Non-profits Offer Much-needed Food Services
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Non-profits Offer Much-needed Food Services

A non-profit that allows people to "adopt a kitchen" offers tangible results.

Pauline has been visiting Houselink kitchens a couple times a week for about three years.

Pauline has been visiting Houselink kitchens a couple times a week for about three years.

Wendy has been working in Houselink kitchens for about six years. She was referred to the organization by a friend and started out cleaning, but now she also cooks and does inventory. And she only has good things to say about her time there.

“I love cooking different meals, recipes, experimenting,” Wendy said, later adding, “It’s been great. You meet a lot of great people here. I love cooking a lot for people.”

Houselink is a charitable organization providing supportive housing to people living with mental health issues and addictions in the city; rather than simply finding an apartment for someone and putting them there, groups like Houselink also offer everything from help finding employment to recreational programs. One of the most important things these organizations can offer their participants, and one frequently overlooked by people who haven’t lived on fixed or low incomes, is food. As food prices go up while wages and benefits stagnate, people at the bottom of the economic ladder find it more and more difficult to cover the necessities.

To bolster their food program and bring in needed financial support, last year Houselink rejigged a fundraising strategy they call “Adopt-A-Kitchen.”

“We’re finding more and more, people are shying away from buying a gift for someone,” said fund development manager Peter Marra. “People have everything, so the pitch here is, buy an entire kitchen.”

After donating $100 to Houselink over the holiday season—the rough cost per meal—the plan is to tell people in whose names kitchens were “adopted” some of the basic details about their kitchen. If George buys Janice a kitchen, for example, both will get notes in December about the donation, and Janice could receive a letter in June telling her that her kitchen had been held, and that 32 people showed up to eat chicken masala.

Last year the drive resulted in 60 “adopted” kitchens, according to Marra, though they began late in the holiday season. Marra’s “pie in the sky” goal for this year, when they launched their campaign around Thanksgiving, is to more than double that and hit 200.

“It’s tangible, and it connects people to food,” said program manager Carol Thames of the kitchens themselves. “And given that a lot of our tenants are living on a fixed income, a community kitchen like this is a mechanism to get access to healthy food.”

The problem is especially acute for people on some form of government assistance. An essay in NOW by Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s West) earlier this year pointed out that nearly 60 per cent of the people who receive support from Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program used food banks in 2012.

“You can only stretch that dollar so far,” said Thames. “It’s not just, ‘I pay my rent and I eat food.’ You have other things you need to buy on a day-to-day basis to have some quality of life.”

In addition to the economic barriers to eating well, there can be psychological ones. Anyone who’s considered preparing a serious meal for one and then thought, “Or I could just eat some ramen and be done with it,” can understand how unappealing the prospect of constantly cooking proper meals for oneself can be, even without the added stresses many Houselink residents deal with, such as poverty, mental illnesses, and, for some, former homelessness.

With that in mind, Houselink provides 11 meals per week through their community kitchens. Everyone who wants to eat pays a nominal fee of $1—food programs supervisor David Fiege says this idea came from program participants. Kitchens are staffed by people like Wendy—Houselink program participants and housing residents. (Wendy came to Houselink through their employment program but lives in housing provided by a different organization). At the same time as providing affordable and healthy meals to people who need them, these community kitchens allow people to work on a range of skills, from planning a nutritious meal, to food prep for large groups, to doing inventory, and tweaking or developing new recipes.

“It’s a critical program,” said Thames. And equally critical, to Houselink, is ensuring they can continue to provide it.