Food program in Canada’s most densely populated community brings more than nutrition, but faces uncertainty

Azikee Huie’s life has been turned upside down by the pandemic.

But even though she lost her job as a janitorial custodian, she’s working hard to pack food for people in her neighbourhood. Lots of food.

“I think about the families. I think about the children. I feel as though I am an angel,” Huie said with a laugh as she loaded bunches of bananas into the hundreds of brown-paper bags lined up on the floor of her local community centre.

Huie, 44, is just one of a dozen or so volunteers at an emergency food relief program aimed at helping people affected by COVID-19’s social and economic fallout in Toronto’s densely populated neighbourhood of St. James Town.

“I feel as though I was sent purposely to help to do this,” Huie added. “For me it’s very important to give back to the community.”

WATCH | Azikee Huie talks about the importance of helping to support to her neighbours:

Azikee Huie helps to get bags full of fresh fruits and vegetables ready for distribution to her neighbours in the community. She said volunteering at Toronto’s St. James Town Emergency Food Relief Program makes her feel happy despite the pressures of the pandemic. 0:37

And yet Huie, with three kids of her own, also needs help.

At the end of the day she’ll take one of the food bags filled with dried goods, fresh fruit, organic eggs, and vegetables like carrots and kale, home for her own family.

  • THE NATIONAL | Watch the story about the St. James Town Emergency Food Program, Sunday Feb. 14 on The National at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local time on your CBC television station. You can also catch The National online on CBC Gem.

“I’m very grateful, because it helps to cut down on my supermarket bill. It helps me not to be so stressed, because I have three grown children and they eat a lot,” Huie said.

“What I get in that bag helps me in terms of getting something healthy. I do not have to depend on tinned food. I can depend on what is in those bags.”

Josephine Grey says it is challenging living in St. James Town during a pandemic.

“Living in a concrete jungle, in very densely crowded buildings, it’s basically impossible to really, truly be pandemic-safe. It’s easy to be frightened. It’s stressful.”

Josephine Grey has lived in Toronto’s St. James Town her whole life. With a grant from the Red Cross, she started the emergency food relief program to help people get through the pandemic, but her funding runs out at the end of the month. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Grey has lived her entire life in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood.

In December 2020, with a grant from the Red Cross, Grey started the St. James Town Emergency Food Relief Program to help her neighbours who are facing challenges as a result of COVID-19.

She says the pandemic has hit St. James Town harder than most surrounding neighbourhoods.

“People in this community have lost businesses, lost jobs, lost family,” Grey said. “Recovery is going to be a long process. And healthy food is critical.”

The official population of St. James Town is somewhere around 19,000 people living in 19 high-rise buildings — one of which is so densely populated it has its own postal code.

Grey calls the neighbourhood “the landing strip for Canada,” because of its high immigrant population.

The St. James Town Emergency Food Relief Program was started in December 2020 to help people in the Toronto neighbourhood who face food insecurity problems due to COVID-19. Every two weeks they hand out more than 200 bags of food. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

When she first started the emergency food program in December, there were so many people interested, Grey stopped advertising after only 48 hours.

“From our budget, if we were going to have healthy food hampers, we really had to limit the number of people we could provide for,” she said. “So we had to close it off at 200.”

The bags are handed out once every two weeks, containing food sourced from local farms in southern Ontario.

“It’s been challenging keeping up,” Grey said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had to turn people away. We wish we could do more.”

‘When I get the food I feel happy’

Even in the bitter cold, hours before the volunteers are scheduled to hand out the 200 bags, people start to line up.

Trini Fillon, 70, has brought a bundle buggy to help her transport a food bag back to her apartment.

“For me, COVID changed my life in a very unpleasant way,” she said. “Depression comes from time to time. And I want to be strong, but when it hits me I am depressed.”

Fillon lives alone on a pension.

“I need this food, because I stretch my monthly income as a senior,” she said. “It helps me, because my rent is very high and my allowance for the month is very low.”

WATCH: Trini Fillon, who lives on a limited income, describes the importance of receiving a bag of nutritious food:

Trini Fillon, a 70-year-old retiree, visits the St. James Town Community Centre in Toronto to get a bag of nutritious fruits and vegetables. Fillon said she has been dealing with depression since the pandemic started, but she feels happy when she picks up the food that she depends on to make ends meet. 0:44

When Fillon is asked how it feels to come and line up to pick up her food, she smiles.

“When I get the food I feel happy. I feel like I don’t have to think about my provisions.”

Fillon says she stretches the contents of her food bag to last for two weeks.

Uncertain future

Grey started the program, and she also hands out bags to the people in the lineup. She worries that by the end of March there will be no bags at all, however, because the funding from the Red Cross will run out.

“If our food program shuts down, there will be a lot of people going hungry,” she said. “It’s already a struggle. We’re already unable to meet the need and it’s just going to get worse. It’s guaranteed to get a lot worse.”

According to a City of Toronto report, the median household income in St. James Town is well below the city average. Coupled with this, the local unemployment rate is higher.

Avery McNair, the project manager of the Emergency Food Relief Program, packs bags for the 200 or so households who come to collect food. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Grey points out that even before COVID-19, many people in St. James Town relied on food banks. And so what she is really fighting for, and has been for years, is a permanent solution to the food problems in her community.

“A big focus of our work has been trying to create a self-sustaining, healthy food hub that grows its own food, gathers food, distributes it, and becomes self-sustaining,” she said.

“That’s incredibly important. I can’t give up. I have to keep trying,” said Grey, who is so committed to local food security that she recently ran a neighbourhood bulk food buying program out of her apartment.

While food security for St. James Town remains her dream, it’s obvious when speaking with people in the neighbourhood that Grey has already accomplished something remarkable that isn’t just about food.

Milan Slavkovic, a 65-year old Canadian military veteran, takes his bag and chats with Grey. He thanks her for her work.

“A man doesn’t live on bread and water alone. You got to feed your soul,” he said with a smile.

Milan Slavkovic, 65, is a Canadian Forces veteran who lives in St. James Town. He says the food provides more than nutrition. ‘It’s the sense of community that it brings along with it. That’s what it is.’ (Nick Purdon/CBC)

“It’s not just a food bag. It’s the sense of community that goes with it. That’s the important part,” Slavkovic added.

“The sense of community has been fractured by COVID — not entirely, because this is a very resilient community. But it’s important to keep the pieces that we have intact — extremely important.”

By late afternoon the volunteers have handed out all the bags to the people in line, but still their work isn’t done.

Azikee Huie and another volunteer fill a cart with more bags of food. Huie takes the food up into the apartment towers for those people who can’t make it down to street level.

“I see the love from the people to us, because they did not even expect this,” Huie said. “It makes me feel a lot lighter. It gives me the energy to do it continuously.”

At the end of the day, Azikee Huie and another volunteer take bags of food up into the towers and give them to people who can’t make it down to collect the food themselves. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

She says the food bags are a way to connect with people.

“In my building, I have this neighbour. I’ve been living there since 2017, and we have said maybe ‘hi,’ we have passed each other in the hallway, but we have never spoken,” she said.

“Because of this, I was able to knock on her door and give her some food, and we were able to start a conversation. We did not do that before. So it’s allowing me to connect with my neighbours that I’ve never had that access before. It has given me a very good feeling, and I love that.”

The pandemic has brought with it lots of hardship, but at the same time, this small emergency food program is showing how it has brought unexpected positives, too.

As for the future of the program, Grey says that even though the Red Cross funding runs out Feb. 19, she has raised enough money to keep things running for one more month.

“We have no idea what will happen after that,” she said. “My concern is this community is not going to be OK at the end of March.”


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