Today’s menu: vegetable soup, scalloped potatoes, and a choice of ham or a vegetable medley of red kidney beans, cauliflower, broccoli, peppers, and carrots. Bread and apples are optional, yet popular, snacks. And for an extra special treat: Black Forest cake with chocolate shavings and a cherry on top.
It was a donation. “When you have it, you give it,” says Mary, a volunteer in the kitchen. And it goes fast.
Hot breakfasts and lunches are a key service that Sistering—an agency serving Toronto’s vulnerable, abused, low-income, and homeless women—provides on a daily basis. Besides the nourishment, the food also offers comfort and company. And as the ladies’ chatter grows on a Sunday afternoon among the tables in the cafeteria, one table gossiping about their day, another playing cards and chatting in Chinese, the family atmosphere makes Sistering live up to its name. But this family consists of up to two hundred members on any given day—about double the number that the Sistering kitchen ever planned to feed.
Recent reports indicate that hunger is on the rise in Canada; Sistering is seeing it first hand. Since starting in the early ’80s, Sistering has seen a staggering increase in women seeking out their services: up 489 per cent from 1987 to 1999, with another forty per cent increase in food demand since moving to their current location at Bloor and Dovercourt four years ago.
“What we have is too small…the whole kitchen needs to be entirely renovated,” says drop-in services manager Carol Allain. And that’s more than just a personal desire or another “to do” on their list: Toronto Public Health issued the centre a directive last year that Sistering must expand its kitchen and storage areas or stop cooking.
“Footloose” plays on an old black Panasonic stereo at the back of the kitchen, barely heard over the chatter from the diners enjoying their lunch, and the mood is light among the five volunteers on the line. While keeping up with the prep, cooking, and clean-up that lunch for two hundred requires, they make sure no one waits long to be greeted with a plate and a smile. But there is a lot of movement in this cramped space, barely two armspans wide, while stove-tops burn, pots boil, and cupboard doors hang open nearby. “Storage” is even narrower, basically a hallway off the kitchen with only a wall a few feet high separating piles of apples, oranges, squash, and loaves of bread from a sleeping area and the rest of the cafeteria. Not only would a renovation help the centre’s staff and volunteers serve even more of the community, but they could do it more efficiently and more comfortably.
“It’s tight. Everyone is manoeuvring around each other trying to make everything go smooth. We need new fridges, bigger stoves, more ovens, but our main issue is space⎯more counter space, more storage space, more sink space,” Allain says.
But as a non-profit organization, with plans for an upcoming renovation comes the inevitable lack of funding to make it happen. And Sistering needs $350,000 of it. Fortunately, their savoury sisters in Toronto’s foodie community have their back, including celebrity chef Lynn Crawford of the Food Network’s Pitchin’ In and co-owner of Leslieville’s Ruby Watchco, and journalist/author/”food sleuth” Marion Kane. To celebrate today’s one hundredth annual International Women’s Day, Crawford and Kane will be joined by some of the city’s top female chefs (like Donna Dooher from Mildred’s Temple Kitchen and Anne Yarymowich of Frank at the AGO), as well as Sistering’s own chefs, Trish Beard and Maureen Watson, for Kitchen Sisters: An Exquisite Dining Experience. It’s an evening of wine tastings and a four-course meal fit for a queen, with an equally royal ticket price of either $500 or $1000 (a portion of which is tax-deductable).
Allain says about ninety tickets have already been sold, but that has only raised about $45,000 so far; there’s still a long road ahead to keep Sistering’s mission to provide healthy meals alive.
Sitting alone at a long table, a grey-haired woman in a bright red Christmas sweater and puffy knit cap packs away extra bread and apples in a tupperware container. “Some women bag their lunches, and we know their lunch will be their dinner as well,” says Lori Johnstone, a weekend volunteer at Sistering. “Some have said to me, ‘Thank God for Sistering, or else I wouldn’t be eating today.'”
The familiar faces at Sistering may never enjoy cedar-planked maple-spiced Ontario rainbow trout with flageolet puree, or brown butter pistachio cake with citrus cream and pistachio meringue, both of which will be enjoyed by the attendees of tonight’s fundraiser, but the simple meal of ham and veggies and a slice of black forest cake with a cherry on top, most likely tastes just as good.
Photos by Rémi Carreiro/Torontoist.
Kitchen Sisters takes place at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen (85 Hanna Avenue) at 6 p.m. tonight. For information or tickets, call (416) 926-9762, extension 243.