“We can pack 850 food hampers in two hours”: How the Toronto Public Library turned its branches into food banks

“We can pack 850 food hampers in two hours”: How the Toronto Public Library turned its branches into food banks

I’m an area manager with the Toronto Public Library, overseeing the day-to-day operation of 18 branches and more than 300 staff. Since the libraries closed, my job description has changed dramatically: we’re now partnering with North York Harvest, Daily Bread and Second Harvest to turn branches of the Toronto Public Library into food banks. In the last couple weeks, a third of the food banks in the city closed down—either their venues shuttered or volunteers didn’t want to expose themselves. They had plenty of food and plenty of demand, but no place to distribute it. A lot of people were left stranded.

The discussions to turn libraries into food banks happened a day or so after the decision to close the branches. We see libraries as community hubs and librarians as public servants… Almost right away, we decided to redirect our resources to help with this critical need. We have 100 buildings in neighbourhoods all across the city. We realized, “Okay, we can do this.” The library handles materials all the time. We do plenty of packing and unpacking. We work with communities. It just made sense.

When we put this plan into action, we put a call out to staff asking who wanted to help. Immediately, we got more response than we could possibly need. We had to close the call out in about an hour because so many people came forward. We have more than 130 staff volunteers so far, four to five people handing out hampers at the branch and many more packing up hampers at the distribution centre. Everyone wanted to help out. I am honoured to be able to support our communities this way. And so proud of our staff.

We have a big distribution centre on Ellesmere Road, where we process hundreds of thousands of books a year. It’s set up with loading docks and all the equipment normally required to move boxes of books. In mid-March, we shifted everything around, deep-cleaned, disinfected it and converted it into a food warehouse. The food arrives there, we unpack it, create hampers of food, and ship them back out to the branches. One of our small food hampers will feed two people, and a large hamper will feed three to six people. For larger families, we provide two hampers. At Ellesmere, we’re able to pack 850 hampers full of canned fish, rice, pasta, yogurt, milk and fresh produce in a couple of hours.

We set up each branch up to ensure the distribution is as safe as possible. We put the hamper on a table just outside the branch. The person picks up the hamper, and then we serve the next person in line. We’ve been able to move a lot people through, which has been great. Library staff does public service all the time, so it comes naturally.

After our first two three-hour shifts, our library staff served more than 400 people. The food banks have their own clients that normally come through, but because our Albion branch is visible at street level, word is getting out that there is a food bank there now. We expect the numbers to keep getting higher. On Friday, we opened three more branches that will be open from 2 to 4 p.m.: Eatonville, Steeles, and Agincourt. The goal is to be able to scale up. By the end of this week, we will have 10 or so branches running as food banks.

The food banks have trained us on their best practices: what goes into a healthy hamper, how they determine what size hamper someone gets, how they manage their clients, how to ensure confidentiality. We also learned a lot about the safe handling of food, including what needs to be refrigerated and how to be mindful of best-before dates.

Food security is so important. People shouldn’t worry about finding enough to eat along with everything else. I loved my job before, but now it feels extra great to come to work every day. With everything happening in the world, it’s nice to think I can do something that helps.

As told to Isabel B. Slone