Food for Thought: Addressing Hunger Amidst Toronto’s Booming Culinary Scene

Photo Courtesy of Second Harvest
Photo Courtesy of Second Harvest

The vibrant food scene in Toronto has cemented itself as a standout culinary destination in North America. From delectable Italian food found in the West End, to the vibrant Kensington Market, you’re bound to stumble across an incredible dining experience wherever you go.

And the fact that 47% of Torontonians speak a different language than the country’s native English or French truly attests to the diverse cuisines and influences found across the city. Creativity and experimentation thrive and result in unusual and remarkable experiences.

In recent years, Toronto’s blossoming food scene has garnered more and more attention, thanks to mainstream exposure from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Matty Matheson, and others. And while many might think of Montréal as the true “foodie haven” of Canada, the sheer diversity and unexpected range of Toronto’s evolving local cuisines is always a delightful surprise.

Toronto City Councillor, Norm Kelly at Toronto Taste 2016

So it might be news to you then, to learn that one in eight households in Toronto currently experience “food insecurity” — or, living day-to-day without reliable or stable access to food.

“There’s enough surplus food to feed everyone in Canada.”

The brutal irony of food insecurity and hunger in a bursting culinary hotspot like Toronto is perplexing and often overlooked in the media. In the early 80s, much of the media’s attention was on hunger in Africa, and no one paid much mind to similar issues in their own backyard.

So, Ina Andre and Joan Clayton took matters into their own hands.

In 1985, the two founded Second Harvest Food Rescue with the goal of reducing food waste and pioneering new processes for food donations, operations, and distribution. The nonprofit began by picking up excess food from local restaurants, and they struck relationships with a few local agencies to distribute food that would have otherwise been thrown away.

Fast forward 32 years later, and Second Harvest has exponentially grown their operations, both physically and into the digital space. Not to mention they’ve saved and delivered over 9.5 million pounds of food in 2016 alone, worked with over 225 agencies for food distribution, jumpstarted a myriad of after-school programs, and saved about 50 million pounds of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.

“There’s a lot of surplus, viable food in our city that we should be repurposing for those who need it,” says Debra Lawson, Executive Director of Second Harvest. “Food waste is reaching a pinnacle in awareness. Now, we just hope more and more people will do something about it.”

As Second Harvest outgrew their grassroots methods of rallying local restaurants for food donations, they set their sights on bigger and better sources for food, amping up their efforts by forging relationships with grocery stores, hotels, convention centers, and even going straight to the source — grocery distribution centers.

“Our ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of business.”

Second Harvest’s biggest challenge is, quite simply, raising money.

“The food exists, and the need exists,” Lawson notes. “Our challenge now is the infrastructure, and the ability to connect the two.”

“We have these Dickensian images of poor people in soup kitchens, but in reality, you’d be surprised who hunger can affect,” adds Jessica Westwood-Smith, Second Harvest’s events, and campaigns coordinator. “It’s changed the way I look at the city — you can’t unsee hunger.”

Image courtesy of Second Harvest

“We’re very efficient in our logistics; we have dispatch, trucks, operations, but it’s raising enough capital for the little pieces that is the hardest part. Our ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of business — our job is done when there’s no one left that needs food.”

Another challenge that most nonprofits face is the growing mobile-first mentality. More and more companies are shifting their business models to focus more heavily on digital and social media-driven operations.

That’s why Second Harvest is currently building a pilot digital platform, focused on smaller-scale donations. Having grown as much as they have, it’s not always efficient or economical for them to use their arsenal of resources for smaller food donations.

“Our goal with the web platform is to connect donors to the people who need food. It allows us to rescue food that we can’t physically take the time to pick up,” Lawson adds.

While launching a digital platform connecting donors directly to those who need food solves a plethora of operational problems for Second Harvest, it also allows the community to be more proactive in raising awareness about food insecurity.

To grow community awareness and participation even more, Second Harvest have invested heavily in the beloved Toronto Taste, the city’s premier culinary fundraising event.

“Toronto Taste…a celebration of the roots of Second Harvest.”

Toronto Taste 2016 (Photo courtesy of Second Harvest)

Toronto Taste is an annual culinary festival showcasing local and regional chefs, and the exquisite flavours found all across Toronto. It’s also the primary fundraising for Second Harvest, who organizes the event to grow the advocacy and awareness of food rescue, and what it means to the Toronto community.

“It’s a celebration of the roots of Second Harvest,” Lawson says. “It’s an evolution of those original, one-on-one relationships with the chefs in the early days.” Second Harvest funds about 20% of their yearly operations budget from Toronto Taste, so it’s a major priority for the organization.

The festival, going into its 27th year this June, brings together chefs, agencies, and food-lovers alike, all of whom donate their time, services, and supplies to celebrate and raise awareness of hunger. Notable past guest chefs include Bob Blumer, who donated an auction prize for a home-cooked shopping and dinner experience in Hollywood.

To undertake such a monumental event, having a reliable event platform to manage online sales and streamline day-to-day operations is paramount. And using Universe’s lightening-fast ticketing and scanners allows Second Harvest to focus on the experience and mission.

As Second Harvest delves into the digital space, Universe’s mobile-first capabilities help make Toronto Taste more efficient, reliable, and convenient. And this year, Universe has made it easier for Second Harvest to distribute tickets to their wide range of sponsors, something of a pain point from last year.

The chefs have fun with it, too. They get competitive, and the shared feeling among attendees is incredibly fun and communal.

“Most [of those suffering from hunger] are people you’d never guess at first glance.”

Instead of undertaking the complex and monumental issues causing hunger, Second Harvest has instead decided to focus on the food itself, and help those who need it now. Growing awareness and advocating food rescue to the Toronto community will always be an important cog in Second Harvest’s operational wheel, but addressing the larger issues that cause hunger in the first place is, unfortunately, more than they can handle.

“People should remember that food insecurity affects a lot of people, most of them are people you’d never guess at first glance,” Lawson offers. “There’s enough surplus food to feed everyone in Canada,” Lawson adds. “If everyone helped out just a little bit, it would literally mean the world of difference.”

Ticket sales for Toronto Taste are on sale now and can be purchased here.

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