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Vegan food for all: Meet the Canadian food bank that helps ethical eaters in need

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A common complaint launched against vegans by non-vegans is that as a movement, we aren’t doing enough to address the needs of vegans who are living in poverty. The Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank (note that they distribute vegan food, but wish to help vegetarians living in poverty as well, and have named it under this umbrella term) seeks to remedy that problem by helping to feed those who are living under the Canadian poverty line, but want to maintain and animal-free diet. The food bank opened in January of 2015, and over the last year, has seen incredible growth in both those who seek it out as a food source, and those who wish to volunteer. As I’ve always said, for every non-vegan accusing the entire vegan movement of classism is an entire network of vegans seeking to make food accessible for all. I was lucky enough to chat with Matt Noble who started the bank, and has put advocacy at the front of his activism.

“The decision to start Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank came to me over time, but pretty naturally,” Noble told me, and informed me that those seeking to keep animals out of their diets “have a really hard time at Toronto food banks – because of the lack of veg-friendly foods – I was moved to try and help ‘even the playing field’ for them. Food banks are in place because people are down on their luck. I didn’t want people who are already in such a vulnerable position to have to compromise their health and their ethics as well. Knowing that I could also use the food bank as a vehicle for education around compassionate, healthy and environmentally-responsible food choices, it seemed like all the pieces fit.”

Having come from the United States, I’ll readily admit to my own ignorance that poverty in a place like Toronto would be a large enough problem to warrant multiple food banks in the city, but to my surprise, the Utopia I had so daftly imagined doesn’t exist at all. It’s been called the “child poverty capital of Canada,” a title that is indicative of a city that holds not just individuals living below the poverty line, but entire families. It’s referred to as a “hidden epidemic” by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which suggests that I might not be the only person unaware of how massive this problem is. A staggering thirty percent of children in Toronto are from low-income families, and with that, comes hunger.

Noble informed me that food banks aren’t something families can usually choose from in  Toronto. “The other food banks in Toronto have geographic “catchment areas,” which determine where people go based on their area codes. Because we know that veg people’s options are limited no matter which food bank they visit, we let them come from all over the city. Essentially, our “catchment area” is weather people are veg or not.”  How invaluable is it to have this resource, and how refreshing is it that it is available to anyone living in Toronto? “The first month we opened, after a good amount of media coverage and social media buzz – we served 38 people. Last food bank, in February 2016, we served 161 people. We have hovered around 150 for the past few months, but it seems to be slowly increasing still. It has been a lot of work trying to raise money as fast as the numbers have increased.”

Many might say that anyone going to a food bank in order to eat ought to be thankful for whatever they are able to get, but the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank feels differently.

“We want the food bank system to reflect the city’s diverse diets and needs,” Noble told me, “Food banks are in place because people are down on their luck. We don’t want them to have to compromise their health, or their ethics, when they are already in such a vulnerable position.” I absolutely agree. As a vegan movement, if we are going to promote veganism as the moral position to take, we must be ready to help those who may not otherwise have access to a healthy vegan diet, and follow the lead of those who have been working with poor populations and advocating on their behalf.

“Tears have been a pretty regular occurrence at TVFB,” says Noble, speaking to those who have been able to maintain cruelty-free diets as a result of the hard work his team puts into this project. “We had a young vegan lady last weekend who is on Ontario Works [welfare] and she told me how excited she was that she found out about us. ‘I can’t remember the last time I had a piece of fruit,’ she said. That broke my heart, but at the same time reminded me of why I do this.”

Veganism can often be heartbreaking work, and with grassroots efforts like TVFB working hard to put food on the tables of everyone, regardless of income, the workload feels a little lighter. The next food bank will be on March 26th, and if you’d like to donate money or help with the efforts of the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank, find out more here. 

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