By Alvin Tsang
Over the last year, the Parkdale Food Centre (PFC) changed its model from being a community hub to a delivery service.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, the centre had to reduce capacity down to 10 people in the indoor space, including staff.
Simon Bell, PFC kitchen manager, recalled a time when the centre operated with up to 20 volunteers on any given day.
“It’s been tough,” said Bell. “We were a community hub, a place where people got together; cooked together; ate together; volunteered together, and now that’s no longer an option. We can feel some of those connections start to slip away a bit.”
Prior to the pandemic, someone would come in and Bell would talk to them to get a sense of what they were going through. He called it “troubleshooting” — he always made an effort to find out what the people who came in to eat needed in particular.
But this model of helping people couldn’t continue in the pandemic.
“We stopped having people come into the centre,” Bell said. “We don’t get to see the people we normally would, and that makes it difficult to address the individual levels of need.”
The social aspect was lacking, but the staff’s hard work persevered. Since the start of the pandemic, the PFC food bank has helped approximately 1,000 unique individuals every month with delivery of fresh produce, ingredients and prepared meals.
“The odd times when we are meeting people face-to-face on a delivery, we’ve definitely seen and felt the extra level of stress from people,” said Bell.
Staff workload at the PFC had increased, and the extra stress of working on the front line of the pandemic had been challenging.
“It’s one thing to keep yourself on the rails, in terms of stress, but if you work for an organization like Parkdale that’s trying its hardest to help other people keep their heads above water, at the end of the day, you can find yourself feeling depleted,” said Bell.
But the hard work led to fresh ideas and ways to adapt.
“We’re always looking for new and better ways to serve our neighbours and serve the city as a whole,” said Bell. “One really cool thing born out of this pandemic situation is Cooking for a Cause Ottawa.”
Cooking for a Cause Ottawa is an ongoing fundraising campaign that helps restaurants and kitchens pay their overhead costs so that they can help make meals for social services and agencies. The goal is to help pair restaurants up with community services in order to alleviate the needs of communities that struggle with food insecurity.
The campaign was first launched in spring 2020 as many non-profits had to close their doors due to rising COVID-19 case numbers, leaving many clients without access to vital services.
Instead of sending meals as far as Coldwell or Centretown, Bell explained, it made more sense for the PFC to connect kitchens in other wards to the hungry people of those wards. Through this strategy, the PFC found success and a new way to help people during the pandemic.
As of March 2021, Cooking for a Cause Ottawa worked with 25 food businesses and 31 social service agencies to distribute 115,651 meals, 11,552 litres of soup and 15,668 loaves of bread all across Ottawa.
“That’s been a bright spot and a really cool initiative,” said Bell. “We’re doing our best to keep it going. It’s an expensive venture.”
Going forward in the pandemic, the PFC remains dedicated towards more work around poverty reduction.
“We’re not big believers in food charity having all the answers,” said Bell. “There needs to be work done to reduce poverty. Giving people food isn’t always enough. There needs to be actual work done for them to support themselves.”
The efforts at Cooking for a Cause Ottawa continue, and going into year two of the pandemic, the PFC is prepared to adapt based on the needs of the Kitchissippi people.
“For now, we’re keeping a close eye on [COVID-19] within Ottawa and seeing where it takes us,” said Bell. “If we make a plan one week, it changes the next.”