Jamaican Canadian Association extends free meal delivery program as pandemic continues

A program organized by Community Strong and the Jamaican Canadian Association has been helping seniors and others during the COVID-19 pandemic by delivering free meals to hundreds of people on weekends.

Program started 21 weeks ago but there's still strong demand, organizers say

Meals to Go, a partnership between a group called Community Strong and the Jamaican Canadian Association, delivers approximately 300 meals each weekend. (CBC)

When the organizers of Meals to Go started the program at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the plan was to have it run for just a few weeks.

But Danae Peart, one of the coordinators, said there was such an overwhelming response, they have decided to keep the program going.

The partnership between a group called Community Strong and the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) is run by a small but mighty team, which also includes Elaine Thompson, three chefs, and volunteer drivers who deliver approximately 300 meals each weekend.  

"We started 21 weeks ago and for sure did not expect it to go this long but the need remains," Peart told CBC News.

"In fact the need grew over the weeks … so now we're going longer. This is going into September at this rate."

Danae Peart, one of the coordinators of Meals to Go, says due to an overwhelming response to the program, they have decided to keep it going. (CBC)

At the start of the program Jamaica National Bank and Money Transfer funded the equivalent of two weeks' supply of meals, while individual donors also contributed cash, food and other supplies.

"The community that we belong to, they pull together when times are tough. What I've learned is if we make an appeal to the community that makes sense, they will rally and support," Peart explained.

She said her group also made use of a good relationship with Second Harvest, a charity that rescues unsold food that might otherwise be wasted, saying they "were a source of funds as well as in-kind donations."

TO Supports Investment Fund

Due to the overwhelming demand, Peart said they've applied to the city for funding, which they expect to receive in another week or so.

In June, Mayor John Tory announced that approximately $4.97 million would be distributed from the TO Supports Investment Fund to community-based agencies supporting vulnerable populations impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fund was created from $2.81 million of the city's allocation from the province's Social Services Relief Fund, and $370,000 from the Scheinberg Relief Fund through the Better Toronto Coalition Fund, an initiative associated with the Toronto Foundation that helps direct financial support from donors to people who are most in need due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the city, the work that Toronto's community-based agencies do daily to serve the needs of vulnerable residents, families and neighbourhoods is critically important.

Meals being packaged for delivery by the Meals to Go program run by Community Strong and the Jamaican Canadian Association. (CBC)

"During this pandemic, the community-based sector is needed more than ever," the city said in a news release.

Over the past months, Peart said one of the most important things she's learned is that you can't tell by looking what somebody's needs are.

"We've gone to every part of the GTA to deliver food — seniors' residences, homes, apartment buildings," she said. 

"We have individuals who are homeless access us and we've had community social workers reach out to us and pick up meals to service their community as well," Peart added.

"A lot of people think we're just serving Jamaican food and we're just serving Jamaicans. Yes, we're here for our community but there are other individuals who are having challenges and have precarious income and those individuals have accessed us."

Peart said the meals are inspired by Jamaican and Caribbean culture with one of their chefs being Jamaican, and another Trinidadian.

Glenford Gordon, who has been with the JCA for 25 years, said when they made a call for volunteers to help with delivering the meals, he quickly signed up.

"It's just what we do. It's good to see the smile on people's faces when you do things that they appreciate, so it's good," Gordon told CBC News. 

"[The seniors are] grateful. Yes, they're appreciative of what we're doing. We're fulfilling a need, so they're appreciative"

Elaine Thompson says the community has shown up in many ways to assist the program. (CBC)

'Community is fully on board'

Thompson has expressed gratitude to all who have been assisting and volunteering with Meals to Go over the past 21 weeks.

"We have rotated about 30 to 35 drivers so far in the role of delivering meals and that's 100 per cent community support," Thompson said. 

"The community has shown up in other ways. They have donated funding, however small or however their means could allow. They have participated as well, so the community is fully on board."

With files from Nazima Walji