Toronto’s Restauranteurs Are Battling Hunger on Toronto Streets

The irony is that Toronto is a city full of restaurants, but so many people are starving on our streets every day.

I worked in a restaurant for years; I saw firsthand how much food was wasted: buns, half-eaten pizzas, and blemished tomatoes – it would all go in the trash. Historically, a ton of food has ended up in landfills, while people practically starve to death outside of our doors. Canadians waste $31 billion of food each year (I’ll let you take that in for a second).

The good news is that some of Toronto’s restauranteurs and chefs are now stepping up to the plate (no pun intended), taking major initiatives to battle hunger on Toronto streets and to eliminate food waste.

Last summer, Toronto got a pay-what-you-can food stand, Dundas West’s Soup Bar (707 Dundas Street West). The concept is as simple as the shipping container that houses the business: meals are dished up that are made from ingredients discarded by restaurants and grocery stores. It serves up things like sandwiches made with thrown-away bread from local bakeries and slightly blemished (but still delicious) vegetables. Owner Chef Jagger Gordon runs a not-for-profit program called Feed It Forward, which helps collect the food he and his team uses for the meals. Soup Bar is complete with both a pay-what-you-can jar and another donation jar of poker chips (which are bought by generous previous patrons) that can be used by the less fortunate to buy meals.

Other Toronto spots have adopted pay-it-forward programs as of late. In the Junction, Baguette & Co.’s (2772 Dundas Street West) Feed it Forward program offers pre-paid meals to those in need. Here, customers can contribute $3.75 to the program, a fee that the company matches. The pre-paid meal tags are placed on a board near the counter for those in need to use for a meal of their choice of the value of $7.50. We also can’t forget about the ever-expanding Mealshare program. When diners select and purchase a ‘Mealshare’ item from a participating restaurant, one meal will be given to someone in need, at no additional cost to the customer. A Fast Company article last year even went as far as to call serving the homeless the “latest trend in restaurants.”

In addition to pay-it-forward programs and waste repurposing programs, Toronto chefs have also united to feed disadvantaged members of the community in recent years. Dozens of Toronto’s chefs from some of our favourite restaurants (like Mamakas Taverna, Piano Piano, and DaiLo) participate in Restaurants for Change, an annual initiative that sees restaurants donate sales from their dinner service on a particular day to Community Food Centres Canada.

The thing is, when it comes to feeding the city’s countless homeless, it’s pretty easy to do on an individual level. Instead of allowing the server to take away the food you can’t finish, don’t be too proud to ask for it the remainder packed up. Then, give it to one of the homeless people you’ll – sadly, but surely – see on your way home. There’s a lot that can be done on the part of restaurant owners as well. For example, grab-and-go packages of food could be offered at extremely affordable prices at the end of the night once the kitchen is closed and the lights are turned on. Takeout boxes could even be left piled by the door for anyone to take, should the owners feel so generous. One restaurant owner in the U.K. made global headlines when she placed a fridge outside her establishment to eliminate waste and to feed the needy (simple concept; major impact).

Let’s not forget that, not only are we now being productive with food waste in helping those in need, we’re also doing the planet a favour by keeping waste out of landfills. It’s easier than ever for restaurants to get on board. Late last year, we saw the introduction of the Feedback App; an innovative app from a Toronto tech startup that connects users with restaurants that are about to throw out unsold food and offers it at a discount. Of course, the user market here isn’t society’s most disadvantaged, but smartphone-owning downtown dwellers looking to save a few dollars on delivery. The company, however, has paired up with Second Harvest in the past, donating a meal to the less fortunate when orders are placed.

The only hope is we keep on this track when it comes to feeding the less fortunate. As restaurants become more waste-cautious (especially at a time when owners are trying to offset minimum wage hikes), they’ll have less unused food to work with (more may go by the way of Liberty Village’s Maizal, Toronto’s first no-waste food establishment), but the hope is that initiatives like pay-it-forward programs will grow. As shelters and food banks continue to swell, the countless Torontonians who go hungry on the regular aren’t going to disappear any time soon.