It is a crisp fall afternoon in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood when Carolyn Quigley pulls up her grey van on the street in front of a two-storey non-descript blue building tucked among flashy salons, fast-food restaurants and dance studios.
She’s with her friend Lori Wells and it’s a trip the pair have made twice a week for seven months.
They pop open the hatch, revealing a number of boxes and bags of sandwiches, grapes and chocolate bars, and start unloading their delivery for the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre – an agency that serves the Indigenous community and also hands out meals to people in the neighbourhood with food insecurity.
When the pandemic was declared in March and the country went into lockdown, soup kitchens and shelters faced new restrictions in how they could make and serve food, leaving homeless people and others with food insecurity especially vulnerable.
Looking for a way to help, Ms. Quigley and Ms. Wells started Sandwich Sisters – which has since grown to almost 300 volunteers – to try to fill that gap.
Ms. Quigley, who worked with designers in the hospitality industry, found herself out of a job after the pandemic hit. So the mother of two grown boys, who was already a regular donor to Good Shepherd Ministries, a Catholic charity for the homeless, now had more time to give back.
She reached out to her friend Ms. Wells, who worked in the community for the City of Markham, and is now a retired mother of two grown boys. Together they came up with the plan.
Ms. Quigley says her experience growing up in a big Irish family motivates her. “There were times when we did not have enough food,” she says. “We used to have a sandwich in our pocket with mayonnaise jars with milk in them, and it is no treat on a hot day, drinking milk from mayonnaise jars.”
It’s important for those who are fortunate enough that they don’t have to worry to give back, Ms. Wells says.
“It is emotional,” she says. “It is about community and giving back to where you live and looking at those that are disadvantaged and giving them maybe a leg up if you can.”
They started by rallying friends from their Beaches neighbourhood in East Toronto. Friends then told friends and before they knew it, people from all over Greater Toronto joined the cause.
At first getting hundreds of calls a day from people wanting to pitch in was overwhelming, but they’ve now come to a point when Ms. Quigley says they can declare they are “owning this” and can manage all the demands.
Sandwich Sisters has made almost 80,000 sandwiches since it started. They also give out muffins, cookies, juice boxes, granola bars, oranges, apples, bottled water, soup, chili, veggies and fruit cups. In addition to Good Shepherd Ministries and Fire Council Toronto Native Cultural Centre, they donate to six more shelters and charities around the city.
Ms. Quigley says she wanted to establish a movement that was self-sustainable and self-managing. The group functions in pods, and there are more than a dozen across the city. Each has volunteers that buy ingredients to prepare under the training and instruction of the pod leader.
Adrienne Urquhart, the director of fundraising and public relations at Good Shepherd Ministries, says she was worried when the pandemic began. The City of Toronto and the Public Health Agency of Canada safety guidelines meant limiting the number of people in the building so they had to stop accepting volunteers.
Because volunteers came every day to help prepare food, they had to stretch to be able to provide two meals a day – one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
“Immediately we turned to a takeout lunch, which was a bagged lunch,” she says. “Our staff got redeployed, so anybody who is in administration, like all over – the counsellors, everybody – was pitching in to prepare sandwiches.”
That meant there was a need for others to come up with creative ways to help.
“Groups like Sandwich Sisters are a godsend to us because they are an extension of what we are able to provide,” Ms. Urquhart says. “It would have been difficult for us if not for them.”
With that help, the organization has been able to distribute more than 120,000 meals since the pandemic began.
Sherry Bagnato is one of the pod leaders based in the Beaches. She oversees 20 volunteers and says the sense of community that comes with being part of the group makes it fulfilling for her.
“Literally, every single person in my pod I did not know,” she says. “They just stepped up.”
“People are very interested in what we are doing, so it speaks to the need and the simplicity of filling a need.”
Since the pandemic began, food insecurity has risen by almost 40 per cent, affecting one in seven people, according to a new report released by the non-profit Community Food Centres Canada.
Toronto is planning to add 560 new shelter spaces from November through April to accommodate winter needs in addition to the 6,700 that are currently available.
To gear up for winter, Sandwich Sisters is setting up “student sandwich sister pods.” These are pods of volunteers made of students looking to pitch in.
“I’m glad it hits a note. I’m glad I am upset over it. If I wasn’t, I don’t think we would have been as successful as we have," Ms. Quigley said.
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