A queue of 74 hungry people — seniors leaning on walkers, mothers with babies in strollers, young adults, the homeless — snakes through the muggy ground floor at 4100 Lawrence Ave. E.
They’d lined up outside the apartment building under a baking summer sun for a free lunch. For some, it could be their only meal of the day.
5n2 Kitchens, a volunteer-run Scarborough charity founded six years ago by former Dubai-based high school teacher Seema David, provides the lunches, offered on Wednesdays. Once stomachs are filled, many of the same folks line up again for the Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities’ food bank across the hall.
“To me, feeding the hungry is close to God’s heart,” said David, 55, who lives in east Scarborough with her family. “I’m doing something that is meeting such a basic need.”
The charity’s name, 5n2 Kitchens, refers to the biblical narrative of Jesus feeding a crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish, she said.
The kitchen is in an industrial unit at Markham and Ellesmere Rds. There, David and her volunteers transform “rescue items” — such as unused breads, produce, protein and dairy products — from Second Harvest and businesses such as Starbucks and No Frills into wholesome meals. She relies on financial donations from the public and private sectors and promotes the service at community events. For instance, David paid for a vendor’s table at Scarborough Ribfest during the August long weekend at Thomson Memorial Park “to create awareness for what we do.”
5n2 Kitchens operates seven days a week. David’s volunteers cook and serve more than 1,200 fresh meals each week to nine groups, including seniors, children and the homeless. The charity may soon expand to a 10th group — a local school has requested help to feed its low-income students.
Scarborough-Guildwood Councillor Paul Ainslie is a champion of David and her charity but worries that the extraordinary demand on 5n2 Kitchens — which doesn’t receive government funding — without an influx of resources, monetary and otherwise.
“My biggest fear, really, is if I can’t get them additional support from the city or the province or some organization, they’ll end up being overwhelmed and they won’t be able to operate any more,” said Ainslie, who recently toured the 5n2 Kitchens with senior staff from the city’s social services.
“If they stopped operating, I don’t know how the community, as a whole, would fill that gap.”
David rarely takes a day off. She is aware of the burnout potential — “It does get very tiring,” she concedes — and says she must recruit and train someone to relieve her a few days a week.
Back at 4100 Lawrence Ave. E., David’s volunteers set out trays of food they cooked that morning. There is steaming dal. Mounds of rice. Ham drizzled with sweet sauce. Fresh buns and bread. A cool summer salad of organic microgreens, shaved carrot and onion. Large, sweet muffins and dainty frosted cupcakes.
“Without these people, a lot of people go hungry — myself included,” said 65-year-old Joey Arnold, nodding toward the 5n2 Kitchens’ cheerful team.
Even in a wealthy city like Toronto, hunger is real, David said, scoffing at assumptions about people scamming the system.
“Why would anyone come to the food bank and spend half a day there? Tell me,” David asked. She says some will line up alone to get a free meal so they can save their money to feed their kids at home. They don’t want their kids to see it, she says.
David’s experience in the field echoes findings in a landmark study conducted by the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership at the University of Toronto. U of T’s David Hulchanski, professor of housing and community development at the Factor-Inwentash faculty of social work, was the lead researcher.
In the study, decades of census data from metropolitan areas across the country, including Toronto, was used to track trends — including the collapse of Canada’s middle-income populations.
“Scarborough has shifted from being middle-income to being low-income, in general, and this is not just (occurring) in Scarborough,” Hulchanski said, noting that northern Etobicoke and parts of North York have seen the same dramatic shift over the past 40 years.
“There aren’t those middle-income jobs any longer,” he continued. “The big change came” in the 1990s with “industrialization, the liberalization of the labour market regulations … more and more low-wage employment” and, oddly, more high-wage employment, too, Hulchanski said.
David said families tell her that after taking care of bills, “there is no money for food.”
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“You can’t manipulate other expenses,” David said, “so food is the only thing they can manipulate.”
David, originally from India, moved to Dubai with husband Roopan, 57, when their daughter was an infant (two sons were later born in the United Arab Emirates). David was a high school art and design teacher, while Roopan was a successful retail marketer. Their intention was to resume those careers when they arrived here in 2007.
With their savings, the Davids were able to buy a house in Scarborough but David said her teaching credentials were not accepted in Ontario. Roopan struggled to find stable marketing work. After a frustrating year of trying to find teaching work, David secured a temporary secretarial position at the University of Toronto. She was later hired as an executive assistant in the dean’s office at George Brown College.
David said she and Roopan were able to pay their bills and feed their three children — but just barely.
“We didn’t have to borrow money, but it was hard,” she said.
During that time, David found comfort and inspiration in her Christian faith. She attended church services, got to know her new neighbourhood and realized how many people in financial duress were going hungry.
Friends told her she was “crazy” to start a soup kitchen, but David felt compelled to act. She found communal kitchen spaces and began serving her first soups three days a week in November 2013, while working part time at George Brown College (by then, she had a new position in the school’s hospitality sector).
Soon, demand increased. David moved into a shared kitchen arrangement in her church and by March of 2014, she left George Brown to run 5n2 Kitchens full-time. Roopan had recently come into a family inheritance, about $80,000, and David spent it to fund the food service.
“To me, that was a sign” to continue the charitable work, she said.
But the money didn’t last, and soliciting for donations, via the website and word of mouth, became essential as more groups asked David to provide meals.
5n2 Kitchens outgrew the church space, and in January of this year, moved into the unit at 2050 Ellesmere Rd. However, the space needed substantial renovation to bring it up to Toronto Public Health standards. David estimated it cost about $40,000 to renovate it and purchase fridges, freezers, stoves and other items, which almost emptied their donation pot. The charity now pays rent — additional cost.
The only paid workers at the 5n2 Kitchens are eight students hired through Canada Summer Jobs grants. They are eager and engaged; their tasks include updating the website, developing marketing ideas and improving the donation process.
David said the charity would not survive without her family’s support. At home, David said they cover their own bills by offering an Airbnb apartment in their basement. Their two oldest children are employed and pitch in, while the youngest, still at university, fills in when needed in the kitchen.
“It’s taken a while to understand life is not all about us and about making money; rather, it’s more blessed to give than to receive,” David said.
Mary Ormsby is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org