Tony Lea was a college computer programming student in Toronto when she started experiencing neurological problems and needed medication to control her twitches and tremors. More than a decade later, she now uses a wheelchair and receives Ontario Disability Support Program benefits. Ms. Lea struggles to provide for herself and her 11-year-old daughter, who also has disabilities.
Desperate to feed her family, Ms. Lea made a Facebook post asking for help near the holidays in 2021. That’s when Toronto Cares, a non-profit initiative that provides low-income, disabled and homeless families with resources, took notice and stepped in. Soon enough, the organization delivered groceries and Christmas toys to her door.
“I don’t have to fight with Toronto Cares to get help,” said Ms. Lea, who has received groceries from the group whenever she has needed them since then.
Sarah Robinson, a single mother also on ODSP, founded Toronto Cares at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, 2020, a time when many were struggling to purchase basic necessities, in part, due to tight finances, mental health challenges and mobility issues.
Ms. Robinson has struggled with food insecurity and homelessness herself. At the beginning of the pandemic, she responded to a Facebook post looking to help single mothers and was surprised when two strangers e-transferred her $200 within half an hour. To pay the favour forward, she began connecting people who could donate with those in need through the social media platform. Met with clear demand, she started building a team to help her source and deliver resources, and one month later, Toronto Cares officially became a non-profit initiative.
By May, 2020, the group was delivering grocery boxes that included items specifically requested by individual recipients, the most popular being cooking oil and toilet paper. People could submit an application to receive a grocery box delivered by a volunteer for a fee of $15 to get $75 worth of supplies. Toronto Cares purchased most of the items, while the rest were provided by commercial kitchens, restaurants and corporate donors.
Ms. Robinson said the organization allowed people to choose items they like and need most, noting that low-income families are often told they shouldn’t complain about the food they receive from food banks, even if some of it is expired.
“Why are they being treated like they don’t matter and like they shouldn’t have a choice in what they put in their bodies just because they’re struggling financially?” said Ms. Robinson.
Since then, the volunteer-run organization has helped more than 12,000 people by delivering groceries, clothes, office supplies, back-to-school items and toys for the holidays collected through monthly donation drives, as the need for these services only continues to grow. To spread the word about their services, the team is active on social media, including on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Grocery bills for families are expected to increase by more than a thousand dollars this year compared to 2022, according to the 2023 Canada’s Food Price Report. Meanwhile, food banks served more than five million Canadians a month in 2022, according to data from Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization. That number is expected to grow to more than eight million Canadians per month this year.
Although the grocery boxes are their most requested service, they are on hold due to a lack of funding. The organization currently runs on donations and grants, but is applying for charity status to keep up with growing demand.
“At the end of the day, we are trying to help families in every position, depending on each individual, unique situation,” said Jamie Gagnon, a Toronto Cares board member.
Before Ms. Gagnon was a part of the team, she reached out to Toronto Cares when she needed help providing for her baby during the pandemic.
“Sarah listened to me … She helped me when nobody else would,” she said. “I have never had so much support in my life.”