There's a bright, cheery atmosphere to this Saturday indoor market setup. The afternoon sun bathed the room in a bright and warm light. Bob Marley was playing overhead. The tables lining the green walls looked like they were going to buckle under the weight of the mountains of kale, fat bell peppers, and shiny red apples.
It's a stark contrast to what people might imagine a typical food bank would look like. There's laughter, music, and people choosing between sweetened and unsweetened soy milk. I could have used a place like this when I was laid off from my last job. But even if I wanted to, I would have been turned away because I enjoy the occasional burger.
The Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank is exactly what it sounds like, a non-profit food bank that caters strictly to vegetarians and vegans who find that traditional food banks are lacking in fresh produce and non-meat options. When applying as a client, people are asked if they have purchased chicken or fish. If they say yes, they're told they wouldn't be able to use the bank's services.
"We can't serve everybody, and if we did, vegetarians would be screwed again," says the food bank's 32-year-old vegan director, Matt Noble. "So we have turned people away if they said they ate meat, but we refer them to other programs that'll help them out."
In a time when foodie-ism has out-parodied itself with self-diagnosed gluten intolerances, organic gummy bears, and celebrity-endorsed charcoal cleanses, the idea of a vegetarian food bank may sound absurd, but considering more Ontarians are turning to food banks, it doesn't hurt to have more food options. Across Canada, about 800,000 people turn to the nation's 450 food banks. That's also the approximate number of visits Toronto's food banks receive each year. Other organizations that have popped up in recent years as another way to help low-income families with access to healthy foods include The Stop Community Food Centre, Food Share, and Community Food Centres.
"We want the food bank system to reflect the city's diverse diets and needs," says Noble, who also is a staunch animal rights activist. "Food banks are in place because people are down on their luck. We don't want people to sacrifice their health or morals because of that. We also get people whose doctors told them to stop eating meat or cut down on sugar, so that's why they're here."
The TVFB is a continuation of sorts from the now-shuttered Ontario Vegetarian Food Bank, which ran for five years in Toronto's suburbs since 2008. Back then, Noble was keen on opening a downtown location, so he secured a spot in a community centre in the city's downtown east end. Things were put to a halt when the food bank's founder died in 2013, shutting down the food bank indefinitely. With an empty space and growing uncertainty that the Ontario chapter ever reopen (it never did), Noble decided to start his own food bank.
Starting from scratch, Noble crowdsourced $10,000 in online donations to open the TVFB, which operates like a pop-up on the third Saturday of every month. This past January, 36 people showed up, followed by 57 in February, 88 in March, and today they're expecting 100.
The people who show up at this bank are as diverse as the city itself: students, newly-landed immigrants, elderly women with festively decorated walkers, middle-aged men, moms with their kids in tow, people of all ethnicities and ages. It's far from the granola crowd you'd expect.
"I lost my job as a hotel manager in December, so I'm in a financial situation that's new to me," says Ann, 39, who's been at this food bank twice before. "I'm vegetarian and I'm so grateful that there's fresh produce here. I want people to know that there are options, so embrace the help that's available."
Musician Jocelyn, 28, is here for the first time, saying that she's drawn to the bank's commitment to have fresh produce as half of its offerings. "I've been to other food banks where a lot of the vegetables were canned. It wasn't bad, but I don't see why there can't be more variety. It's always a good thing to have more to offer. People have to eat."
New clients meet with volunteers who go over their financial situation and household size to assess how much food they can get. After that, a volunteer guides them around the room to each table asking what they'd like, not unlike having a personal shopper.
They start at the grains and legumes station with reusable bags of flour, rice, dried chickpeas and lentils, packets of oatmeal, box of whole wheat spaghetti. Then it's to the soy milk, canned tomato sauce, granola bars, bread, and tofu. Finally it's the wall of produce stocked with limes, apples, peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, garlic, broccoli bananas, and oranges.
For the most part, people are conservative in what they take, as one woman was overheard saying, "Oh, I still have the rice from last time. Same with the spaghetti. I'll take some broccoli, but a small one is enough." Another one told her personal shopper, "I didn't use up the tofu last time, so I better not take any today."
People are cautious with what they're putting in their bags, and so is Noble when asked about long-term goals as there are only enough funds to keep the monthly food bank open till July, maybe August. It's a barebones operation: Noble is a custom millworker during the day, so most of his fundraising and organizing efforts are done in the evenings and weekends. The food bank's number is his cell phone, so he's constantly fielding queries from the public and what he hopes are potential sponsors. He drives to the food warehouse in the morning to stock his car full of vegetables. His sister and her boyfriend serve free bowls of soup upstairs.
Downstairs, Noble's mom wrangles all the people who come in. "Why are you only open once a month? We need to eat," an elderly woman asks her upon entering. His mom holds her hand and says, "We know, and we're doing our best."
"Ideally a food bank would never be necessary," says Noble, as he stops mid-sentence to answer another call. "But right now, we're just trying to get to the end of the year."