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Faith-based communities unite to save Toronto neighbourhood food bank
Nikhat Ahmed
Shaila Abdullah
22 December 2009
  • A recent HungerCount study conducted by Food Banks Canada reported an alarming 20 per cent increase in the number of Canadians turning to food banks in the past year. Weighed down by the recession, the institutions are struggling to meet increased demand across the country as food and cash donations become scarce.

    For years, the Flemingdon Food Bank, located in the Don Mills area of Toronto, had served over 2 000 individuals of many faiths and cultures every month. But a few months ago, when it found itself on the verge of having to close down, various faith-based groups stepped-in to offer their collective support to the troubled community institution.

    Volunteers from the Ismaili community and the Islamic Society of Toronto with Rev Helena-Rose Houldcroft, Director of the Flemingdon Park Ministry, at the food bank. Photo: Moez Visram
    Volunteers from the Ismaili community and the Islamic Society of Toronto with Rev Helena-Rose Houldcroft, Director of the Flemingdon Park Ministry, at the food bank. Moez Visram

    Eager to give back to a community in which the Jamat has established deep roots over the past three decades, the Ismaili Muslim community joined with the Islamic Society of Toronto as well as the Presbyterian, Anglican and United Church communities to assist the Flemingdon Food Bank. Community leaders began by relocating it to a more suitable premises, before turning their attention to boosting its supply stock. Setting a goal of raising 6 000 pounds of food, the group launched a Ramadan food drive.

    “The Ismaili community conducts drives for food banks every year,” said Alim Somani, a Member of the Ismaili Council for Ontario who was closely involved with the project. “This year, we decided to focus our effort on the Flemingdon Food Bank.”

    The mega-drive began at area mosques and all Ontario Jamatkhanas, and the delivery of the food coincided with Eid al-Fitr. The collective effort was so successful that it exceeded its original target by some 4 000 pounds. Reverend Helena-Rose Houldcroft, the director of Flemingdon Park Ministry felt privileged to be a well-received partner in the initiative.

    “When the food was delivered, the excitement was palpable,” said Reverend Houldcroft. “The 10 000 pounds of gathered food will feed 2 000 people, including 1 000 children for at least two months!”

    Community roots in Don Mills

    Boxes of donated food items arrive at the Flemingdon food bank. Photo: Moez Visram
    Boxes of donated food items arrive at the Flemingdon food bank. Moez Visram

    The Ismaili community has strong historical ties in the Don Mills area. Many of the more than 30 000 Ismailis who live in Toronto today initially settled in the neighbourhood when they immigrated to Canada. The area will also soon be home to a new Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum, which will house artefacts relating to the intellectual, cultural, artistic and religious traditions of Muslim communities.

    In addition to helping the food bank, the initiative broke new common ground among the faith groups, strengthening the relationships between them. Reverend Houldcroft believes that there is a long range benefit to the connections they established: “It was not just about the food – although that was very welcome – and it wasn't just about Muslims giving to Muslims,” she stated. “It was primarily about building relationships and subsequently empowering a community. It was a deeply faithful and responsive community responding to the needs of a challenged community.”

    Jamat supports food banks across Canada

    The Flemingdon Food Bank was the not the only food bank in Canada to receive support from the Ismaili community. During the month of Ramadan, Jamats across Canada worked together to raise thousands of pounds of food, as well as funds for their local food banks. The Edmonton Ismaili community collected over CAD $7 800 for the Edmonton Food Bank, while Calgary Ismailis succeeded in raising an equivalent of 14 000 pounds of food and funding for the Calgary Inter-Faith Food Bank. It was the Calgary community's thirteenth year of helping the food bank.

    Ismailis in British Columbia also contributed significantly to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, the Surrey Food Bank, the Richmond Food Bank, and the Share Society Food Bank. In order to learn first-hand how the food bank helps people in need, Ismaili youth in Vancouver participated in a training session at the Surrey Food Bank to learn about its various activities. After a quick orientation, the young volunteers rolled up their sleeves and offered their service in various capacities.

    Long term partnerships

    Ismaili volunteer Nazmal Kanji together with Rev Helena-Rose Houldcroft, Director of the Flemingdon Park Ministry, working to sort and shelve donated food at the Flemingdon food bank. Photo: Moez Visram
    Ismaili volunteer Nazmal Kanji together with Rev Helena-Rose Houldcroft, Director of the Flemingdon Park Ministry, working to sort and shelve donated food at the Flemingdon food bank. Moez Visram

    The Ismaili community, the Islamic Society of Toronto and Reverend Houldcroft hope to continue to partner on other community projects. “Already members of our Ministry are asking to learn more about the faith of their Muslim brothers and sisters,” remarked Reverend Houldcroft. “So a simple act of giving food has led to a deepening of understanding between communities.”