When Kartik Shanker retired from his demanding job as an aerospace engineer, he was looking for something useful and meaningful to do.
“Instead of sitting around at home I wanted to interact with people,” Shanker recalled, and he answered a call for volunteers at the N.D.G. Food Depot.
That was two years ago, and since then he has discovered the right place for him to fulfill his twin desires to help others and socialize.
We talked as he was preparing coffee and getting ready to serve lunch to all comers as the organization held an open house on Giving Tuesday last month to mark its 30th anniversary.
“I was shocked by how many people depend on food assistance in NDG,” Shanker observed.
“You think of NDG as being middle class, a reasonably well-off community, but it’s surprising how many people need help,” he added.
He started out washing dishes and ‘graduated’ to two other tasks: two Mondays a month he packs groceries for delivery to people who can’t come by to the depot, currently located in the basement of Trinity Memorial Church on Sherbrooke W. near Marlowe. Tuesdays, he’s on duty from noon to 4pm serving a meal to all, no questions asked.
“I enjoy doing it — it’s nice to be in touch with people!” he says, smiling.
Shanker is one of 700-800 volunteers who help out weekly with the 20 programs run by the depot, which is much more than a food bank.
Every week, the depot gives out groceries for 700 to 800 people, says the director of development, Bonnie Soutar. It could not function without 70 to 80 volunteers pitching in each week, especially with community needs increasing.
“The demand is up about 50 per cent from the level of five years ago” Soutar says. She started as a volunteer and is now among 15 full-time staff, with 30 seasonal employees, in addition to the volunteers. “It’s not surprising. There is a lot of immigration in the neighbourhood, food prices are up, housing has become really tight — and no new social housing is in the borough,” Soutar notes.
About half the groceries go to families, half to singles. There are a lot of older adults, and a 30-40 per cent increase in seniors needing food assistance. “A lot of them do not advocate well for themselves. For example, many do not know about applying for the guaranteed income supplement for low-income recipients of Old Age Security.
“About one in five of new immigrants are from Iran, and a lot of others from the Middle East and Central America. Those from Iran often are educated professionals, but they can’t find work. Their qualifications are not immediately recognized. And first they have to get their French up to a high level.”
Six months after they come to the Depot for help, half no longer need food assistance.
“It really serves as a temporary measure, a transition until people can get on their feet,” Soutar says. There are a lot of refugees who come for food, and then there are the temporary homeless and the working poor who can’t fully support themselves on their limited income.
Community meals are offered free twice a week, Tuesdays from 2pm to 7pm and Friday lunch from 10am to 2pm. Fridays there is a fresh food market, and there is a charge for it.
“What we offer is often based on what we have. We have quadrupled our budget for buying fresh fruits and vegetables because we know they are so important. We also give out eggs, milk, nutrient-rich foods like lentils, whole grains, proteins — that’s what we try to get in the baskets.”
“Our meals are loosely based on that.”
There are “food access” and “food-skills programs,” offered for upper-grade elementary and high-school students in community centres,
publicized in the schools.
For seniors, the Depot sends people into low-income housing projects to cook a meal, with high-school students invited to make it inter-generational.
“We use food as a tool to bring people together, solve some problems around poverty, around food, advocate for good food,” Soutar notes.In season, the depot runs six collective gardens in the Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-dame-de-Grâce borough, with a gardening expert — a facilitator — who works with the 150 gardeners who took part this year. They share the harvest!
“We’re a community food hub,” Soutar says, with obvious pride.
Every Wednesday there is a community kitchen at the Depot where people gather and cook together, including efforts to have new immigrants share their skills.
“We had a Syrian woman recently who taught 48 people how to prepare Syrian style meals. We actually paid her an honorarium to teach — possibly her first job in Canada!”
The Depot operates with a budget of $1.75 million, 41 per cent of which is the result of individual donations, 25 per cent comes from corporations, 15 per cent from three levels of government, mostly municipal, and 9 per cent is self generated, 8 per cent from private foundations, 2 per cent from financial and others.
With the holidays approaching, the Depot is collecting new toys and books, which are distributed mid-December. Volunteers are always welcome, especially for its weekly food drive. Cash contributions are needed to fill up bags for its healthy snack program for schools “so every child between five and 17 gets a big bag of apples, oranges, bananas, protein bars, and yogurt, because teachers report to us that children are coming to school without food.”
For food donations, such basics and healthy foods as canned fish, pasta in sauce, legumes, canned fruits and vegetables, and hearty soups in a can are needed. Also needed are toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoos, soaps, sanitary products for women, diapers for children and adults.
“If you have half a pack left over, bring them,” Soutar says.
NDG Food Depot is located at 2146 Marlowe, just south of Sherbrooke. Open Monday to Friday.
To volunteer, call 514-483-4680 or email firstname.lastname@example.org