Rethinking the Food Bank Experience

Others, Food , Poverty

Contributed by: Yonge Street Mission

What makes for a good meal? Quality ingredients, check. Nutrient-dense options, check. Any client who uses Yonge Street Mission’s (YSM) Food Bank will find both, and more. Brent Mitchell, VP of Programs and Community Development, believes that a good meal is a means of communicating love and connection with every person who enters one of YSM’s centers. If a meal can provide necessary nutrients, then his staff can provide the other missing ingredients: dignity and helpful food-related training for clients.

Based in downtown Toronto, Mitchell’s team faces a unique type of poverty: poverty of opportunity. He explains that in our Canadian context, there’s rarely a lack when it comes to services, meal handouts, and more. But what people often don’t have is the opportunity they need to thrive. So, Mitchell and his team use food, among other things, to build bridges with community members to welcome them into YSM’s vocational programming, childcare opportunities, and educational offerings. “Food,” says Mitchell, “is a stabilizing factor we can help people with.” Once an individual has the food they need, their focus can shift beyond survival needs.

So how does Mitchell’s team infuse their core values of dignity, nutrition, and training into their Food Bank? Historically, food bank programs are seen as transactional and potentially humiliating experiences for those using them. Waiting in long lineups to receive cans of low-nutrient foods can hardly inspire feelings of worth. Mitchell says that with a perspective shift any food bank can become something so much more.

For Mitchell, treating each YSM Food Bank client as an equal is the first step to restoring dignity to the food bank model. There are no lineups, but rather appointments are scheduled for individuals and families to choose their groceries. Food is a vehicle for building relationships with people. Mitchell says that when he began viewing the Food Bank as an opportunity for human development as opposed to simply another service delivery, things started to change for him.

Dignifying service comes in the form of choosing high quality ingredients, as well. That’s where Mitchell’s second core value, nutrition, takes center stage. With the help of nutritionists, his team is able to craft food options that meet the nutritional requirements clients need. For example, Mitchell’s team receives over 20,000 pounds of organic meats from a local farmer who supports their vision. YSM’s Food Bank exceeds the standard by providing so much more than just non-perishable, canned items.

But what good is a food bank service if clients don’t have the skills and training to prepare the ingredients once they get home? Thanks to instructions and coaching provided by YSM staff, clients of the Food Bank are able to learn simple ways to prepare healthy meals, and, most importantly, to make them taste great! Just this year, Mitchell met a 48-year old woman who cooked for herself for the first time, thanks to YSM’s intentional training.

Food is a stabilizing factor in a family’s journey toward thriving. But it also represents an opportunity to show love and care. YSM has created an integrated, excellent food program that fosters the establishment of relationships with people experiencing poverty in our own country. Instead of seeing clients as ‘takers’ or ‘service-receivers’, Mitchell encourages his team to remember that every interaction is an opportunity to learn, listen, and love. A healthy, tasty meal is just one avenue toward building relationships. And for Mitchell and the YSM team, it’s one they walk with excellence, care, and a listener’s ear.