It’s a Friday afternoon at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, and Executive Director Nick Saul has a lot on his plate. Saul walks out of his office, leaving behind a group of women discussing last week’s fundraiser, then continues down the hall, past a meeting of people who run local farmers’ markets, past volunteers eating a lunch of hearty soups and sandwiches, and into the large commercial kitchen.
“This is where we prepare four lunches and two breakfasts a week for more than 100 people at a time,” says Saul. “Nothing processed or frozen; everything is fresh. And we buy directly from farmers to support the local food infrastructure.”
He walks past another set of doors and into the heart of The Stop: the drop-in centre. In the large room, men and women talk and sip coffee. It has the relaxed feel of a place people don’t mind visiting, rather than the air of quiet desperation that hangs over many food banks. In fact, The Stop doesn’t feel like a food bank at all. Because it’s not.
Yes, The Stop provides community members with a three-day supply of food once a month—but that’s just part of the story. “The food bank is necessary, but the 1980s model doesn’t cut it anymore,” says Saul. “Food shouldn’t be a source of shame. It needs to go beyond handing someone a hamper of groceries.”
This has been The Stop’s mission since it first opened its doors more than 25 years ago. It now has a staff of 27 and occupies about 650 square metres on the ground floor of a Toronto Community Housing building.
When Saul came on board in 1998, it consisted of the food bank and a Healthy Beginnings program for low-income pregnant women. “What we have tried to do is turn The Stop into a community food centre, to get people more engaged,” he says. “We wanted it to be more about community-development food programs, underpinned by social justice and food advocacy.”
From cooking and nutrition classes and the 740-square-metre organic garden to the summer “pizza nights,” The Stop delivers information, inspiration and good food in a welcoming environment. “All these programs stem from a creative staff and an engaged community,” says Saul. “My role has been to create a clear mission statement—and a great sandbox for people to play in.”
Last December, The Stop opened a satellite site, The Green Barn, in the historic Wychwood Car Barns Park in Toronto’s west end. Eight years and $5 million in the making, the 930-square-metre facility—with its greenhouse, garden, community kitchen and more—means more fresh, nutritious food for The Stop community members. It’s a place where children can get their hands in the dirt and see how plants grow, and where all visitors can learn about how food goes from field to table.
“Everyone should have access to a healthy food system,” Saul explains. “So we need to create a food literacy, where food is about health, justice, community—and pleasure.
“The best parties always end up in the kitchen, right?”