Introducing The Roots Initiative
All Are Welcome Here! Fresh Fruit, Dignity, and Respect with Unity Kitchen
Nestled amidst the hustle and bustle of Yonge + Dundas Square and the capitalist mecca of the Eaton Centre, there sits a small 184-year-old church. Within the beautiful, stained glass framed walls of the Church of the Holy Trinity (TCHT), there is a dedicated community of volunteers and staff who, day in and day out, provide a warm welcome and hot meals for folks experiencing homelessness and food insecurity in downtown Toronto. This special place is called Unity Kitchen.
As the pandemic hit, more people came face-to-face with the harsh realities of food shortages and homelessness, which was further exacerbated by many drop-in food programs around the city being forced to shut their doors to stop the spread of the virus.
Born out of the pandemic, Unity Kitchen began just 10 months ago when the church launched an emergency food outreach service. Unity Kitchen operates out of the space that was once the Holy Trinity Cafe, a dine-in cafe and a vocational program for folks who were out-patients at CAMH to help them earn hands-on hospitality skills.
Sinclar Bletcher-Lowman, Network and Communications Facilitator of Unity Kitchen, said that at the beginning of the pandemic there was an immense need for everyday people to help out in any way they could, like “making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for 200 people lined up out the door.” It was an all hands on deck situation. Sinclair began volunteering at Unity Kitchen in May 2020 by making soup with their mother and bringing it to the church. After a few months, the community director of TCHT, Zachary Grant, had asked Sinclair and Tara Currie (another volunteer, now head chef of Unity Kitchen) to start a community kitchen in this under-utilized space.
Meet Tara! (she/her pronouns)
Tara’s role at Unity Kitchen is Head Chef!
Tara is responsible not only for preparing daily meals, but for developing recipes, coordinating and supporting volunteers in the kitchen, liaising with community members within and beyond the Church, and more.
Meet Sinclair! (they/he/she pronouns)
What is your role at Unity Kitchen?
“My technical title is Networks and Communications Facilitator. Which is just a fancy way of saying I help with everything but the cooking, including logistical work, social media, collaborations with partner organizations and agencies, wholesale, inventory, supporting the chef and the team, as well as some volunteer coordination.”
So you’re a bit of a jack of all trades here?
“Someone called me the ‘get it done’ person, which was very kind of them.”
Hey Sinclair. Thanks for chatting with us. So, what does a day-in-the-life look like for you at Unity Kitchen?
“When I come in, I ask Tara [the chef] what she needs help with. What I do [that day] all depends on the number of volunteers we have. The main part of my job is being present for our community members. Our food service is from 11-1pm Monday to Thursday. After service, I’ll collaborate with Tara on next week’s menu.
It really can be chaotic and I do love it, but there isn’t any one ‘standard’ day here. For example, I might do inventory and place wholesale orders. Or acquisitions – making sure we have the proper equipment to create the food we serve to our guests. I also reach out to places to solicit donations and try to build partnerships. Just last week, we had the Indigenous Support Project come in to use the kitchen, which we just got certified as a food safe kitchen. We’ve been talking about turning this space into a test kitchen, so inviting various organizations or entrepreneurs, free of charge, to come in and use it as they want.”
You’re in the heart of the city – Yonge and Dundas Square and a stone’s throw from the Eaton Centre. Who are the people using Unity Kitchen?
“Some of the current terminology is stigmatizing, I fear, but [our core clients are] a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness, a lot of unhoused people, a lot of people who use drugs, people who are food insecure for various reasons. And housing insecure people, for example, people who are coming in and out of the hotel shelter system. We’ve had three successive waves of encampments [in Trinity Square] and around the church, so we know folks who have insecure or unstable housing and need to leave because it’s no longer safe there. That is the main demographic, but there is a wide variety of people.”
How many folks are served by Unity Kitchen each week?
“Depending on whether it’s cheque week or not, it’s usually upwards of 100 or 120 individuals on a really busy day. This past week was cheque week so there were maybe 80 people. It fluctuates.”
That’s a great reach! How did Unity Kitchen and NFFTT first get connected?
“It was through my friend Lindsey [Pick Leader]. My relationship with NFFTT started about a year ago and I registered [Unity Kitchen as an agency with NFFTT to start receiving donations of fruit]. We had like $5,000 to do two months of service, so I thought…we’re going to need some free stuff! I linked up with you folks, and that’s how we got started. This year, Lindsey has been my main point of contact, bringing fruit donations. She’ll take what she needs for her jams and bring the rest here. We’re super grateful for her [dropping off fruit].”
Lindsey is absolutely one of our all-star Pick Leaders! She’s helped us out immensely, so we’re glad to hear she’s helped you folks as well.
How have yourself and Tara been able to incorporate the fresh fruit from NFFTT into your food programming?
“It’s mostly served raw and fresh, and that is just a matter of time and human resources. We have great volunteers here, but it can be challenging to devise recipes and process everything. What I love about what [NFFTT] has offered us, is that so much of what we’ve been given is ready to eat and it’s stuff that’s normally really expensive. So to get that for free is really wonderful. We just put the grapes in a little plastic bag and give them out fresh, and they’re like candy! And the apples and pears – we’ll just give them out. It’s raw and simple. Also, fresh fruit is oftentimes inaccessible!”
Why is fresh fruit important at Unity Kitchen?
“I’ve very aware that I’m the one speaking to you, and I’m not a representation of the community we serve, or the Holy Trinity community. I’m a white queer person, so I have my own ideas of why I think this is important. So I’ll speak from that place. What I’ve learned here is the importance of working in a way that aligns with principles and values, and sometimes challenging ideas of productivity and efficiency and perfection. It’s not about what you produce, but how you do the work. [Our team has discussed]: “what are some really tiny ways we can align with our principles and values?” One of the things we talked about when we started this kitchen was focusing on fresh fruit. So many lunch programs around the city are just focused on ensuring people eat. We wanted to serve people high quality food. One of our directives is to treat everybody with dignity and the respect they deserve. For us, serving fresh food was one way we could show that and attempt to express love, and hope that it was received as loving. Beyond the simplicity and nutritional benefits of the fruit, it’s a way to treat people well.”
I’m sure that respect and dignity is felt and appreciated by the community.
“Yeah! And we’ve heard from our community members that they do notice a difference in what we serve here.”
That feedback is important, and I’m sure it helps you to build your food programming around what people would like to eat and how they sustain themselves.
“Having options should not be a luxury, but it is. We try our best to offer as much culturally specific food, for example, we shy away from pork. We offer a vegetarian option, too. Choice is really important.”
Any parting words? Fun stories from this season of receiving fruit?
“The day that Lindsey came with a cart of 89 lbs of grapes. We had 4 volunteers and it took them 2 hours to wash, process, and bag them all. Everyone was tired by the end, but we packaged them all up! The sheer abundance of it is almost comical at times. I’m so impressed with how much [NFFTT] is able to give.”
How can people find out more about the work you do?
“Our main and exclusive social media is Instagram (@unitykitchen). We post updates on events, requests for volunteers, and updates about our community [on this platform] whenever we can.
You can also come in. All are welcome here! We had a big banner making event, where we lined some tables up and everyone was able to add to it. All are welcome here is something we believe in. We don’t have application processes for our volunteers. We try to create as accessible a space as possible! You can email us and come to volunteer, come for a lunch, come hang out! Lunch is for everyone.
If people are looking to donate to Unity Kitchen, they can do so two ways. First, they can donate directly to the Church via this link, and select ‘COVID-19 Community Relief Response’ in the drop down menu, and in the message note that you would like the donation to go towards the Unity Kitchen program.
People can also support us directly with donations of pre-packaged food and drink, such as Gatorade, granola bars, cookies, baked goods, and anything else pre-packaged. They can DM us on Instagram to coordinate a drop off or can come to the Church of the Holy Trinity, located at 19 Trinity Square, from 10am-4pm, Tuesday to Friday to drop it off.”
Thank you, Sinclair and Tara, for giving us the opportunity to highlight the amazing work you do! If you are interested in donating fruit from your NFFTT pick to Unity Kitchen’s food program, you can send an email to Sinclair at email@example.com to arrange for drop-off.
Gingko Picking Update