How a Scarborough organization is helping people feel better about using food banks
Food banks will look like supermarkets and allow clients to 'shop' for items they want
Inside a vacant space in a newly built condo tower on Scarborough's southwest side, rows of shelves are lined with everything from chickpeas and pasta to toiletries and fresh vegetables. In the back, freezers and refrigerators are packed with meats, cheeses, milk, and eggs.
By the exit, two cashiers check clients out. It might look like a small supermarket but it's actually a food bank set up to restore dignity and respect to people who find themselves having to ask for help.
"Food is a human right in this country and we recognize that," explained Suman Roy. "We decided to set up a system which is more dignified; people have their own choices."
Roy is the founder of Feed Scarborough, which operates the food bank at Danforth Avenue and Kingston Road. He says the new space is challenging the way food banks are run. The organization now operates four food banks in a community where COVID-19 has had a severe economic impact on Black, Indigenous and other people of colour.
The non-profit organization, which serves more than 1,000 households every week, changed its approach just two weeks ago, opening its doors to clients to "shop" at their own pace.
"Patrons of the food banks will now book an appointment to visit us, bring their own reusable shopping bag, collect their preloaded Feed Scarborough shopping card, shop with their household allocated budget, and check out with a cashier just as they would at any grocery store," Roy told CBC Toronto.
The new distribution system allows clients to walk in and select from a variety of food items labelled by a point system.
Only four clients are allowed in at a time by appointment to allow for physical distancing. Before they can get in and get a shopping cart, patrons are given a COVID-19 check.
"As soon as they walk in there is a COVID station where we are checking their temperatures," Roy said.
This model is not a new concept. Neither is the point system that Feed Scarborough has adopted. It was created by the Daily Bread Food Bank, which has been guiding the group.
What is novel, says Roy, is the prepaid card each client receives with points that correspond to the number of people in their household. They can use it like a prepaid credit card.
Clients can save any points they don't use and use them the week after. Roy says that allows clients to budget and get what they need when they need it most.
It feels like shopping 'with my own money,' client says
It's the sense of respect that matters to Dawit Gulta, a translator who was laid off in September when the legal firm he worked at closed due to COVID-19.
"The previous model you had to wait outside for an hour, or if you come late some items could run out so you have to come early, like an hour early, to line up," Gulta told CBC News.
"It feels like I'm shopping [with] my own money."
Feed Scarborough has only been up and running for the past eight months and was created when COVID-19 forced the only food bank in the community to shut down, leaving almost 350 households vulnerable during the pandemic.
The organization's original intent was only to raise awareness about food insecurity and poverty in its Scarborough community, but it then quickly pivoted to door-to-door delivery.
"The need is great in these areas with the new immigrants;" said Roy, adding that food insecurity "affects the BIPOC population a lot more than others."
Three of the four food banks his organization operates will allow clients to select their own food instead of receiving a pre-packed or standard bag of groceries. In the fourth food bank, the limited space won't allow clients to browse, but they will be able to check off items from a list and ask volunteers to fill their bags..
Feed Scarborough says this method will ensure clients can choose from items that are culturally appropriate and lead to less food waste.
Sue Saunders, who is on Ontario Disability, says it offers her a sense of independence and gives her the chance to get her daughter something special.
"It gives people more pride coming into a food bank and asking for help," she said, rather than being handed a box of food, "and saying, 'This is what you are going to eat.'"
Roy, who has been involved with food security in Toronto for the last 18 years, says food banks are only a band-aid solution, but he hopes that at least this small change will make a difference.
"This model will not make systemic governmental changes. However, what this model will do is change the quality of life for the client," he said.
"We are treating people with respect and we are telling them that it is not charity. It's not just giving you a handout ... You have a right in this country and we are just helping you attain that right."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.