Toronto Star

A pantry with heart

Leah Houston and her Etobicoke community have reimagined what an outdoor food bank could look like


When food banks closed due to COVID last March, Leah Houston, the artistic director of community arts organizati­on MabelleArt­s, got, well, creative. She and her team started a delivery-to-door service for the central Etobicoke neighbourh­ood’s 10 most vulnerable households. “It was me and my trusty Toyota buying groceries and bringing them to folks’s homes, with tons of logistical support from Mabelle staff,” says Houston.

By June, MabelleArt­s had partnered with a local food bank and was serving 100 households on Mabelle Avenue. Houston brought in Nicolette Felix, a chef and food security specialist, to take the idea to the next level. That’s when Mabelle Pantry, a free farmer’s market-style food bank in Mabelle Park, was born. To keep it running during the winter months has required fortitude — and imaginatio­n. “We purchased an ice fishing hut and transforme­d our trailer and garden shed into food distributi­on hubs with flags and lights,” says Houston, whose arts group also produced a special audio project with more than 70 seniors who were experienci­ng isolation during COVID. (Organizati­ons like Minto have stepped into provide support.) The pantry now serves close to 400 households.

Houston says that the sense of ownership the community has over the park is key to the project’s success. “Mabelle Park is a hub that residents have built together over 14 years, transformi­ng it from a neglected green space into a vibrant community meeting place…. The most striking thing is watching Mabelle participan­ts being there for each other and for us in times of needs. We care for them but they care for us too — it truly is a community in that way.” A resident of Mabelle Avenue echoes that sentiment. “When I was a little girl, I dreamed of living in the countrysid­e with animals and nature but that dream didn’t come true,” she recently told Houston. “But now I have the park. Every morning I wake up and look outside at the park with the two trailers and it is like a dream.”


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