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Stop Community Food Centre Founder Nick Saul, volunteer Christina Palassio, volunteer David Protetch and Chef Scott MacNeil prepare lunch at the kitchen of the community centre on Davenport Rd.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

On a recent Thursday at The Stop Community Food Centre, over two hundred residents of the working-class Davenport West neighbourhood sat down to a free lunch that included Thai chicken stir fry with meat from Rowe Farms, vegetables from The Stop's own garden, and an immense salad larded with fresh grapes and queso fresco, dressed with a tarragon vinaigrette.

The mood in the drop-in café wasn't festive - many people ate quickly and in silence - but the hungry diners were impressed with the meal, paying their compliments to the chef, Scott McNeil. Previously he ran the show at the upscale Leslieville eatery Joy Bistro, but these days, Mr. McNeil is part of new approach to poverty, one that hopes to eradicate the food bank.

Here, in a community where many are living on a tight budget that makes Kraft Dinner seem mighty appealing, the exceptional complexity and freshness might have seemed a bit of foodie overkill. But this is one of The Stop's key tenets: to offer fresh, nutritious food in a way that gives dignity to the people eating it.

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The Stop also has less pronounced goal: to challenge the food bank's approach to poverty. "We could spend a lot of time talking about the inadequacies of the food-bank sector," says The Stop's executive director, Nick Saul. "But we don't want to get caught up in that conversation."

As city-wide food-bank demand reaches an all-time high, though, it's clear that a resource meant to provide temporary relief has become a necessity - a turn of events that was never meant to be. Created in the 70s and 80s as an emergency measure, food banks have become an entrenched part of the effort to eradicate hunger, even while hunger itself continues to grow. According to the Daily Bread Food Bank's annual report, the number of visits in Toronto surpassed a million for the first time between April, 2008, and April, 2009.

The Stop started as a food bank at Kensington Market's St. Stephens-in-the-Field church in the late 70s, and a small, monthly food bank remains part of its operation. But over the last decade or so, this has shrunk in importance as the organization has explored more progressive strategies that emphasize community-building rather than just handing out food. Not only does The Stop take aim at reducing poverty, equally ambitiously, it seeks to abolish food banks altogether. Michael MacMillan, former chief executive officer of Alliance Atlantis and one of The Stop's major donors (he's rumoured to have donated over a million dollars to the organization), calls it "a marvellous example for others."

The Stop opened its door to over 16,000 seniors, new immigrants, pregnant mothers and low-income residents last year. At The Stop, food is much more than something that fills you up; it's also a tool for cultural transformation and self-empowerment. "The best parties always end up in the kitchen," says The Stop's trim, silver-haired, 42-year-old leader. "You break bread and talk and stuff happens."

The bread-breaking happens in myriad ways: in the drop-in café; at The Stop's 8,000-square-foot community garden at Earlscourt Park where low-income residents are shown how to grow their own vegetables; in programs that teach young mothers about proper nutrition; in workshops where new immigrants learn about food security and receive public-speaking training; in the cooking classes held at its much-ballyhooed new greenhouse and kitchen facility at the Wychwood Green Barn.

With that decade-in-the-making development in a tony neighbourhood, The Stop's stepped a bit beyond the borders of the low-income neighbourhood it's been serving since 1995, both dramatically raising the organization's public profile and prompting a fair bit of internal soul-searching about its growth. (It recently turned down an offer from the Sorbara Development Group to build an organic farm on lands the developer owns at Weston Road and Highway 401, preferring instead to redouble efforts closer to home. "To jump from the Green Barn," Mr. Saul says, "which is still very much in play, to something that would take a lot of passion, time, commitment, money, it just wasn't right.") The Stop's nimble approach has so far proven very successful. It's shrewdly ridden the good-food wave - the ever-growing zeal for healthy, sustainable cuisine and agriculture - and partnered with high-end restaurants eager to promote their fresh-and-local menus; with organic growers such as the New Farm near Creemore, Ont.; and with progressive, independent grocers such as Fiesta Farms. The Stop recently hired, as its food enterprise co-ordinator, Chris Brown, ex-chef of Perigee, to spearhead a new series of exclusive dinners at the Green Barn, revenue from which will feed other programming.

Of all The Stop's diverse programs, though, the monthly food bank is the one that people most frequently request more access to.

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Mr. Saul refuses. Unapologetic, he'd rather promote self-sufficiency than perpetuate need. "There are still people who are going days without food," says Mr. Saul. "But is it our responsibility to fix this or is it our responsibility to say we need social policy that actually supports people through these times?"

This tough-love line extends to the food banks themselves. Daily Bread, a centralized organization that distributes food to 160 different food banks, provides about 1,800 kilograms of food a week to The Stop. But Mr. Saul's relationship with them remains, if not adversarial, then highly critical.

He describes food banks as a "moral release valve for government," arguing as well that they siphon off badly needed resources (Daily Bread's annual budget is $6-million, The Stop's about one-third that amount). At a panel discussion at the Green Barn this past spring, Mr. Saul and Daily Bread's executive director, Gail Nyberg, exchanged heated words over their different methods.

In the same tone she uses when pleading for donations on TV every Thanksgiving, Ms. Nyberg said at this meeting that "the poor will always be with us, just like food banks will always be with us." She mentioned her organization's constant lobbying for government intervention and poverty-reduction strategies. Mr. Saul looked disappointed, even angry, at the way in which she trumpeted these efforts. "Food banks act as if renewal will come from on high," he said, his voice rising. "But social change can never happen that way."

Ms. Nyberg, for her part, remains dismissive. "We're in a different business," she says. "But I do not believe that if we close our doors, which Nick has suggested at times, that all of a sudden there would be enough food and resources. That we would all grow our tomatoes in December in Toronto. That's not going to happen."

Mr. Saul argues that the traditional food-bank model is "built on sand," dependent entirely on volunteers, government support and donations, from both corporations and individuals, of both food and money.

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The Stop is likewise dependent on such generosity (roughly 90 per cent of its budget comes from private donors and foundations), but Mr. Saul views his teach-a-man-to-fish model as more entrepreneurial - a model that, in a way, sells itself and which can also be sold. To that end, he and his senior staff are now trying to figure if their model is something that's actually portable and transferable to, say, Scarborough or Guelph.

Rather than dwelling on the inadequacies of the food-bank sector, Mr. Saul wants to focus on developing better alternatives, and talks about wanting to build "other multipurpose food organizations that will, I hope, start to populate the province."

Adam Spence, executive director of the Ontario Association of Food Banks, notes that's already happening. About a third of the province's 130-odd community food banks, places like Niagara Falls' Project S.H.A.R.E., have incorporated programs and methodology similar to The Stop's. "The food bank is no longer just a place where someone gets an emergency supply of food," he says, "but where folks can get the necessary support to make their way out of poverty."

Special to The Globe and Mail

An earlier print and online version of this story incorrectly stated that Nick Saul is the founder of the The Stop. This online version has been corrected.

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