walk around and it really feels like a community hub, rather then a waiting room.”

“Room to Grow is doing so well”, she continued. “They have the capacity, the right attitude and are really working hard to make sure that this project is successful.

Choice model food banks like Room to Grow aren’t just making the food bank experience more empowering, they are helping to build community and connection out of a very tough situation. We at North York Harvest know that the choice model is the best thing for our member agencies and hope that this system will become a staple of our organization.

What can you do to help? Help agencies like Room to Grow by making a donation today. Your support will enable NYH to continue investing in our agencies, providing training, building capacity like new shelves, storage or fridges as well as contribute to acquiring better food, which ensures that our participants have a greater variety of fresh and healthy food to choose from.


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