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Georgina’s Good Food Collective serves up warm sense of community during pandemic

#FoodForThought: Users, visits at Georgina Community Food Pantry continue to climb
March 4, 2022
Amanda Persico

Every other Wednesday, space at The Link on Dalton Road is converted into a dining room complete with plates, silverware and coffee and tea service.

Shortly after noon, the makeshift dining room is full of chatter -- full of community in an otherwise lonely time.

Residents in need are picked up and dropped off by Routes Connecting Communities volunteer drivers.

Plates are topped with a warm meal, prepped and served by Community Living Georgina clients with developmental disabilities.

A jar at the check-in table sometimes fills with coins and other times sits nearly empty, as many can’t afford the pay-what-you-can community meal hosted by the Good Food Collective.

“This might be the only meal that doesn’t come out of a can or is cooked in the microwave,” said community chef Dave Carrigan.

Once the first portion is served to his executive chef standards, Community Living clients take over the line and Carrigan can be found in the back washing dishes.

“It’s not just a nice meal,” said Cesar Caneo, Georgina Community Food Pantry's executive director.

“It’s about reducing isolation, sharing a meal together.”

On off weeks, residents can preorder a $5 World Flavours takeout meal.

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During the first year of the pandemic, the focus was on access to emergency food.

As the pandemic continued, access to emergency food was not enough and the pantry committed to providing fresh, nutritious foods such as ground beef, yogurt and fruits and vegetables to its clients -- close to 30 per cent of the food each food hamper distributed is fresh food.

During school closures, local residents and teachers started the Georgina Pop-Up Breakfast Club. With school back in session for many students, providing a healthy breakfast for students now falls to the Georgina Community Food Pantry.

Ensuring children have the right start to the day, the breakfast hampers now include fresh food such as milk, eggs, yogurt and fruit.

“We’re trying to break the poverty cycle,” Caneo said. “Once you experience poverty, it is hard to overcome. We’re trying to move the children forward.”

From fresh food to good food, the pantry, together with Community Living Georgina and Routes Connecting Communities, built a sense of community during an otherwise lonely time and introduced worldly flavours to isolated residents.

The Good Food Collective was established during -- and as a result of -- the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

“The isolation has been devastating for some,” Caneo said.

Through the Good Food Collective, the panty launched two programs: a biweekly in-person community lunch offset by a biweekly takeout option, both of which are still running.

The number of food pantry users continued to increase during the second year of the pandemic as federal wage subsidies programs came to an end, Caneo said.

“Once this is all over, the first people who lost their jobs will be the last ones to get their jobs back,” he said. “The pandemic showed us the system does not work in the first place.”

Those “fragile jobs” in the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors were the hardest hit during the pandemic and will be the hardest to recover, he added, and that needs to be part of the recovery conversation at all levels of government.

More than 8,800 residents from 582 different households used the food pantry in 2021 -- that’s about a 16 per cent increase over 2020's users.

Of those, about a quarter were first-time users. That upward trend in new users started when the pandemic took hold in 2020.

The majority of users -- 62 per cent -- visited the pantry between one and six times a year, or every other month.

“You only have to see the lineup of cars waiting to pick up food on Friday mornings,” Caneo said.

“That tells us a lot.”

For Caneo, the goal has always been to “leave no one behind.”

When a large section of the community is left behind, “the whole society drags.”

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