For millions of people across this country, struggling to put food on the table is a daily reality. While food insecurity is an issue many Canadians have heard about, most have not experienced it.
The Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank (TVFB) wants to change that by making hunger a personal experience. Not just forgetting to eat lunch because work’s been too busy but the fundraising initiative #Fast4Hunger challenges you to go hungry for 30 hours.
“Waking up hungry, going a regular day without food or coffee, and going to bed hungry is a small act of solidarity with the people we help,” said Matt Noble, founder and executive director of the TVFB.
Located at the Yonge Street Mission, the first thing you notice when you enter this unique food bank is boxes full of fresh produce. Like every food bank, the TVFB offers its users canned and packaged foods. But what sets it apart is the large selection of colourful fruits and vegetables, which makes up more than 60 per cent of the groceries provided to every user.
Noble, 36, started the food bank in 2015 as an intersectional project. “Not only are the people who rely on food banks the most vulnerable from a variety of marginalized groups but within that system, vegetarians and vegans are further marginalized by the lack of appropriate options,” he said. Noble is also against the exploitation of animals, so his goal, he says, is to help humans without hurting animals. Everything at the TVFB is vegan – made without any meat or animal products.
Daphne Vasquez, 48, was one of its first users. She’s been vegan for a few years and has been relying on food banks due to health issues and limited work ability. “TVFB is important because it’s the only food bank I’ve ever been to where I’m not judged for trying to pick the least rotten vegetable or checking ingredients, or asking for substitutes or trades for animal products,” said Vasquez.
“I am always treated with love, dignity and respect, which sadly I can’t say the same for regular food banks,” she added.
A common refrain that TVFB users and volunteers hear is “beggars can’t be choosers.” To that Kimberly Carroll, TVFB director and Noble’s partner, says, “Food banks are used by people who are already incredibly down on their luck and feeling desperate. We don’t want them to also have to compromise their health or ethics when they are already in such a tough place.”
The TVFB gives out a week’s worth of groceries to about 300 people every month. Held once a month, it includes a soup kitchen, where users can get a hot meal and socialize, and there are also nutrition consultants available to answer any questions relating to diet and healthy eating.
The food bank runs on monetary donations and support from a group of volunteers, said Noble. #Fast4Hunger is an annual awareness and fundraising campaign, and the goal for this year’s event on June 19 is to raise $20,000.
Noble said his and other food banks are not the answer to systemic problems of poverty and hunger, rather a band-aid solution. But, “hunger doesn’t wait for a policy change,” he said.
As people around the world become more informed about animal abuse and agriculture, its impact on the environment and the health issues associated with a high meat diet, many are adopting more plant-based options. As perspectives and eating habits change, the TVFB seems less like a service for a small community and more like something much needed in our society.
Noble said their plan is to keep growing and the next phase is likely a farm in partnership with an animal sanctuary. “So that some of our money will be spent on local, organic veggies while supporting the sanctuary, which is also very important to us.”
To participate in #Fast4Hunger or make a donation:
Photo: Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank executive director Matt Noble (far right, leaning) and director Kimberly Carroll with the volunteers in April.
Story written by Amar Shah, former journalist with CBC and CTV News.