Leslieville church opens food hub to increase relevance in the community

May 6, 2019
By Joanna Lavoie

Glen Rhodes United Church has a long history of community service, especially when it comes to food security.

The east Toronto place of worship, located at 1470 Gerrard St. E., just west of Coxwell Avenue, is building on that purpose through the creation of a Neighbourhood Food Hub.

It’s a way for the local church — which, like many, is dealing with a shrinking congregation — to reinvent itself and remain afloat, said Marian Stinson, who chairs Glen Rhodes’ worship committee.

“This is a way to keep our church alive,” she said, adding that they’ve been considering their future for the last five or six years.

Back in the early 1980s, an economic downturn hit the community hard, leading Glen Rhodes to start hosting monthly community dinners. Next came the creation of the Glen Rhodes Food Bank, which was intended to be a temporary measure, but because of need has kept its doors open to this day. Last year, the food bank — which is located in the church’s lower level and is one of the biggest in Toronto — served close to 12,000 families.

Ward 19 Coun. Paula Fletcher said the idea to set up a food hub at Glen Rhodes came about when the City saw that there were more than 30,000 visits to the local food bank in a year. She said that the city is also mindful of Glen Rhodes’ need to come up with out-of-the-box solutions to keep its doors open.

“What we’re looking to do is make lemonade out of a lemon,” said Fletcher.

“Glen Rhodes has a lot of potential to do more than just being a food bank. That church has been an important staple of the community for such a long time.”

The Toronto-Danforth representative said that setting up a food hub is both a way to save the church, while providing the community with food programming.

“The sky’s the limit. I think it’s so exciting and forward-thinking,” said Fletcher, who in January 2018 presented a motion that was adopted without amendment to the Community Development and Recreation Committee to support the initiative through the creation of a working group. Toronto city council has since set aside $50,000 for the food hub to lease the church and to set up programming; another $60,000 was approved to develop the new food hub, including hiring two project managers.

Last fall, Fletcher reached out to Leslieville residents Daniel Taylor and Madi Chambers to invite them to come on board as co-managers. Previously, they’d run the Leslieville Food Market, as well as other local food initiatives aimed at bringing the community together.

Taylor and Chambers presently manage the Green Belt Farmers Market Network, which supports 120 farmers markets and food projects in the Golden Horseshoe and about 200 sustainable farms. Their involvement in the Neighbourhood Food Hub is their biggest project to date.

“This really represents what our organization is all about,” Taylor enthused during a recent interview.

“It defines what our best work is. We really see a future in food hubs.”

Stinson, who lives in Riverdale, agreed.

“(This) seems like a perfect fit for our congregation. It’s very much in line with the work we already do and what we believe in. … (Food security advocacy) is just part of our DNA,” she said.

“We think (the food hub) is a way to really serve our neighbourhood in a way that’s really helpful. We’re excited about it and we’re eager to roll out programming.”

At this early stage, organizers are reaching out to the community to see what a food-centered hub in east Toronto should look like.

“We’re calling it a community-led approach. We’re very mindful and eager to listen and go from there,” Chambers said.

The new food hub’s community lead is Applegrove Community Complex; the Neighbourhood Food Hub at Glen Rhodes held a soft launch during Applegrove’s annual general meeting in late March.

“(The new food hub) will really benefit a wide variety of people in the community,” said Suzanne Burkhardt,Applegrove’s executive director.

She said that over the course of the next year, her organization will engage with the community and work to develop partnerships with local service providers to help grow and shape the new food hub.

FoodShare, Canada’s largest food security charity, is a supporting partner of the initiative and will be providing expertise and administrative support.

The Neighbourhood Food Hub at Glen Rhodes United Church will officially launch in June — visit neighbourhoodfoodhub.com for more information.

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