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Chambar owners Karri and Nico Schuermans at the restaurant in Vancouver on Sept. 3, 2019.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

A Vancouver restaurateur has devised a plan to feed the city’s most vulnerable residents, keep the local food-supply chain alive and, quite possibly, save a wide swath of restaurants by providing a sufficient and consistent volume of weekly meal orders to cover their fixed costs until normal operations can be resumed.

The Food Coalition, spearheaded by Chambar restaurant owner Karri Schuermans, will launch next week, beginning with the distribution of 700 meals a day to social agencies and people living in privately owned single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels whose food needs are not being met because of COVID-19.

“People are going hungry because the soup kitchens are closed or they’re sheltering in place and not receiving regular meals,” Ms. Schuermans says.

“The local farms that serve restaurants are producing food, but they have nowhere to sell it. The restaurants that are open for takeout or doing groceries are not earning enough. This is a triple-win for everyone.”

Supported by the city of Vancouver’s Emergency Operations Centre, the meal-delivery system will be co-ordinated through Foodee, an online platform that usually delivers catered lunches to business offices from local restaurants.

The meals will be distributed though a fleet of service vehicles provided by Telus.

The Food Bank of Greater Vancouver is helping social agencies join the database, while also screening for most immediate need and creating nutritional and food-preparation guidelines that will make it easier for restaurants to fill orders.

Partly financed by private donors (who will receive charitable tax receipts), this much-needed centralized database could even become a legacy program for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and its patchwork system of social agencies.

“This could be phenomenal,” says Allison Dunnet, senior planner of affordable housing at the city of Vancouver. “There is nothing quite like this right now. “To connect those who can make the food with those who need the food in a modern system at this critical juncture is very exciting.”

According to Monika Czyz, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver’s Emergency Food Security Branch, there are 1,500 tenants in 52 private SROs who are not being fed. An additional 2,044 tenants across 54 buildings are currently receiving meals, but the financing (a mix of private and government funds) for these contracts is precarious.

Additionally, there are 2,200 homeless people in Vancouver who also need meals. And at least 50,000 people who were food insecure before the pandemic.

Many private donors, including the Giustra Foundation, have been supporting multiple feeding programs across the city. Public funds were also provided, but with no defined end to COVID-19, funding at all levels is stretched.

The Food Coalition is hoping that other private foundations and BC Housing will step up. With a centralized system it might be easier than having to deal with multiple organizations all holding out their hands.

Restaurants that participate must commit to using local food producers as much as possible. “No one is really talking about food shortages,” Ms. Schuermans says. “But all those farms that serve restaurants need to sell their surplus or they’re not going to survive either.”

Food Coalition restaurants must also adhere to strict safety protocols that include temperature checks for workers every four hours. In turn, they will be given minimum orders of 200 meals each day, for a two-week period, paid at $10 a meal, with assistance on discounted packaging and labelling, which can significantly drive up costs.

“I’m trying to not get too excited, but this could be the saviour we need to get through this pandemic,” said Trevor Bird, the chef-owner of Kitsilano’s Fable Kitchen, one of the first restaurants to join.

Since being ordered to close his restaurant, Mr. Bird has offered takeout meals that can be reheated at home. He’s also sold and donated 2,200 meals to front-line hospital workers (through the emergency Staff Meal program initiated by Say Mercy! restaurant) and raised $10,000 through a GoFundMe campaign and $35,000 through corporate donations. Although his is in far better shape than most Vancouver restaurants, it still hasn’t been enough to pay his bills.

“I can’t survive on the Staff Meal alone,” he said. “I’m making about $10,000 a month on that. I need $60,000 to cover my bare minimum costs. I hope to earn about $50,000 through the Food Coalition. This is definitely bigger scale.

“But it’s not just for me,” he adds. “This is for the greater good. I’m going to fold my donations into this fund and together we’re going to help a whole bunch of restaurants.”

- To inquire about making a donation, visit the Food Coalition’s website at foodcoalition.ca.

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