Grassroots group fills gap left by closed food bank in Scarborough, but lacks funding

Scarborough Food Security Initiative is delivering food to a thousand families in Scarborough southwest each week, to help fill the gap left by the the neighbourhood's only food bank, which is closed during the pandemic.

Volunteers now delivering food to 1K families a week in Scarborough Southwest

Suman Roy, founder of Scarborough Food Security Initiative, says there's a huge need for food in southwestern Scarborough where the only food bank closed because of the pandemic. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

Early in the COVID-19 lockdown, a volunteer from a Scarborough grassroots group was dropping off boxes of food for several families at an apartment building when word got out that there was food downstairs. 

Suddenly, dozens of people flooded the lobby. The volunteer left the food and ran out of the building to maintain physical distancing. 

For Suman Roy, the founder of Scarborough Food Security Initiative, the experience of his volunteer was just another example of the need in his neighbourhood, where the only food bank has closed because of the pandemic. Before shutting down, the Bluffs Food Bank was serving about 350 families a week.

"There was no access to food," Roy said. "Only in the last week slowly a couple of other small non-profits are opening back up some of their programs, but still there is a huge, huge need." 

Roy and his volunteers have been trying to help fill that need by delivering food to families that phone or email the initiative asking for food in southwestern Scarborough.

But funding the initiative — and other grassroots food organizations bridging the gap during COVID-19 — has proved to be a challenge. Groups are almost entirely dependent on donations and racing to partner with non-profits or charities to compete for federal grants.

Bluffs Food Bank put out flyers directing people in need to Suman Roy's grassroots group after the food bank shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

"I'm a chief executive beggar," Roy told CBC Toronto. "We are still looking at our community members who can donate, because that is our biggest form of funding right now. But how much can a person really donate?"

Scarborough Food Security Initiative received 375 calls for food in its second week of operations. Two months later, the group is now delivering food to more than 1,000 families a week. This effort costs more than $10,000, according to Roy. 

Since the initiative's deliveries started, a pop-up food bank was established at a local library. It's now open for two hours a week.

Ottawa gives $100M toward food security

Early last month, the federal government earmarked $100 million for supporting Canadians experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic. The funds were given to five national and regional organizations to be dispersed at the local level. 

Food Banks Canada received $50 million. Second Harvest, Community Food Centres Canada, Breakfast Club of Canada and Salvation Army each received $5 million. 

Scarborough Food Security Initiative is now delivering food to more than 1,000 families a week. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

The criteria for applicants includes having non-profit or charitable status as well as the intention to use the funds for emergency food relief. For grassroots groups, such as the initiative, that means they had to partner with an existing non-profit to apply.

The Scarborough Food Security Initiative got a $20,000 grant from Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC).

"We are really thankful for that, but it was nothing compared to what we asked for. We asked for $100,000," Roy said.

Roy noted his group is in almost $30,000 of debt after just a few weeks of operation. 

Organizations 'not getting their needs met'

Kathryn Scharf, CFCC's chief program officer, told CBC Toronto most of the grants given out were between $5,000 and $20,000.

"[The grants] are not going to be meeting the full needs of the community," Scharf said "The fact is that right now, every organization is not getting their needs met."

Second Harvest, one of the other four organizations that received funds, said it got $10 million worth of grant requests — double the amount of money it was given by the government. 

Chief executive Lori Nikkel noted the five agencies are keeping tracking of where they have dispersed the federal money to ensure they wouldn't double up and could collectively provide support to as many different groups as possible.

Scarborough Food Security Initiative got permission to use Warden Woods Community Centre as their own home base, while the centre’s own programs are shut down. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

It's still unclear when the remaining $30 million the federal government has allocated for food security will be distributed.

In a statement, the federal agriculture minister's office told CBC Toronto that organizations who received some of the initial $70 million will be eligible again, but the ministry "is also working with other organizations where gaps are identified."

'The need is rapidly growing'

East Toronto Food Coalition (ETFC) is delivering hampers of food to families in the Beaches and East York. 

Most of the food ETFC gets each week comes from founder Ally Lariviere calling around to various grocery stores and local businesses and asking for donations. 

And she said every week her volunteers are making more and more deliveries. 

"The need is rapidly growing," Lariviere said. "A lot of people have lost their job so they're experiencing poverty for the first time."

Ally Lariviere, founder of East Toronto Food Coalition, says most of her grassroots group's food comes from calls she makes to local grocers and businesses asking for donations. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

ETFC is working toward obtaining its own non-profit status. Until then, Lariviere says it will continue to apply for grants through a partnership with its local legion, which is letting the coalition use its space to store and sort food. 

Scarborough Food Security Initiative also received permission from its non-profit partner to use existing space. The group is using Warden Woods Community Centre as its home base, while the centre's own programs are shut down to maintain physical distancing. 

Roy doesn't know where the initiative will go once the community hub needs its space back, but he's now registered the group as a non-profit of its own.

In the meantime, the deliveries have meant that regular Bluffs Food Bank users, such Derek Harper, can get by without having to travel out of their neighbourhood. 

Derek Harper normally gets food from the Bluffs Food Bank, but since it's closed he has been getting deliveries from the Scarborough Food Security Initiative. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

"It's good because I'm in a scooter with mobility issues," said Harper. "With delivery here … you don't have to worry about distance."

For Roy, delivering food is a "band-aid" solution. And while it's unclear what the need for food will look like in his community once the food bank reopens, he says his neighbourhood will need some kind of support for years to come as a result of COVID-19.

"After we get out of this we want to start training people in culinary, in hospitality, get them ready to be employable so they can get a job," Roy said.

"That is how the economy is going to eventually work."

On Saturday night, more than $3,000 was raised for Roy's initiative through an online event hosted by the Scarborough Bluffs Community Association.

If you're looking to find out where you can access food in Ontario call 2-1-1.


Nicole Brockbank

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Nicole Brockbank is a reporter for CBC Toronto's Enterprise Unit. Fuelled by coffee, she digs up, researches and writes original investigative and feature stories.

With files from Farrah Merali


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