October 12, 2009
Thanks – we wish we didn’t need you
The desks were donated. The drapes were borrowed. She needed a warehouse, she had only a store; she needed a truck, she had only a van; she needed money, she had precious little.
She sought to transform the way food was distributed to Toronto’s hungry. Her profession: high school English teacher.
Sister Marie Tremblay founded the Daily Bread Food Bank in 1983, two years into her early retirement from Catholic education. The challenges of that first year were daunting, weren’t they, Sister Marie?
Not so much, she says casually from the Bayview Ave. Sisters of St. Joseph complex where she lives and volunteers. She had, after all, been a high school English teacher.
“We didn’t have any support to start with, so we really had to go after the fundraising to meet expenses. But I was the head of the English department, and I had a lot of organizing to do there. I come from a family of good organizers. And I had lots of experience in a school situation, putting on things, extracurriculars. I ran clubs: debating clubs, film clubs, things like that.”
Besides, Daily Bread was going to be temporary.
Charitable agencies were being swamped by people harmed by the severe 1982 recession. In the summer of 1983, several ran out of food. But surely, Tremblay believed, demand would abate when the economy recovered. She had a long-standing passion for the alleviation of hunger. She did not think her creation would be alleviating hunger into her old age.
“When the recession was over, we thought there would be no further need for the food bank,” she says. “We thought in terms of five or six years.”
As Daily Bread attempts to feed people afflicted by another recession 25 years after its first fall distribution in 1984, nobody cheers its growth into a vast, sophisticated and permanent operation. It wants to be unneeded; its prominence today is to be mourned, not celebrated.
No, its expansion is no success story. But what a story.
Until 1985, Daily Bread operated from its original low-rent location on Atlantic Ave. This was a slight problem: since much of its food had to be stored in the basement, the food bank’s small cadre of volunteers needed to carry it up the stairs to get it out the door.
A bigger problem: “Nobody knew about food banks,” said Barry Davidson, a member of the first Daily Bread board of directors as a vice-president at General Mills.
If they did know, chances are they didn’t much care: according to a contemporary poll, fewer than one in 10 Torontonians thought hunger was a “very important” local problem.
And many food companies had not yet warmed to the idea that their products, even surplus or damaged, should be donated rather than discarded. Food banks only appeared in Canada in 1981.
Asked by the Star in 1983 if his company would support Toronto’s, a Pillsbury executive said: “It’s cheaper to dump our damaged goods than to give them away.”
Corporate attitudes changed, in part, because of efforts by Daily Bread under the activist leadership of Gerard Kennedy, now the Liberal MP for Parkdale-High Park.
Kennedy, recruited from Edmonton’s food bank, Canada’s first, succeeded Tremblay at age 25 in 1986. He held Daily Bread’s first food drive, a smashing success aided by the Star, which included donation bags with its papers; produced reports to help policy-makers understand local poverty; and, continuing a campaign begun by Tremblay, convinced food industry leaders that donation was imperative.
“We turned companies one by one,” he says. “First of all, it wasn’t cheaper for them to dump. Second, it was unethical.”
Daily Bread received its millionth pound of food two years after it began collecting. Today, it distributes about 12 million pounds annually through 167 member agencies. A shoestring operation with only a secretary, a driver and a warehouse manager upon Kennedy’s arrival – it could buy a refrigerated truck only after Bruce Springsteen donated $34,000 – it now has a $7.5 million budget and 15,000 volunteers.
Its growth coincided with a change in the people it served. Typical early clients, Kennedy says, were those who might be expected to struggle: those did not graduate from high school, the disabled, single parents.
But Daily Bread soon saw an increase, accelerated by the recession of the early 1990s, of people formerly of the middle class and unaccustomed to poverty. Immigrants, too, became more frequent users over time.
Daily Bread now feeds 85,000 people per month. Tremblay says she reflects on its development into a major institution with a mix of sadness and appreciation. “It’s astounding,” she says. “Astounding that the food bank is still needed, but it’s marvellous that people have been so committed.”