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NEWS: They come for the grub but leave with much more (Jan. 2022)

February 4th, 2022 · No Comments

The Avenue Foodbank strives to put itself out of business

Bob Mandel (left) and Elliot Shulman helped keep 13,465 people fed in 2021. It was the Avenue food bank’s busiest year yet. NICOLE STOFFMAN/GLEANER NEWS

By Nicole Stoffman

If you step into the Avenue, you’ll be greeted with a sandwich, a pastry, and a coffee. You’ll feel like an honoured guest, and just might forget that you are visiting a food bank. The Avenue, located at the Church of the Messiah on the corner of Dupont and Avenue Road, moved from Walmer Road Baptist Church in 2018. This past year, they helped to feed 6,484 households. However, the people behind this institution are hoping the food bank can put itself out of business – they want to do more than give people food when they’re having a rough time – their goal is to build relationships and help people re-build their lives. 

“We have to end the word ‘foodbank’,” says Elliot Shulman, cofounder and community coordinator at the Avenue, and cofounder of the Guild of the Next Step, a peer to peer support group available to Avenue guests. “Food banks are an antiquated, albeit important resource, but they can be so much more with a slight change in the mission, and the mission is to help people overcome.”

Shulman and hospitality coordinator Bob Mandel, have led the transformation of this food bank. They call themselves “the people guy,” and “the food guy,” and seem to both have a well of boundless compassion and energy to dedicate to their task. 

Shulman used to be a production director at Astral Media and punk rock drummer. Then, a cocaine addiction led him into poverty. Mandel was the owner of The Cajun House, a high-end restaurant in Montreal that served alligator and crawfish imported from New Orleans. He also taught at Montreal’s Culinary Academy before moving to Toronto, where a heart attack forced him to lose his job as operations manager for The Kitchen Table. So, he found himself at a food bank too.

“As I was waiting for groceries at the food bank, I realized that it would be seven-thirty or eight-o’clock by the time everybody who was waiting got home. Who wants to start making dinner at that time? So, the next week I made a ton of sandwiches, brought them into the food bank and set up a table. And while people were waiting, they got fed. This is at Walmer, you know, going back eighteen years, and ever since then, I’ve been doing it. And you know, I eventually took over the whole food program.” 

Mandel ensures food safety by sifting through all donations, and looking for dates on canned and packaged foods. “My motto is always, ‘If I won’t eat it, I won’t serve it,’ and that was when I was in the restaurant business and it hasn’t changed since,” he says. Dented cans are safe he says, just a “grocer’s nightmare.”

He also attends the food trade shows and leverages his expertise in food services to solicit food donations from the industry. This, combined with generous food donations from Annex residents, has put the Avenue, “on the map,” said Shulman. Word got out on Facebook, and people now travel from afar to avail themselves of the Avenue’s plentiful food hampers, a pandemic pivot.

The Avenue is also succeeding at helping people, as Shulman says, “get back on the grid,” as the relationships they form there connect to them to The Guild of the Next Step. 

It all started when Shulman decided to organize a bartering system at the Walmer food bank, where regular food bank guests could exchange their skills. Their first meeting included a bike mechanic, jewelry maker and media specialist, but it soon became clear, that what was really needed was a support system so people could get their careers and lives back on track. This evolved into weekly peer-to-peer meetings, meaning there is no “expert,” telling people what to do, or how to live. 

For example, when one Guild member showed up groomed, announced it was his first-year anniversary of being clean, and that he’d gotten into a course, over the next month, people started to show up groomed, and being optimistic. “No one told them to do this, they picked it up via osmosis,” Shulman explained in an interview with the Disability Channel.

A year after its founding, the Guild was an incorporated nonprofit. Today, it is supported by LOFT, the Church of the Messiah, and Fred Victor. “I can see a good number of people that come through the guild’s processes and move forward, becoming community leaders, activists, ambassadors for positive change,” Shulman told the Gleaner.

Oleana, who requested the Gleaner not print her last name, was an abuse survivor when she came to the Avenue, started volunteering, and joined the Guild’s weekly meetings.  

“Coming from a place of isolation and reclusiveness, the Guild helped me build a network that brings joy and meaningful purpose to my life and to my daughter’s,” she said. She is now an Executive Assistant at the Guild, which will be expanding in partnership with OASIS, a community services agency. 

Food bank patrons who are new to Canada or have been out of the workforce can also gain valuable experience by volunteering at the Avenue.

Many food bank users are already working full time, without benefits or affordable housing, leaving little or no money for food. As the CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank, Neil Hetherington told the Gleaner, food banks will be needed until the government can assure the “right to food” through equitable systems. To this end, the organization’s Who’s Hungry report recommends improved protections for workers, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, giving ten paid sick days to all workers, and affordable childcare.

“For decades I’ve been able to work alongside individuals who are experiencing poverty,” said Hetherington. “And I can tell you unequivocally, they are the most resourceful individuals, and nobody ever chooses to live and experience poverty.”

Post-pandemic, Bob Mandel would like to publish a book out of the recipe program he launched “to make sure people know what to do with the food that is on our shelves.” He’d also like to start a food program to bring hot meals to the homeless in a heated truck.

“To me, it was always a question of dignity,” he says.

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