The Stop: The capitalist's guide to feeding the poor

The Stop doesn't believe in handing out food. It does believe in gourmet five-course dinners, upscale cooking classes and—gasp—making money.


(Photo: Natta Summerky)

If you were one of the 850 lucky Torontonians who managed to get a ticket to the Stop’s inaugural Night Market, you could have spent the long, sweltering evening of June 20 eating, among other things, Korean fried chicken; garam-masala-flavoured doughnut holes; white sangria snow cones; pig-tail tacos; tortillas smothered in black beans, quinoa, avocado and aged cheddar; steamed buns with pork belly; wild boar meatballs; mini pulled-pork sandwiches (there was a lot of pork) and vegetarian pad thai. You could have washed all this down with unlimited cups of craft beer, shots of tequila or coconut water. You could have sampled food and drink, in fact, from more than 30 high-end restaurants and vendors, all served from one-of-a-kind stalls each more whimsical than the last—one shaped like Pegasus, another made entirely of ice. Standing beneath glowing paper lanterns in the alleyway behind Honest Ed’s, the iconic discount department store in the heart of the city, watching the sun dip behind Ed’s famous façade, you would have known how rare and delightful such an experience is in a metropolis that until recently limited its street food almost exclusively to hot dogs. And you probably would have enjoyed the tacos and meatballs even more knowing that the $50 you paid for them would be going to help people whose dinner that night might have only been a hot dog—if they were lucky enough to have dinner at all.

The Stop, whose full name is the Stop Community Food Centre, has been fighting hunger and poverty since the late 1970s. It began life as one of Canada’s first food banks, and while it still maintains a small, active one, with a focus on fresh produce, it long ago expanded far beyond simply handing out food. It’s been highly critical, in fact, of conventional food banks, arguing strenuously that they are an inadequate, and often harmful, response to more systemic societal dysfunction. From sites in two different neighbourhoods in west Toronto (one low-income, the other more affluent), the thriving non-profit offers instead a dizzying, ever-expanding constellation of programs and initiatives that all pivot on the idea that healthy food, and universal access to it, is a basic human right. Among them: intensive community gardens that provide a therapeutic space where members are taught how to grow their own vegetables; programs that teach young mothers about proper nutrition; workshops where local residents learn about food security and receive public-speaking training; and after-school classes where tweens whip up healthy meals. The bulk of its programs are aimed at the 80,000 residents of the Stop’s gritty Davenport West catchment area, of whom roughly 20% use its services. Last year, 55,000 free breakfasts and lunches were served at its drop-in, 10,000 pounds of vegetables were grown in its gardens and greenhouse, and almost $2-million worth of local food and products were sold at a weekly farmers’ market held at the Stop’s Wychwood Barns location, a singular complex comprised of greenhouse, gardens, kitchen and classroom.

This all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink Night Market—modelled on the pop-up street bazaars found throughout the Asian diaspora—is just the latest in the Stop’s long series of innovative fundraising events and services that have successfully brought together top chefs, like-minded corporate sponsors and a seemingly insatiable community of foodies to raise both awareness and money. Business savvy—hardly a hallmark of the non-profit sector—and a healthy appetite for smart, strategic growth, permeates the organization. The Stop’s so-called social-enterprise initiatives, in fact, have grown 100% a year in the past three years, and now represent 12% of their annual revenue—approximately the same amount the organization receives in government funding.

The Stop’s expansive, multifarious efforts have been so successful, in fact, that it has spawned a new national organization. This fall, several members of its executive will begin transplanting the Stop’s model to other parts of Canada through a new umbrella organization, Community Food Centres Canada. Their bold plan is to open 15 new community food centres across the country in the next five years. When British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver visited the Stop for the first time in 2010, he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. Every city should have one.” Soon, perhaps, every city will.

The notion of social enterprise—and related ideas of social innovation and social entrepreneurship—has enjoyed considerable vogue in recent years, but its definition can be a bit slippery. The B.C. Centre for Social Enterprise defines it broadly as “revenue-generating businesses with a twist,” that twist being that the social enterprise has two parallel goals—to earn revenue, but just as important, to achieve positive social, cultural or environmental outcomes. In Canada, examples of social enterprise range from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore to Atira Property Management, a real estate management company that bankrolls transition housing and support services for victims of violence and abuse. In an era of government austerity and donor fatigue, social enterprise has been hailed as the saviour of the charity sector.

According to Tim Draimin, executive director of Social Innovation Generation National, social enterprise provides non-profits with the third, stabilizing leg of a three-legged funding stool (the other two legs being government and private donations). “It gives you the most freedom to do what you want,” Draimin says. “It creates stability and a surplus to expand programs and mission.”

The bulk of the Stop’s funding currently consists of foundation support (about 28%) but special events, corporate donations and social enterprise combined represent another 33%. “Our story is one of a mixed economy,” says Nick Saul, the Stop’s executive director. “We’re not too latched on to any one player.” Saul, who has a background in community organizing, joined the Stop as executive director in 1998. The organization was then just a bare-bones food bank, with three staff members working out of a small space with a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars. Today, it has 40 staff, two locations and an annual operating budget of $4.5 million. Draimin calls Saul a “classic social entrepreneur,” unwilling to settle for the status quo.

Saul doesn’t talk about the Stop’s users as recipients of charity; instead, he often sounds more like a CEO with customers to serve. He frequently says that the non-profit moved away from the food-bank model after listening to what its community of users wanted. When food banks emerged in Canada in the 1970s, they were designed to provide emergency—and temporary—assistance during an economic downturn. Over the next decade, however, they multiplied across the country like mushrooms, becoming entrenched and institutionalized. According to a report by Food Banks Canada, almost 900,000 Canadians required their assistance in 2011, a 28% increase over 2008. After paying rent and utilities, the average food bank user is left with only $6.61 a day. Food banks, Saul argues, serve as a kind of “moral release valve” for government, permitting it to appear as if it were doing something about hunger when it’s doing nothing to address the poverty and social isolation that lead people to food banks in the first place.

Saul’s been attentive to the Stop community, but he has just as carefully listened to the marketplace. As the Stop added outdoor bake ovens and affordable food markets to its Davenport West site, the larger conversation around food was shifting. Consumer interest in local, organic agriculture boomed, and concerns about factory farming galvanized writers like Michael Pollan, Wayne Roberts and Raj Patel. In 2009, the Stop capitalized on this so-called Good Food Revolution—and greatly enhanced its profile—by opening a satellite facility in a converted streetcar barn near the tony neighbourhood of Wychwood Park. The Green Barn, as it’s known, is essentially a food-production and education centre, consisting of a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse, a classroom that doubles as a café, a kitchen and several community garden plots. Patel, author of The Value of Nothing, visited in 2010, calling the Stop “a truly revolutionary organization that is at the forefront of a movement to create a more equitable, sustainable and healthy food system.”

It took almost 10 years and a $5-million capital campaign to create the Green Barn. The herculean effort helped shift the Stop’s fundraising strategies—and its ambitions. While the Stop had started out raising money through conventional means such as grants, foundations and direct-mail campaigns, and continues to rely on these methods for the bulk of its funding, it saw opportunity in the wealthier constituency that lived near the Green Barn. These new neighbours were fellow travellers whose deeper pockets and passion for food could help fund programs and expansion throughout the organization. “There’s a certain percentage of people who care so much about food for themselves,” says Stop program director Kathryn Scharf, “and who can extend that empathy to lower-income people who are excluded from the pleasures of food. They know the positive role that food can play in family and friendships.”

The Green Barn escalated the Stop’s evolution. It began operating one of the city’s largest farmers’ markets, as well as a weekly café. Once a month, in an evening called Food for Change, the greenhouse was transformed into a restaurant that served a gourmet, five-course meal, using ingredients grown just a few feet away. (Interested diners could join the chefs in preparing the meal.) It began a series of upscale cooking classes in its kitchen, and published a popular cookbook. Around the same time, the Stop, increasingly conscious of itself as a kind of boutique brand, launched Stop for Food, and Grow for the Stop. The first is an annual month-long event where dozens of upscale restaurants serve prix-fixe meals with a portion of the meal’s price going directly to the Stop, and the latter a novel partnership with Creemore, Ont.’s New Farm, an initiative through which money is raised to fund the farming of organic produce that’s donated to the Stop. (Not all of these initiatives have worked; the cooking classes, which were fairly small-scale, were killed after a year.)

Soon after the Green Barn opened, the Stop started using the kitchen in the off-hours to launch a fledgling catering business. It’s since outgrown that space and now occupies a dedicated, off-site kitchen with its own chef and manager. Its high-profile corporate clients include the blue-chip law firm Stikeman Elliot, Stonegate financial advisers and the Weston Foundation. “The catering is a really good calling card,” says Saul. “It creates a sense that our organization is smart, nimble and entrepreneurial. It differentiates us in the non-profit marketplace, where there are thousands of organizations that are trying to be noticed.” Ideally, it also creates a kind of feedback loop whereby guests attend a function catered by the Stop, learn about the organization and, intrigued by its work and the great food they’re enjoying, hire the Stop themselves or become a donor—or both.

In 2011, ING Direct Canada made the Stop its preferred local caterer. Over the past three years, ING and the Stop have enjoyed a particularly cozy relationship, with the Dutch banking giant’s Toronto branch, under the guidance of Nick Cluley (official title: creator of great experiences), routinely sending volunteers to man the Stop’s outdoor wood-burning oven on weekly free pizza nights, as well as underwriting events like the Food for Change dinners and the Night Market. (ING Direct, of course, is in the process of being consumed by Scotiabank, but will operate at arm’s length through 2014. How the partnership will fare after the merger remains to be seen.) ING now sponsors four to six events a year, paying about $35,000 annually for the privilege. “The money’s only half the story,” says Cluley, “but if, after those three years, we’ve priced ourselves out of the sponsorship, that would be a great thing.”

ING’s relationship with the Stop might just look like a variant of corporate social responsibility, but it hints at the more symbiotic manner in which corporate and charitable organizations can—and likely should—work. For a long time, non-profits sat back and let the business community dictate the terms of its philanthropy, which often amounts to no more than a sly PR campaign. Lately, however, organizations like the Stop are more assertively partnering with corporations for mutual benefit. “I think that’s the trend in the world of corporate relationships,” says Scharf. “Some corporations want to be more involved with the organizations they sponsor. When it works, it works really well. You can be more than the sum of your parts that way.”

In January of this year, the Stop launched a much-anticipated expansion project, franchising its model to other cities and communities across the country. The first of two Ontario pilot sites, the Table Community Food Centre, opened its doors in January in Perth, just outside of Ottawa; the second, Stratford’s Local Community Food Centre, opens this fall. Both of these will be smaller than the Stop itself, but they will incorporate the three key ingredients that make up what Saul calls the Stop’s “stew”: food skills (both growing and cooking), food access, and education and engagement.

Also this fall, these pilot sites, as well as the Stop itself, will officially become part of Community Food Centres Canada, the organization that’s driving the development of such centres across the country. Saul and Scharf will leave the Stop to head the new organization. (Rachel Gray, a stalwart of the community-services sector, has replaced Saul as executive director.) They are currently trying to raise $20 million for the project; the money will go to one-time capital grants for 15 new centres (to build kitchens, gardens and activity rooms) as well as annual $350,000 operating grants. The first few provinces they’re targeting outside of Ontario are Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. As they did with the Stop, Saul and Scharf are also looking for corporate partners who can provide funding or in-kind donations—Saul speculates that a chain like Home Hardware, say, could donate lumber—that would be shared across all the centres. They’re also urging each centre, along the lines of its Grow for the Stop program, to develop intimate relationships with small local farmers, with the farms providing produce for their programs and the centre, in turn, providing a reliable market for the farm.

They’re cautious, however, about recommending the new centres spend too much time on social enterprise, at least at first. “A lot of people assume that’s what we’d be encouraging,” says Scharf. “‘Hey everyone, start your own catering company!’ But we know how hard that is. And you have to be realistic about the scale of work that can be done this way.” Michael MacMillan, the former executive chairman of Alliance Atlantis and a longtime Stop board member and donor, argues that too much focus on social enterprise can “lead one down a rabbit hole that’s not useful. Just like charity is not as useful as a change in public policy. It’s the same disconnect that says every community organization should find its sustenance in for-profit business.” Saul concurs, concerned that social enterprise is increasingly being viewed as a panacea. But he’s equally as insistent that for a non-profit to remain relevant and engaged, they must take advantage of as many revenue tools as possible: “These organizations that are funded 90% by government, that’s the kiss of death.”

In an essay in Five Good Ideas: Practical Strategies for Non-Profit Success, a 2011 book edited by the Maytree Foundation’s Alan Broadbent and Ratna Omidvar, Saul instructed his fellow non-profit leaders to “embrace your inner entrepreneur.” Sometimes, it seems, Saul can embrace his own entrepreneur a bit too tightly. The first time I interviewed him, in 2009, he spoke excitedly about a plan for a new organic farm that the Stop hoped to build in the northern part of the city. Later in the conversation, he talked about bottling and selling a Stop-brand salsa. Both plans eventually faltered, when Saul’s enthusiasm ran aground on a cost-benefit analysis. But if you buy a jar of Neal Brothers organic salsa today, you’ll notice the Stop’s green-and-black logo printed on the label. A portion of the sales of each jar goes back to the non-profit. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s yet another vehicle through which the Stop can disseminate its message. “Nick could be a money-hungry capitalist pig,” Neal says, with a small laugh, “but he’s transferred that energy and passion into something meaningful.” Put another way, Saul and the Stop have figured out how entrepreneurship can be meaningful, that opportunism is not always a dirty word, and that business acumen and compassion are not mutually exclusive. Their unity, in fact, might be the only way toward a better world.