No bus ride, no forms, just food — how tiny charity startups have pushed big players to change

Free pantries, mutual aid, pay-what-you-can stores — informal food assistance surged in popularity during the pandemic. But insiders say this isn't slowing down and it's challenging the formal charity sector to drop its barriers.

'We've now entrenched this as part of our system,' says Vibrant Communities Calgary

Volunteer Grace Tessman in the parking lot of Community Kitchen's Spinz-A-Round program with a truck load with donated food. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

The little free food pantry in Dover was hand-painted and built of reclaimed metal cabinets. But someone smashed it, maybe with a truck.

At another pantry, the team struggled to keep anything on the shelves. One particular resident would watch for the drop-off truck, then scurry out with garbage bags to empty it.

The group of volunteers in Greater Forest Lawn can tell other stories, too: food has been trashed, and a different angry neighbour forced one pantry to move. But none of that has stopped them.

These women have been picking up donated food and filling pantries weekly for three years. 


"When we go and drop stuff off at the pantries, if there's people there, they're just so grateful. They thank us and tell us we're angels," said volunteer Grace Tessman. "I get pretty choked up over those kinds of things because I don't feel like an angel. I just try to do my part."

This project in east Calgary is an example of the kind of informal help — pantries, community fridges, Facebook groups, drop-ins at a church or gurdwara, pay-what-you-can stores and mutual aid societies — that surged in popularity during the pandemic.

It's based on volunteers, can seem haphazard and lacks some of the food custody system developed in the formal food bank charity sector.

But insiders say these efforts aren't slowing and that's challenging the formal charity sector to be different, too.

In a photo from this summer, Tessman checks one of the little free food pantries she stocks in the Greater Forest Lawn area. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

"I have not seen a drop off at all," says Meaghon Reid, head of Vibrant Communities Calgary, which has been studying and now measuring the size of this informal response.

"(Instead), we've heard of more initiatives fostering that informal system. More pantries, more community fridges that are anonymous, that people can just go to. And traffic on those groups like YYC Volunteers and the community groups, they have as much traffic … as they did near the beginning of COVID.

"We've now entrenched this as part of our system."

Reid says the benefit of the formal food bank system is its size and longevity — it can raise and distribute massive amounts of food, has been doing so for decades. Plus, it has protocols in place to ensure the food doesn't go bad.

But many people are turning to the informal system in addition or instead of the formal food bank system.

Clearly, says Reid, there is still an unmet need.

Tessman selects food for six little free food pantries in Greater Forest Lawn at the Community Kitchen's Spinz-A-Round program in Calgary. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

In Greater Forest Lawn, this group of residents started the free food pantry program in 2018, after seeing neighbours struggle to get to large charities on the bus, feel shame accessing help or come home with strange vegetables and cans they had no idea how to use.

Tessman got involved because she's been in that situation herself. When her husband got sick, she quit her job to care for him, and when he passed away, his disability cheques ended, too.

Others pitched in to help her through that difficult time.

"I (still) don't have a lot of money, so this is kind of my way of saying thank you, and I'm trying to help everyone else," she said. "We figure that we reach about 500 families per month. So on average, that's a pretty good chunk."

Tessman's group started with one pantry and slowly expanded to six, in Forest Lawn, Dover, Pembrooke and other areas.

They fill them with free bread and donated dried goods she's able to pick up on Thursdays from the Community Kitchen's Spinz-A-Round program. She drives her own truck to do it and has spent a lot on gas, she says. But it's worth it.

Talking with others who run these programs, they say many people can't or don't want to have to prove they're in need. They might not have the paperwork, or they're embarrassed, or they don't have transportation to get to a formal food bank depot and dread the bus ride home with kids and large bags of food.

Or they work a low-paying job and can't get there during business hours.

Volunteer Debbie Naslovar shows off donated pomegranate seeds that she knows will make Spanish seniors and families in her community smile. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Plus, accessing help from community groups can feel more natural. They become part of something where they can also give back.

Many informal networks exist purely on volunteers and personal donations. The Spinz-A-Round program that Tessman goes to is an example of a hybrid — a formal system helping dozens of informal efforts to thrive. The warehouse is full of donated food that individual community groups can access.

Debbie Naslovar, who was packing donated pomegranates and cheese into her truck at Spinz-A-Round on Thursday, says the informal approach is better for the Spanish-speaking seniors who seek help through the bilingual Love in Action Christian Centre.

It creates a neighbourhood hub, focused around food, where families also find help if they need an immigration advocate or housing, added Brenda Penny, picking up food for the Ogden Victory Church.

Brenda Penny picks up food for the Ogden Victory Church's food programs. Despite encouraging job numbers, she's still seeing people struggle to find work in her neighbourhood after the economic downturn and pandemic layoffs. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Outside Spinz-A-Round, too, Prudence Iticka argues this new, informal approach can be more culturally appropriate. 

She helped start a mutual aid effort called Black People United a year ago to deliberately create a less charity-based, less individualistic model. That means handing out food hampers but also trying to get to know families and organizing community picnics and potlucks.

"It's inspired by our values as African people; we're driven by those communal values. We don't believe in the nuclear family of mom/dad/the children," she said. "It's very much the extended family and just looking out for people."

Prudence Iticka helped found a mutual aid society during the summer of 2020 called Black People United. On Saturdays, they work out of the Jamaican Canadian Hall. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

At Vibrant Communities Calgary, Reid says she's already seeing this movement spark changes in the formal charity sector. One moved to handing out grocery gift cards instead of food. Major funders have started gathering key leaders to talk about access and co-operation, and there's a lot of informal conversation on-going, too.

Her team's initial report in March caused some controversy, she says, because it criticized barriers to getting help in the formal sector. A second report is scheduled for February. But she says the goal is not to tear anyone down, it's to encourage all the players — formal and informal — to learn from and support each other.

"The end of the day," Reid says, "we want somebody who taps into their browser: 'I don't have food for me and my family tonight' to easily be able to find the solution to get food for them and their family — not next Tuesday, not tomorrow, but tonight.

"We have to learn from the best of what's working," she added. "What's working is that informal, responsive, meet-people-where-they're-at model."

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Elise Stolte


Elise Stolte has 15 years of experience telling the stories of her community and has been recognized for feature writing, social-impact and community-based journalism. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal and joined CBC Calgary last year. You can reach her at


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