Community Food Agency Profile

Agency Profile 8: The Four Villages Community Health Centre

The Four Villages Community Health Centre (CHC) seeks a healthy food impact that goes beyond their many food and nutrition-related programs. They provide vouchers for a local Junction Farmers’ Market to their clients who are food insecure. They started a breakfast club, $1 for a healthy breakfast, in a local community housing building as well as the Good Food Box program at their Dundas location. Both Four Villages’ locations Bloor and Dundas have emergency food cupboards and their registered dietitians have a limited supply of emergency food coupons for clients in need.

Four Villages offers nutrition programs which teach people how to make healthy food from scratch and on a low budget including: how to make baby food, and how to include more fruits and vegetables in daily meals. Their prenatal/postnatal program for women at risk Healthy Women, Healthy Babies provides food vouchers and a dietitian advice and has succeeded in 100% babies born to the women in the program with above average weight.

The Four Villages Community Health Centre has co-developed and adopted the “Healthy Eating Guidelines” for food procurement now in force at several community health centres across the city. These guidelines specify everything from the nutritional value of the food to be offered in programs or meetings to a preference for Ontario-grown products. With small volumes of food for an array of programs and program staff, they rely on the local supermarkets for most of their supplies. Four Villages seeks to balance the immediacy of hunger with helping clients to access healthier food through its programs or community outlets, and learn/improve food skills and nutrition knowledge.


Although they have significant expertise around cooking, they have not been able to mobilize funding for a food oriented staff position yet. The development of the healthy eating guidelines and an introduction of the food security chart audit have helped bring staff together to increase awareness of and discuss food and food security issues and how they can be best approached by Four Villages. This is an ongoing conversation that can involve many people from different perspectives of community health. Recently dietitians from the two sites joined the Food Flow project at the Community Chef workshops, and provided valuable insights into nutritional issues for community meal provision.





Agency Profile 7: Gathering for Good Food: Sistering

Sistering operates two drop in centres in West downtown Toronto for homeless, at-risk and socially isolated women, of diverse ages, backgrounds and challenges. The majority of women that visit the drop ins are living on the street, in hostels, shelters or unsafe housing. They have fallen through the cracks in the traditional and social service systems. They are alone, and have no other supports in their lives. Chronic physical and mental health problems, substance use, lack of skills, language and cultural barriers compound their marginalization.

Food (a link to video) is central to Sistering programming, and is the main connecter for women to vital services and supports they need to rebuild their lives. Daily nutritious breakfasts and hot lunches constitute our Food Access program, which is one component of the practical supports we provide to women in both programs. Every day, Sistering serves breakfast, lunch and snacks to between 245 and 300 women, at a cost between 2.44 and 3.00 per meal. Last year, Sistering served more than 145,000 lunches and snacks at the Bloor Street Drop In centre, and 14,440 lunches at the Outreach Program in Parkdale.


While Sistering regularly receives donated food from Second Harvest and Daily Bread, they must also purchase food in order to meet the demand. Sistering staff organize weekly visits to the Ontario Food Terminal, in order to achieve savings. Purchases and donations are supplemented with purchases from Skors (a cash and carry wholesaler) and No Frills. Food purchases are coordinated between the two locations. The recently renovated kitchen makes a big difference in the daily preparation of hundreds of meals. In an effort to maximize kitchen utilization the agency is interested in presenting food workshops and renting it to like-minded caterers for special events.

Sistering has helped Food Flow identify some of its core solutions for agency food challenges. The agency’s wish list includes a need for a non-profit wholesaler that can take care of some of the purchasing arrangements for them, including farm seconds and other surplus or bulk priced local food supply. Although they have been resourceful with direct food purchases and effective sourcing for a healthy menu, it remains an activity that they would be willing to offload, at least partially, to another like-minded organization. In addition, Sistering faces the same problem as other agencies, with respect to receiving surplus donations of one item. Currently, such items are stored or shared with other agencies. They report that it would be great to have the produce delivered to a processing kitchen that would contact agencies and distribute food products to other agencies in need. Like other agencies, Sistering is also interested in group purchasing opportunities for equipment.





Agency Profile 6: “Everybody has gifts they can give”: Mustard Seed

“Everybody has skills and everybody has gifts that they can give”

– Anne LeFresne, Program Director, Mustard Seed, a ministry of the Fontbonne Ministries.


The mandate at Mustard Seed is to nurture community. Though food is not the focus, they say that the search to build community for those who are alienated often leads to food: “So much evolves from food”. The drop-in centre is small but vibrant; upstairs there is another ministry, Fontbonne Place, with housing for single women over 40. The Mustard Seed has a Tuesday community kitchen meal, a lunch program for the sewing and craft group, and a Friday and a Saturday (winter only) drop in with some food, and a variety of workshops on healthy eating. They are a ministry of the Fontbonne Ministries, Sisters of St. Joseph, which came to Toronto in 1851 to provide care and support during an epidemic.

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Like many faith-based community agencies, they have a network of supporters, volunteers and donors that are somewhat different from other agencies. Supporters range from the Daughters of Isabella and the East Toronto Rotary Club, to the church that gives them cash cards they can use at a local supermarket. They even have a small vegetable garden that they are expanding thanks to a dedicated volunteer. They are a member of Not Far From The Tree, a fruit sharing program, which harvests and shares excess fruit from urban fruit trees. A volunteer from a nearby church drives to local bakeries to pick up donations of bread and pastries. Mustard Seed is also a founding member of the Riverdale Food Working Group whose aim is to assist low income people to access healthy food.


Sister Gwen Smith, Director and founder of Mustard Seed, managed the first community kitchen in Toronto at King and Dunn, inspired by a dietitian from Montreal. She assisted in the launch of community kitchens in various neighbourhoods to address a range of issues beyond food security. These include social well-being and reducing loneliness, managing a budget, learning how to shop and cook after deinstitutionalization, “food on delivery” for undocumented pregnant women, psychiatric outpatients, newcomers, residents of group homes going out on their own, and, importantly, outreach for people to volunteer to improve the general understanding of poverty and hunger.

The meal programs at the Mustard Seed are to build community, inclusive of everyone. Alleviation of hunger may be one outcome of their work, but the overall goal is a systemic shift to a community that can include all neighbours of any class, social status, age, etc. For the Mustard Seed, the vision is a meal program “not because people are hungry, but because they want to be together”.



Agency Profile 5: “Food makes it all happen”: Faith-based drop-in meal program case study

Welcome to the Church of the Redeemer
Mobilizing hundreds of volunteer hours every week to shop, plan meals, prepare and serve, the Church of the Redeemer in the Toronto core feeds over 100 people every day of the week. They report that “food is part of everything we do”. The daily meal program offers a substantial hot breakfast and lunch; there is a community kitchen that cooks two meals and focuses on healthy meal preparation in the kind of facilities common to the marginally housed. All programs have food of some kind. All the programs except the community kitchen are drop-in.

Food Philosophy
They see food as vital: “Food helps make things special…It really does bring people together in a really beautiful way…It nourishes us and gives us something in common: we’re all eating the same food, we’re all in the same room”. They have a social justice and advocacy approach at the Church. The website states “as Jim Wallis (preacher, founded Sojourners”) once said, ‘You can’t just pull bodies out of the river and not send somebody upstream to see what or who is throwing them in’.”

They work to help people as individuals but also work for systemic change, recognizing that emergency food isn’t enough when social assistance levels are too low for people to buy food.They have worked hard to break down the division between volunteers preparing food and those who are eating. They are getting people “off the floor” and into the kitchen to help. They see food as a powerful tool to reduce the ethos of “us and them”. Each “kitchen day” is completely volunteer run, with anywhere from 6-12 volunteers making it happen. In addition, specific volunteers go to a store in their neighbourhood and shop for the program once each week. They get an e-mail from the coordinator the night before with a list of what is needed (based on what is in storage and what came on the truck). Altogether they estimate they get about 200 volunteer hours per week in the meal program.

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Food Procurement
Like many faith communities they have a broad network of donations and volunteers. Numerous organizations provide food through their partnerships, including Starbucks, All The Best, Rabba Foods, Whole Foods, a nearby cupcake shop, and one place they can call on when they are short of meat. With a budget of only about .52/ meal, they work to find the best prices and still achieve a healthy meal. But supply can vary; one week everything was vegetarian. Their meals are 80-100% made from raw ingredients (they report that only the yogurt at breakfast is not made from scratch, as that would be quite an undertaking). They are rich in desserts, however, as many of the donations they receive are sweets, but their goals are as much healthy food as possible on a limited budget.

The faith-based network of supply and volunteer labour is a key asset. Other faith-based organizations relied on similar networks to carry out their food programs. In addition, Church of the Redeemer has a clear understanding of food as a place for change for people and community. They have committed to change through food; their model shows the power of faith-based solutions to mobilize people to act, and to engage people in systemic change in the midst of urgent primary needs.




Agency Profile 4: Social Enterprise Incubation and Solution:
Welcome to the Learning Enrichment Foundation (LEF)

A passer-by would see the outside as non-descript, a warehouse or perhaps an old school. But once inside, the walls open into a colourful space that is both vast and welcoming. LEF is bright and light, with a variety of colours and murals. The walls are minimal, not necessarily reaching the ceiling, and set in many cases with full-length glass. High windows in the old industrial space give the community centre an unusually airy feeling, full of natural light.


There is a large multi-purpose commercial kitchen on one side, with meal service for 15 childcare centres and other groups, a Cook’s Training program, and a cafeteria for people working and visiting LEF. The number of organizations and social enterprises housed here is impressive: food and nutrition projects, childcare, a bike repair shop that provides repair and maintenance for Bixi Bike and that refurbishes donated bikes for people who need them, other employment projects, settlement support, a variety of youth programs (Spoken Word with Urban Arts, Boys Club, Dance Group, Zumba with Urban Arts, Community Kitchen, and Biz Camp, to name a few). One has the sense here that one is surrounded by projects with social purpose and a wealth of innovative ideas that make society a better place for all.

The Learning Enrichment Foundation began in the late 1970’s as a response to economic crisis in the city of York. It was started by a group of community members, and began with a multi-cultural theatre for children. The centre rapidly diversified. They are currently an important model for community economic development, built on the needs and opportunities in the local community. People can go to LEF for training and certification in a range of topics, including food, warehouse skills, business management, bicycle assembly and repair, and early childhood assistant.

Goals of the program
Their goals are not just to offer services, but also to provide integrated training in all programs to facilitate future employment and enterprise development for participants.

Food program
In the childcare and before and after school programming, they provide 1000 meals per day. The cafeteria provides about 100 meals each day for staff, volunteers and visitors to the centre. Through their Second Harvest kitchen they provide a Cook’s Training program that provides 500 meals a day to various homeless shelters. They also house a successful Good Food Market, which attracts about 65 people each week. The market provides affordable produce from FoodShare, and also food from local enterprises. The food service has four full-time workers and various part-time staff and interns/ students. At any one time there will be at least ten students in training in the program. Their only limitation to expanding or offering incubation for food businesses is that the kitchen is rarely unused.

Food procurement system
They rely on Sysco as well as a variety of other suppliers: FoodShare (for the market), William Eakin, Tatangelo’s, Reliable, Mr. Dairy and Second Harvest (who supplies the ingredients for the Harvest Kitchen). These relations are long-standing and do not tend to change. They are however reviewing suppliers to find local and sustainable options and to look at options for social procurement.


Menu-planning and Service
The food is planned in advance with input from a dietician; regular menus are on a monthly rotation, and reviewed every six months to a year. They increased the health value of the menu five years ago. They have not changed the menu entirely, but switched to healthier versions of favorite items. For instance, they still have pizza, but they make it themselves and put vegetables on it, and real cheese. It sells out. New recipes that are more flavourful seem to get positive responses, although changing the menu takes time that they do not always have.

LEF has a rich array of assets as well as an organizational practice that ensures, through training and mentoring, that the asset pool is stable and always renewing. Where some agencies struggle with losing key workers once they have been trained, the more formal training at LEF is integrated into the cost of the service; as one person moves on to full employment, there are others ready to take their place. The LEF food programming is diversified, and includes many peer workshops around nutrition and health as well as the hands-on training program. In general, their food is provided for a fee. The budget, while still meager, gives them a wider range of opportunity (more staff, more choice in food purchasing) than organizations that rely on donations and grants. LEF also now houses Social Enterprise Toronto, which works with important food social enterprises in the city such as Delightfully Yours, Raging Spoon and Paintbox Bistro in Regent Park.

A tour of LEF is an inspiration for what can be done with food. A model for community economic development arose here from economic crisis. It can plant the seeds for similarly robust responses elsewhere in the city.

*Photo credit: Shannon Black
**Thanks to funding support from Toronto Public Health/ Toronto Food Strategy and the Province of Ontario Healthy Communities Fund  and the Public Health Agency of Canada.



Agency Profile 3: Starting from Scratch
Welcome to the 519 Church Street Community Centre

Everything from scratch. Meals prepared by people from the programs. Over 31,000 meals provided every year to people in need. This is the 519 Church Street Community Centre. The two kitchen coordinators are “food animators”, preparing meals, purchasing ingredients, but most of all working with other program coordinators, volunteers, participants in programs and people who have been through the program to cook balanced and healthy meals from scratch, even down to homemade sauces.



519 has been around for 35 years, providing services for neighbours and the lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer (LGBTQ) communities. They are right on Church Street, and provide services for LGBTQ communities including newcomers, families with children (they offer extensive drop-ins for kids and parenting workshops as well). They run Fabernak, a social enterprise restaurant designed to provide training for people facing employment barriers. 60% of the menu is sourced from local farmers and producers. Over 80 community groups meet regularly in the 519 space; altogether, they estimate they receive 160,000 visits each year from about 30,000 unique individuals. Their meal program is slightly below the average size for Toronto drop-in programs, making it a mid-size program.


The 519 kitchen has some budget, averaging about $1.35/ meal (slightly below the average for drop-in programs’ food budgets). They still have to look for the best prices first, but combine that with an insistence on healthy ingredients and balance in the food. They manage, despite the large number of meals, to meet a variety of specific dietary needs, including needs for people transitioning (less meat, more grains and legumes). They also work to offer well-balanced vegetarian options that meet nutritional needs. They count themselves lucky to have a walk-in refrigerator, walk-in freezer, a second refrigerator, and a room for dry storage.

Their biggest asset is the people who are nurtured through their services and participate in meal planning and preparation during or after their program participation. Their goal is to have all meals led by participants as much as possible. In the Sunday drop-in, they work to get as many people into the kitchen as they can. Some people are especially enthusiastic about cooking, and are asked to participate in other programs as well as their own. Some coordinators will have come through a program and return to offer their services. Staffing hours for the two food animators are only a little over full-time for all the programs, one hot meal a day five days with two on Sunday—not counting all the snacks, which may be tantamount to a cold meal.


Food Procurement and Menu-planning

The food purchases are coordinated through the staff; menu planning is also coordinated. The animators will work with people to figure out the challenges in cooking entirely from scratch, as well as achieving well-balanced healthy meals. In addition to Gordon Food Service, they purchase from FoodShare, and from the local supermarket when they need something small or didn’t receive something they ordered. They also receive donations from Second Harvest once a week. Their purchases are focused on meat, dairy and eggs, which are hard to get in the quantity and quality they need from the donations. Despite the limited budget and time, they have a commitment to local food solutions, as is evident in Fabernak’s menu.

They have also worked closely with their main suppliers, after some road bumps that indicated a need for more communication. They had frequently received the wrong thing because the supplier (a national food service company) has so many items; ordering can be complex. One time they got a huge quantity of expensive compostable cutlery. Another time they had to try to persuade the other programs to use celery in their meals because the full case contained many more heads than one program needed. They now provide lots of clarity around exactly what they want, and work closely with their salespeople to do the orders (for large distributors, they find ordering by phone works best). They invited their sales representative to visit, and the orders got much easier after that; the meeting gave her a much better idea of what the 519 kitchen needs, and that it is different from the restaurant downstairs.


519 offers an excellent example of a successful and high quality meal program that is well-rooted in the community. Despite the size, they rely on participation from service users at every point, delivering a food program that not only fills bellies but can also build new skills and self-esteem. They have not had to compromise in ingredients to do this; in fact, their report shows one of the meal programs that adheres most carefully to food guidelines, and shapes their meals to fit their clients. Their model demonstrates that dedication to community engagement does not necessarily result in a more expensive program, nor in compromises around nutrition.

(Photo credit: Shannon Black)




Agency Profile 2: Working Together, Rebuilding Together
Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre

The Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC) is unusual in its clear commitment to poverty alleviation as a route to food security. They also recognize the power of food practices to engage socially isolated individuals and to bring people back into the workforce. Their kitchen is a model for skills and work practice development through member work shifts, mentoring and support for transition to food-related jobs in the mainstream community.

PARC, like many drop in centres, is a welcoming and vibrant place during the thirteen meals provided through the week and weekend, and during music, art, counseling and other programs as well. PARC reaches hundreds of people every day; members are engaged and have decision-making power in most aspects of the organization, including governance positions on the Board. Their food programs work to achieve a delicate balance between providing meals with dignity and respect (providing choice, seconds, sit down service at the beginning of lunch); the heartiness and familiarity of foods that people are used to; and the nutritional demands of providing a daily meal to people with little additional access to food.

PARC also recognizes the power of solutions that come from the community and its members. They have developed programs that combine the strengths of the members with a burgeoning network of agencies and food access projects, from urban agriculture at Greenest City to the Co-op Cred program that gives PARC members access to the new West End Food Co-op.

PARC’s major food supplier is Second Harvest (donations). They also receive donated items from Daily Bread Food Bank, mostly the breakfast supplies like fruit, eggs, milk, yogurt. With a budget under $11,000/ year, they fill in with small purchases from FoodShare, Reliable Foods and the retail stores in the area. Although food expenditures may be some of the lowest per meal in the city’s charitable and non-profit meal programs, they are able to rank in the middle on nutritional standards according to Valerie Tarasuk’s research. The supervisors and kitchen crew are resourceful in the use of ingredients. Since they rely on donations, menu-planning is generally last minute. Meat will tend to be in a variety of cuts and types, and must be sorted and usually ground for uniformity; other donations must be sorted for quality.

Recommendations for next steps at the end of this case study include development of food preparation and procurement guidelines, further development of the member programs in the kitchen, the development of food-related social enterprise through PARC and their network kitchens and partners, and the development of further supply options directly and in collaboration with existing distributors like Daily Bread.

Food and food programming are keys that can unlock improvements in health and other challenges like mental health and substance use issues, as well as economic success, educational achievements and social engagement. PARC has done amazing feats of food provision with very limited financial resources. The drop-in centre is rich in assets from people and community. These assets have been mobilized to feed hundreds of people each day (almost 100,000 meals each year). PARC is building on their expertise and experience to collaborate in a stronger community food sector and to mobilize food in rebuilding lives in Parkdale.


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