Parkdale Food Center looks back on two years of COVID-19 pandemic – Kitchissippi times

The Parkdale Food Center community in the kitchen. Photo courtesy of the Parkdale Food Center Facebook page.

By Charlie Senack

It has been a difficult two years for Parkdale Food Center (PFC), which has seen an increase in demand and needed to change its services, but the organization has worked to support the community during the pandemic. With the world reopening, the team at the center hopes to get back to normal.

Due to low welfare rates and no increase despite rising costs, Karen Secord, executive director of PFC, said they are seeing new people, whom they call “neighbors,” not clients, using their services.

“What we’re seeing is that people who had never used a food bank before, and lived a little bit on the fringe, now need help if they want to eat well,” he said. “There were about 110 people lining up last week, and that’s the most we’ve seen.”

The center makes more than 300 meals and tries to give each of them two. But that’s not always possible with demand. They are also starting to make 38 food boxes for isolated seniors in the community, as well as helping other underserved communities.

“We never did that before the pandemic,” Secord said. “Suddenly COVID hit and everyone was told to stay home. You are living in a shelter, a rooming house or in a small apartment, you are completely alone and you have no money for food. These people trusted us for our meals and then they had nothing. They don’t have computers or internet, which they also trusted us to provide.”

In non-pandemic times, PFC’s door was always open for anyone in need of a meal or looking for a sense of community. In addition to food distribution, the Kitchissippi organization offered workshops, social worker assistance, technology, and other resources.

All of that had to stop when the world went into lockdown and stay-at-home orders were issued. Meals were still being passed out and food was available, but all in-person activities had to stop.

A few months into the pandemic, they began offering virtual cooking workshops, providing Chromebooks and six months of free internet to their neighbors in need.

In 2021, PFC launched Cooking For A Cause, a $900,000 program that partnered with 31 social service agencies to distribute 5,000 meals a week. The center also partnered with 27 restaurants in the community, helping them with cash flow during turbulent times.

Now, a year later, the program is still running, working with 20 restaurants to feed about 3,000 people weekly.

outdoor fridge

When the pandemic hit, several community fridges were set up in the city of Toronto to help those struggling to pay for food. It was an idea Secord had for years, but logistics made it difficult.

Last May, they were able to place a community refrigerator outside of 30 Rosemount. The center rented a wedding tent to keep her dry from the elements and brought her inside for the winter. Now back outside with a new shed-like structure, she’s ready to help members of the community once again.

But, due to its high usage and popularity, the PFC is seeking the public’s help to ensure that food is always in the refrigerator.

“We can’t keep it stocked. People come from as far away as Carleton Place to take out food,” Secord said. “We need the community to go ahead and put things like yogurt, cheese, apples and oranges in that fridge. Nothing homemade but fresh vegetables, fruits, and dairy.”

Secord hopes other locations will launch similar initiatives, but acknowledges the costs associated with this: Providing power to the site alone costs more than $1,500.

“I have never been to the refrigerator to put something in without seeing an elderly person come up behind me to get food,” he said. “There is nothing sadder than someone who has walked half an hour to the fridge and there is no food left.”

grocery program

Before the pandemic hit, PFC’s neighbors could buy groceries at its Rosemount branch. COVID-19 meant they had to move to food baskets, which the center never wanted to do.

“When we moved to our current location eight years ago, we wanted to remove barriers and only go for good quality food that people could pick for themselves and eat as many fruits and vegetables as they wanted,” Secord said. “But when COVID started, people couldn’t go in anymore and we had to do something we never wanted to do: make baskets and boxes of food.”

The new normality took up most of the facility’s space, making it difficult for its other programs to function. Last fall, they opened a nonprofit grocery store called Mino’Weesini (an Algonquian word that translates to “good food”), reflecting the old model.

The grocery store reopened on May 2 and while appointments are needed for now, it has reverted to the old model of neighbors shopping for themselves.

It’s just one of multiple programs PFC is bringing back as the world recovers from COVID-19.

“We’re also starting breakfast at 30 Rosemount and hopefully lunch soon,” Secord said. “It’s really about building a neighborhood. Soon we will launch a campaign on how we get out of our houses, go out and start talking to our neighbors.”

Secord also says they would like to host a community potluck this summer so people can meet their neighbors and reconnect after so long apart. They hope to hold smaller potlucks at local parks and are looking to purchase a mobile pizza oven for similar activities.

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This story was published in the Giving section of the May 2022 edition of the Kitchissippi Times.

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