An interview with Matt Noble, Executive Director
By Kirsten Lavine
For the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank, this coming January won’t just be the start of a new year but marks its ninth year in operation.
The idea for the plant-based food bank began in 2013 as the brainchild of Matt Noble, its executive director and long-time animal rights activist, who’d been working with the Ontario Vegetarian Food Bank to secure their new premises when they instead closed down. Matt decided to use the acquired space in downtown Toronto to try and fill the void by establishing a food bank dedicated to vegans. He recalls, ‘In all the food banks throughout the city, it was the same problem, a lack of options for vegans. I don’t think the food bank system is trying to marginalize vegans. It just happens to be that way because society is mostly non-vegan.’
With 40% of what’s on offer at Ontario food banks consisting of dairy products, for Matt, the creation of an entirely vegan food bank would ensure that ‘people didn’t have to sacrifice their beliefs or ethics to be able to have access to nutritious food, while also being a good opportunity to show that we could help people without hurting animals.’
Following a successful Go Fund Me campaign, the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank (TVFB) opened its doors in January 2015, using the facilities of the Yonge Street Mission, a well-established charity tackling poverty in the community. The new food bank immediately attracted a lot of media attention, which drew people in from all over the city. Their client base has grown steadily over the years, and they are now well-known throughout all the city’s social services organizations. Many who come are new immigrants and refugees, while others opt for a plant-based diet for health or ethical reasons.
Unlike other food banks that have a geographical catchment area, the only criteria for eligibility is a commitment towards a plant-based diet. ‘We were a small food bank with limited resources, and because so many people found out about us, we started getting more interest from potential clients than we could handle. So the only thing we could come up with is that people have to be strictly vegetarian, vegan, or transitioning towards that. We were very lucky to have a bunch of vegan dieticians who want to offer us their services, so we could blur the line to say if you’re transitioning, we have people who can help you.’
Clients sign up in advance for the food bank, which operates one afternoon a month, run by a team of dedicated volunteers, many of whom have been involved for years, with new volunteers expressing interest all the time. Volunteers let clients choose from an array of vegan items, such as lentils, rice, and plant-based milk, while over 50% of the food consists of fresh fruits and vegetables.
TVFB buys its food wholesale through the support of financial donations. Several plant-based companies also donate their products regularly, offering such whole food delights as raw salad dressings, chickpea pasta, and even protein powder. Although Matt says such donations come and go whenever possible, ‘We love giving people amazing, good quality food.’ Anything left over gets donated to the Yonge Street Mission.
The success of the TVFB has led others from cities across North America to reach out to get advice about opening their own vegan food bank. Matt usually cautions them. ‘Toronto is the biggest city in Canada and arguably the most multicultural city in the world, so there are all kinds of different vegetarians and animal rights advocates and demographically enough of a need that a vegan food bank can exist. The worst part about running a food bank with a veg-based prerequisite is telling some people we can’t serve you. So, you need to have a thick skin and be really committed to helping the vegan population.’
Instead, he encourages people to reach out and volunteer in other food banks in their cities and see if there are opportunities to work within the systems that exist to veganize them. Another suggestion he makes is to buy food from vegan businesses to give to people on the street asking for food as a way of feeding people while supporting local vegan businesses.
Efforts are now in place at TVFB to begin growing some of their food themselves, partnering with Wishing Well Animal Sanctuary in south-central Ontario to use some of their lands for veganic farming. ‘This past year, we grew yellow zucchini, tomatoes, kale, lettuce, and acorn squash. In 2023, we’re going to have a planned group of volunteers to weed and water regularly, and we’re going to be a lot more proactive about on-site veganic composting, using wild grass clippings from the field, leaves, and wood chips.’
Matt hopes such efforts will raise awareness about veganic farming since even organic agriculture still uses by-products of animal industries, such as blood, fish, and feather meal, for fertilizer. ‘Veganic farming is the only way to break the chain of animal exploitation, and we’re in a good position dealing with food to show that the world doesn’t need to depend on farmed animals to produce crops.’ But he is also mindful of its limitations. ‘Even though we’re farming organically, I really try to make a point that from a climate change perspective, probably the best choice any of us could make is to eliminate animal products from our diet entirely.’
To that end, the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank remains committed to education and ‘food literacy’ and has embarked on a series of cooking classes. They had originally envisioned running sessions for staff cooking big batches of food in shelters or out-of-the-cold programs, where vegans encounter similar problems getting fed. But with the recent award of a small grant, they decided to use the funds to run a pilot program of ten cooking classes for Yonge Street Mission’s food bank clients, most of whom wouldn’t be well versed in plant-based food. Students are also provided with groceries to take home and make the food they’ve learned in class for their families.
The first two sessions have already been a runaway success. ‘We’ve had a great reception, as there’s a community vibe, with clients sharing recipes and having fun times and learning things together. One client had her family of meat eaters over for Thanksgiving, and she made a vegan dinner that everyone loved. So that’s one person, and it dominos out to educate and inform other people about vegan food. The pilot has been great for figuring things out, and we’re really committed to the education part, so we’re definitely going to continue doing something.’
Another initiative in the works is the creation of a website called ‘Put Food Banks Out of Business which will be rolled out next year. The website will be used as a campaign to force politicians to discuss poverty and basic income, particularly in the run-up to the next provincial and federal elections. The website will contain interviews with political and economic experts putting forth policy suggestions about raising social assistance rates up to the poverty line.
Matt explains the rationale behind the concept. ‘I don’t think it should be up to private citizens like us to go out there and fundraise to make sure that Torontonians have food. Food banks are just a symptom of the government not taking responsibility for what they should be doing, and the main thing that people struggling with poverty want is to have adequate social support from the government. So the website will be a resource hub where people dealing with food insecurity can find answers, but it’s also going to include petitions and information on how to talk to your political representatives. We’re going to try and get a lot of media attention for it, and if we get a really good coalition of organizations across Canada, we may even be able to host our own debates to discuss poverty and basic income.
‘We also want to link the campaign to the food bank’s website, which will contain lots of other vegan resources, like Animal Justice Academy, Wishing Well Sanctuary, and our other food bank partners, so we can create pathways for people to get exposed to veganism and animal advocacy.’
‘Animal protection was always at the heart of the foodbank, as was social justice. So we’ve been learning how we go how to navigate all those things together, so where we’re at now is a food bank, cooking classes, veganic farming, and Put Foods out of Business which covers everything we want to do for the next couple of years as we expand on those.’
As for the upcoming eighth birthday, Matt says, ‘I’ve been playing with the idea of having a New Year/birthday party fundraiser in the future. But we’ve just come out of a pandemic, so this year we’re just going to do the food bank and take it easy.’ Somehow, between Matt’s passion, a dedicated team, and a host of dynamic ideas, taking it easy isn’t likely to be on the agenda for this expanding, vibrant, and vital resource serving a veg community in need.