The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic fuelled a crisis for North York Harvest Food Bank — in a matter of weeks, its clients doubled at the same time COVID-19 health protocols forced the closure of its network of food distribution agencies.
“We had staff, trucks, but no spaces to distribute the food,” said Ryan Noble, North York Harvest’s executive director, noting its agencies are shared-space places like schools and places of worship.
Enter the city, Toronto Public Library and private partners who provided city-owned arenas, as well as space for shipping containers provided by Cadillac Fairview at Albion and Jane/Sheppard libraries and in mall parking lots for pop-up food banks.
Nearly two years later, Toronto non-profits and charities remain challenged, the unabated exponential increase in clients exacerbated by an on-fire housing market, rent hikes and inflation.
Social impact hubs could be the answer, believes Rahul Singh, executive director of Etobicoke-based GlobalMedic, which, since 2002, has responded to 238 disasters in 78 countries with life-saving humanitarian aid and relief.
When the pandemic hit, GlobalMedic pivoted to also help Toronto and area hospitals.
Since April 2020, QuadReal property group has donated a vacant 110,000-square foot space, previously a Target store, at its Cloverdale Mall location in Etobicoke, to five Toronto charitable groups, including GlobalMedic and North York Harvest, as well as Furniture Bank, the Salvation Army and the Humane Society.
At the hub, millions of pounds of food aid got sorted into food hampers, tens of thousands of hygiene kits were assembled and tractor trailer loads of donated furniture were assembled as part of the city’s rapid rehousing program and for clients of Furniture Bank.
“The Cloverdale social impact hub really became an important resource for us to store additional food and prepack pantry food items for distribution through our re-established network of agencies,” Noble said. “We need very large space, double the space, to build food hampers, store and redistribute them.”
Rahul Singh, executive director of GlobalMedic, talks about GlobalMedic volunteers who weigh, package, seal and box a “phenomenal” 1.5 million pounds a year of rice, green peas, green lentils, red lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans at the social impact hub at Cloverdale Mall for distribution to food banks. — Dan Pearce/Metroland
Recently, Singh urged the city to consider providing city-owned space for free or at low rents to agencies during a virtual city budget consultation session.
Noble said he supports Singh’s social impact hub proposal, adding that North York Harvest doesn’t receive any grants for rent, but instead operates food spaces in city buildings such as community centres on a no-cost, permitted basis.
“I think that one of the most-effective ways that government can support the work that we and other food security organizations do is by making spaces more affordable and accessible to us,” Noble said.
“We see this as a win-win: a better use of surplus public space, additional programming for the non-profit sector and, ultimately, a greater impact in our community.”
Singh argued social impact hubs would be more effective than city funding last year of more than 870 community agencies, funding essentially cut in half by rent increases, rising real estate prices and inflation.
“The social impact hub model is an alternative solution and dramatically increases the value of the funds being invested,” Singh told councillors in his deputation. “City arenas, community centres, school gymnasiums and warehouses were reassigned to charitable agencies to be able to meet the need.”
GlobalMedic executive director Rahul Singh, left, with Sean Peddle, director of operations with Furniture Bank, and Tammy Peddle, director of development with Furniture Bank, in a social impact hub in Cloverdale Mall that was a former Target store. — Dan Pearce/Metroland
Recently, Singh took a reporter on a tour of the social impact hub at Cloverdale.
“We’re saying to donors, big companies, all levels of government, provide us with long-term, stable space,” Singh said. “Getting it at the right price — free — with our volunteers who want to be part of our resilience response, and we kit it out. That’s how you build community.”
In 2019, Toronto council unanimously adopted ModernTO to optimize city real estate assets.
Deputy Mayor Ana Bailao called it “sound public policy.”
“We will make more efficient use of the core office spaces we occupy, while at the same time freeing up underused assets to address some of our city’s greatest needs, such as affordable housing, employment opportunities and community infrastructure,” Bailao said in a statement.
Noble called space an “undervalued challenge” for non-profits: “I don’t think people realize how hard it is to find warehousing space and community food distribution space.”
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Reporter Tamara Shephard wanted to learn how a social impact hub at Cloverdale Mall has benefited North York Harvest Food Bank.