This community group kept Toronto’s St. James Town residents fed throughout the pandemic. Now it’s in need of a home

A community organization focused on improving the quality of life for residents in Toronto’s St. James Town area is in need of a permanent home.

Throughout the pandemic, the St. James Town Community Co-op has been delivering boxes of fresh produce as well as frozen and cooked meals to residents experiencing food insecurity in the downtown neighbourhood.

For six months the co-op was temporarily operating from the Wellesley Community Centre, but at the end of June the space turned into a vaccine clinic. That resulted in weekly food distributions being organized outside in the summer heat, rain, and recently amid poor air quality.

Being outside, there was nowhere to plug in a fridge, so milk and eggs could not be distributed. Volunteers and staff also had to take the time to set up and dismantle tents, and lay down tarp on top of the muddy ground.

Josephine Grey, co-founder of the St. James Town Community Co-op, is trying to get the word out that the organization is in need of an indoor space before winter.

“We need 1,000 to 2,000 square feet of packing space with a sink, and hopefully at ground level. We don’t want to wear people out from carrying boxes and hopefully we can get an accessible space,” said Grey. “We’d like to see the (government) step up and try to match what we’ve been able to raise so we can continue to feed more households in an adequate space. I think it’s going to get worse this winter as the price of food goes up.”

Grey says she would like to see the provincial and municipal governments creating more adequate spaces or retrofitting unused spaces for emergency food storage in the neighbourhood, as well as investing in more local initiatives that fight food insecurity. The co-op has an online petition with more than 10,000 signatures urging the city to help it find a permanent space.

The St. James Town Community Co-op was created by the neighbourhood’s residents wanting to address food insecurity that disproportionately affects its 25,000 residents, many of whom are newcomers, single parents, seniors, refugees and low-income earners. The area is home to many who were deemed essential workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The co-op’s initiatives include community gardens, a bulk food buying club, and partnerships with FoodShare and the Afri-Can FoodBasket to provide emergency food boxes.

“I’m very proud of the young people, our staff and volunteers and the residents. They’ve gone above and beyond. It’s frustrating sometimes to be overlooked and have funding proposals rejected, but we managed to continue to build and operate whether we have funding or space because this is for the community and by the community so there’s a lot of dedication,” said Grey.

“I just hope that what we do is appreciated at some point, it’s not just about St. James Town, it’s about all communities having the right to secure food and water.”

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