Healthy food for the hungry: Toronto gets its first vegetarian food bank

It’s easy to assume there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options at local food banks: white pasta, peanut butter and canned beans are popular donation items.

But Matthew Noble, a vegan, wanted to make sure the city’s needy had access to healthier meat-free options — especially fresh fruits and vegetables.

Noble, 32, who does custom millwork for a living, and other volunteers recently launched the monthly pop-up Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank, based out of Yonge Street Mission, intent on providing fresh food to those who can’t afford it.

“I don’t want to give people any unhealthy food. I want to give them something I can eat,” Noble told Metro News.

Following the model of the Ontario Vegetarian Food Bank, which closed after the death of its founder in 2013, the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank is making sure that at least half of what it offers to citizens is fresh, whole foods.

Most food banks struggle to reach the 50-per-cent-fresh mark. Even then, that number often includes meat and dairy, Metro News reported in December.

“When fresh foods are available at other food banks, they go quickly,” Noble told the Toronto Star. “We hope that taking people in here will relieve strain on other food banks. So basically we’re just injecting more healthy food into the food bank system by trickle down effect. And we’re balancing things out, giving vegetarians and vegans the same kind of access to food that other people using food banks would have.”

Thirty-six people used Noble’s food bank, stocked with fresh vegetables, brown rice, soy milk and organic pasta, on its opening day last Saturday.

“Everyone had big bags of healthy food, everyone left with a huge smile on their face, like, wow, this is a food bank, crazy!” Noble told the Huffington Post.

Because much of the vegetarian food bank’s food is perishable, leftovers are donated to the Yonge Street Mission’s own food bank.

“We are very excited because it will offer the alternative for people and ensure some kind of equity across the board,” Yonge Street Mission spokeswoman Sally Ritchie said. “Fresh items are the most difficult to store and keep and transport.”

“We’re just making the food bank system bigger and better,” Noble said.

An online fundraising campaign helped raise enough money to keep the new food bank going for 7 or 8 months. After that, Noble and his team are hoping community support and sponsors will continue providing the funds needed to offer fresh food to Toronto’s poor.

“Being vegetarian or vegan is important to people. Either because they are against animal cruelty, or because they understand how huge the environmental impact of most meat is, or for their health,” Noble told the Star. “When people have to eat another being when they don’t believe in killing other beings, when you’re at your lowest or not feeling that great already and you have to compromise your base beliefs, it’s just kind of a double negative.”

Noble told Metro News that he’d like to see the food bank expand to being open twice a month.

Learn more at the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank’s official site.