From fresh fruits to tofu to plant-based milks, the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank is known across the city for its healthy, vegan-friendly options — and on Saturday, it served its 50,000th meal.
The service, which volunteer executive director Matt Noble calls the only one of its kind in the city, is held once a month at Yonge Street Mission.
Featuring a mix of fresh produce and other eco-friendly options, the pop-up food bank — launched back in January 2015 — caters to vegetarian and vegan clientele, who may have strict dietary needs or a personal preference for meat-free foods.
Ashley Mackay, who has been a strict vegetarian for the last five years, is one of many Torontonians who says she has often found herself forced to compromise on her diet because of her financial circumstances.
And when she told a Toronto food bank she was vegetarian, the list of things she could take home shrunk immediately.
"You pretty much get a lot of prepared things," Mackay said, recalling that a food bank once offered her a pack of cookies because their fresh food options were so limited.
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When she found out about the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank two years ago, Mackay said she stopped visiting other ones.
Food bank allows vegetarians choice not to compromise
Noble explained that food banks often prioritize options that are high in protein and other nutrients, such as eggs and milk, along with items that have a long shelf life.
That can leave many who either choose a plant-based diet or are required to be on one by their doctor in a tough spot.
"We want to not have people put in a position where they have to choose between feeding themselves or harming another being," said Noble, who has been a vegan for the last seven years.
When a colonoscopy revealed polyps two years ago, the importance of the diet became even clearer to Noble.
"I kind of used that to inspire the food that we serve here," he said.
Healthiest diets at bottom of food chain: dietician
The food bank purchases all its items wholesale with more than 60 per cent of its budget going towards fresh fruit and vegetables. Users can also get free nutritional advice from volunteer registered dietician Pamela Ferguson.
"It doesn't have to be expensive to eat a healthy diet," Ferguson said. "The healthiest diets are at the bottom of the food chain."
On its opening day, the food bank served 38 people. Now their clients number around 250.
But beyond the numbers, Noble is most proud to offer an option that allows people to maintain their diet no matter what their financial situation.
"We don't think that people's dignity should be sacrificed because they're down on their luck."
Their next pop-up food bank is happening on December 17.
Sounds of the Season is CBC Toronto's annual charity drive. Please visit our website for details on the Dec. 2 event and how you can support local food banks.