Cooking for COVID - Shelters, Drop-Ins, & Grassroots

By Vanessa Ling Yu

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A little bit of context:

The number of people using Toronto’s drop-ins and shelters prior to COVID-19  was not insignificant and speaks to ongoing challenges faced by underserved and marginalized communities.

“...we know that many people experiencing homelessness have underlying chronic medical conditions that increase their risk from COVID-19 and this is a particularly vulnerable population.” – Toronto Drop-In Network, March 23, 2020

There's now a surge of new users coming from low-wage earning backgrounds — such as folks who have been laid-off; are juggling unpredictable or restructured shiftwork; have added caregiving responsibilities; and, coping with underlying chronic medical conditions that increase their risk and make them particularly vulnerable. Many are unable to line-up or receive deliveries during revised operating hours wherever people are sourcing food.

“...more than 40 per cent of food bank programs have closed during this crisis, the food programs continuing to operate are under immense pressure to meet the increased demand.” – City of Toronto, April 6, 2020

We are all thinking about how to feed ourselves — perhaps more than anytime in recent history. This is especially challenging for folks living and working along  lines of precarity, from one day to the next. It’s estimated that we have 10,000 homeless people in Toronto who are simply not able to access other forms of emergency food interventions.  Meanwhile, recent announcements of support, space, and safety are not rolling out quickly enough to address these urgent needs.

“…there are already 23 confirmed cases of homeless individuals who have tested positive for coronavirus in Toronto.” – Toronto Drop-In Network, April 12, 2020

Drop-ins and shelters that are still in operation are strained, while others must close since they don’t have the capacity to meet requirements for physical distancing and disinfecting rules. The gaps in supports for our most vulnerable people are becoming even more unbearable. 

We cannot ignore the ways COVID-19 amplifies insecurities and inequities.

Cooking is our way of caring as we all try to get through COVID-19.

How can we help:

Each of the shelters and drop-ins that we have already been communicating with requires 100-200 meals per day. These include locations in Yorkville, Moss Park, Parkdale, Danforth Village, and a few along Yonge Street. They’ve seen increased need, and only expect it to get worse. Likewise, we are witnessing rapid responses by grassroots groups and other organizations that are not able to provide prepared meals to folks who cannot cook, because they lack time, space, tools, knowledge, skills, or physical capacity. We want to help them to help our friends and neighbours.

We have the pieces required to offer a part of solution to this complex problem but need your support. When you click "Donate," below, you'll have the option to send an amount of your choosing and comfort level. Below are some calculations to show you what we need.

  • 50 meals for $750
  • 100 meals for $1,450
  • 200 meals for $2,800
  • 500 meals for $6,500

My teams have the capacity to offer at least 2,000 hearty and healthy, safely prepared meals per day. caterToronto has been a vendor at some of the City’s larger special events and I am confident from experience that we can ramp up to 5,000 meals per day. We have coordinated the cooks and the kitchens. But, now we need you. We need your financial support to make this happen. Call it a truly integrated effort!

How the money will be spent:

  1. Cost of Goods – We have already used-up ingredients, supplies, and packaging gathered from various sources from earlier donations. Last week alone, from food prepared by Dani Bee’s #FamilyMealTO team of laid-off cooks, I personally delivered 200 individually packaged meals to a single drop-in location that has, like so many others, seen a notable increase of people needing food. It is much more efficient to streamline and support our local businesses by offering our support doing what we do well – cook! And more..
  2. Equity & Coordination – Right now it is urgent we safely & quickly pool together the most fitting volunteers & resources. There’s been a huge decline in trained volunteers at drop-ins and shelters who are often seniors, and among especially at risk sub-populations. Among the most available and capable for this effort are the often overlooked cooks from restaurants & bars, catering companies, and snack spots that we love and miss — and who have been indeterminably laid-off from low-wage jobs. Similarly, caterToronto’s network, which offers supports to women of colour working with food, faces an unknown future since we work together to cater special events. Even as cooks and caterers support the need for physical distancing, the social and economic aspects of food are really poignant during the COVID-19 pandemic.


"The work of caterToronto sometimes goes unnoticed, but the strength of their mandate is powerful and important. Vanessa is a supportive leader recognizing aboriginal, newcomers, and women of colour as individuals whom are the past, present, and future of cooking and serving our communities." Chef Suzanne Barr 


Additional ways to help: 

With so much gratitude and appreciation, thank you for your consideration and any potential support. I know not everyone is in a position to help financially. For those who can – please do! For those who can’t – please share, retweet, and repost this message. Here are some other ways to help:

  1. Plan a post-COVID gathering with #DiverseDignifiedDelicious eats provided by caterToronto. Find out more here:
  2. Even if you’re not able to donate through our coordinated effort, please consider sending gift cards to the Toronto Drop-in Network — either for fast food or grocery stores from businesses currently open to walk-in customers. The Toronto Drop-in Network is a member-based community of 58 drop-in centres throughout Toronto. Contact Diana to coordinate:
  3. Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to register with or
  4. Donate to Black Creek Community Farm or FoodShare. Both organizations are getting hampers to extremely vulnerable residents in the city with home addresses. Full disclosure: I am involved with these two organizations as a friend, working-group supporter, and board member.

caterToronto is a neighbourhoods-based network that supports new and emergent food entrepreneurs by offering access to commercial kitchens, business training and supports, along with feasible and feast-able     market opportunities through #DiverseDignifiedDelicious catering for you!

The majority of our members are racialized and/or newcomer women who are incredible cooks making in-roads to strengthen our community food systems. 

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Team Members

Vanessa Ling Yu

pruneah Kim