The Stop Community Food Centre: Empowering People in Need

From foodtank.com, by Valerie Ward
The Stop Community Food Centre: Empowering People in Need

It began in a church basement in the 1970s as an emergency food bank serving Toronto’s low-income Davenport West neighborhood.

Since then, The Stop Community Food Centre has moved far beyond handouts to tackle the root causes of hunger and promote a more just, sustainable food system. Using an innovative mix of social enterprise and community partnerships, The Stop provides people in need with dignified access to good food, along with opportunities to grow, cook, share, and advocate for it. In the process, the groundbreaking nonprofit has won accolades from the likes of  TV chef Jamie Oliver and New York University’s Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health Marion Nestle. The Stop also founded Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), an organization driving the growth of similar centers across the country.

“Access to healthy food is a basic human right,” says The Stop’s executive director, Rachel Gray. “Making that access happen means looking at all causes of hunger and addressing them holistically. Besides low income, hunger can be related to many factors, such lack of access to stable employment, affordable transportation, or child care.”

The Stop created an array of programs that empower low-income people to socialize, improve their health, learn new skills, and boost their confidence. In addition to the food bank (which concentrates on local produce), these programs include a drop-in where people can enjoy a meal, meet others, and get information on social issues and community resources; an affordable food market that buys in bulk from local farmers and Toronto’s food distribution center; community gardens where participants learn to grow food sustainably; and classes and workshops on everything from cooking and nutrition to grassroots advocacy.

The Stop offers programs at the organization’s Davenport Road location and at the Green Barn, its six-year-old sustainable food production and education center. The Green Barn houses a 914.4-square-meter greenhouse, a year-round farmers market, a café, food gardens, a kitchen, bake oven, compost demonstration center, and space for cooking classes and after-school activities.

Last year, The Stop’s programs contributed about US$161,400 to the local food economy, and made a measureable difference for the thousands of people who use its services. The Stop communications manager Kathe Rogers confirms in the past year the organization has assisted nearly 20,000 people; served more than 53,000 free breakfasts and lunches at the drop-in; harvested more than 907 kilograms of food from its gardens and greenhouse; and distributed more than 10,000 emergency hampers of food.  According to a 2013 survey, 98 percent of participants said The Stop plays a major part in helping them cope.

Year after year, the most important benefit participants report is a sense of social inclusion. “People in poverty live with grinding isolation that’s intensified if they’re also dealing with mental illness or they’re new immigrants who speak a different language,” Gray says. “Nothing breaks down barriers like sharing a meal, and at The Stop that shared experience breeds friendships, along with better health, confidence, and support.”

The Stop’s compelling story, dedicated volunteers, skilled staff, and diverse funding base have propelled the nonprofit’s success. However, the depth of what The Stop offers is also the result of social enterprise savvy and strong relationships with like-minded farmers, distributors, and retailers. For example, a partnership with the New Farm north of Toronto raises money to subsidize production of the farm’s fresh organic produce for The Stop’s front-line services and community kitchens. This type of arrangement supports sustainable local farming and rural economies, while providing people in need with a steady supply of healthy fruit and vegetables.

In addition, The Stop taps into Toronto’s thriving high-end food scene, channeling money back to Davenport West from initiatives such as the Green Barn farmers market and café, as well as a series of gourmet dining fundraisers that feature top chefs and local food and beverages.

Even with popular and fruitful programs in place, The Stop consistently explores ways to further strengthen the local food sector and find opportunities for people outside the traditional job market. “We’re also looking at options for leveraging the CA$30 million [about US$24.4 million] that Toronto’s community services sector spends each year on food procurement,” Gray says. “Ordering locally produced food as a group would reduce costs, boost revenue for farmers, and bring healthier food to the community.”

“We’ll keep on fighting for a more just, equitable food system,” Gray adds. “We won’t be distracted.”