A vegetarian hunger-relief organization in Toronto argues that patrons shouldn’t be forced to choose between nutrition and their principles.
Gary (not his real name) arrived in Toronto from Calcutta almost three years ago, and he sometimes struggles to feed his family of six, which includes his parents and two small sons. He attends computer-programming classes and works part-time, but his shifts are irregular and his pay is minimum wage. Amid escalating food costs in one of North America’s hottest housing markets, Gary has learned to ask for help.
And so once a month, he finds his way to the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank, where he fills his cart with brown rice, lentils, and deep green bunches of kale. Gary’s family practices a subset of Hinduism and he’s trying to maintain a cultural tradition of vegetarianism, so the food bank meets both his nutritional and spiritual needs. “The produce here is better than at the grocery store,” he says, standing next to his overflowing cart.
Established almost two years ago, the monthly Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank (TVFB) provides a rare service: It offers healthy food, including fruits and vegetables, grains, tofu, and plant-based milks, to vegetarians and vegans in need. In a small cafeteria, volunteers also serve vegan soups while clients wait for their turn to pick out groceries.
The TVFB is trying to combat generalized food insecurity, but it also has a much more specific mandate: Claiming that mainstream food banks often lack suitable offerings for vegans and vegetarians, the TVFB was founded on the premise that people who live below the poverty line shouldn’t have to abandon their core values in a time of vulnerability. The food bank, which relies on donations and fundraising, is a contradiction of the idea that “beggars can’t be choosers.”
“We believe that people are vegetarian or vegan for reasons that are important to them,” says Kimberly Carroll, a director of the TVFB and cofounder of Mercy for Animals Canada. “At most food banks, you’re faced with the choice of giving up your deepest held values or going hungry. When you’re already down on your luck, losing one more thing can be devastating. And being able to maintain your principles is directly related to the idea of dignity.”
Commitment to those principles is important to Holly (not her real name), who’s been vegan for five years and frequently relies on food banks. Like many of the TVFB’s clients and organizers, she spoke of mutually reinforcing ideals that encompass concerns about the planet, animal cruelty, and personal health. “At other food banks, the food was really cheap and often full of chemicals,” says Holly. “I couldn’t eat a lot of it and I would just pick up toilet paper and what little produce they had.”
While most food banks do try to supply vegetarian options, standard baskets still typically include eggs, milk, and canned fish—not ideal for vegans. Some of Ontario’s largest food banks have, in recent years, lamented the difficulties of providing fresh produce to clients, thanks to rising food prices. Unlike canned goods, which are shelf-stable for long periods of time, perishable goods can’t simply be dropped off by well-meaning individuals; instead, they are typically purchased or donated from wholesalers, and some banks have noted a decline in those donations in recent years.
Stuffed with zucchini, broccoli, and tofu, a cart at the TVFB might be indistinguishable from one at Whole Foods. There are even pricey avocados waiting to ripen on a countertop. “People like avocados, but they can be out of reach,” says Mathew Noble, the executive director of the TVFB and a longtime animal rights activist. “We’re trying to feed people but we’re also trying to nourish their, you know, vibes.”
The TVFB is explicit about advocating for animal rights. Next to a check-in area, there’s a small table with piles of literature espousing the virtues of vegan living and condemning the horrors of factory farming. A staff nutritionist runs workshops about plant proteins, and clients are asked to fill out a form declaring themselves vegetarian, vegan, or “transitioning.” While some might see this as an unfair disqualification—after all, even those who eat animal products need access to fresh produce and grains—Noble says that it’s a necessary strategy for an organization with limited resources. Rather than draw a specific geographic catchment area—as many other food banks do—the TVFB selects clients across the Greater Toronto Area based on ideological needs. “I’ve been called an asshole and been told that I’m asking trick questions, but we really needed to draw a line in the sand,” says Noble.
Still, for all of the talk of animal rights and environmental advocacy, there’s no doubt that some of the TVFB’s members are less interested in ideology and more interested in dignity and simple access to healthy food.
For Katie, on long-term disability for Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal disorder with symptoms that can be partially managed through diet, the food quality here gives her a bit of a boost to deal with a difficult situation. “I never thought I’d be in this situation of having to rely on food banks,” she says. “I just want something that will nourish me and give me a little bit of pride.”