How roadside free food tables are helping to tackle hunger across the Greater Toronto Area

Residents of Mississauga and Brampton may have noticed an increase over the last year of small, street-side offerings knows as “free food tables.”

The table are regularly stocked with water along with many kinds of dry, non-perishable and packaged foods, with bright red signs encouraging passersby to “take only what you need, leave some for others,” and urging them to “donate food generously to keep the table full.”

The group behind the tables said they have been a huge success and that they are branching out beyond Peel Region to provide supplies across the Greater Toronto Area.

Read more: Food bank usage up in Toronto over summer due to instability caused by COVID-19: report

One of the most visible locations is on Charolais Boulevard near Mill Street South in Brampton outside the Shopper’s World mall. Covered in a blue tarp to protect it from the elements, the table is always fully stocked — a point of pride for its caregiver area resident Zarqa Shafiq, who maintains it with those close to her.

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“I come out three, four times a day … and I come and fill the table with food that has been donated by family and friends and generous community members,” Shafiq told Global News on Friday.

The items at her table range from canned goods and packaged noodles to fresh items like bread and full meals. She said those are especially important for those living on the streets who may not have access to the equipment needed to prepare canned or raw food.

Read more: Toronto-based food bank sees surge in clients amid pandemic-related food insecurity

“In the last six weeks we did 450 sandwiches, which was about 56 loaves all donated by friends and family … A few friends and family decided to do pasta, spaghetti, prepared meals in containers, so we did about 300 of those.”

Shafiq said the items at her table go quickly, so she never worries about the perishable items going bad. It also lets her know just how much need there is for the extra help in her neighbourhood.

Having grown up in Brampton, this is her way of giving back to her community during hard times and fulfilling a tenet of her Muslim faith.

“It’s like an act of worship,” she said.

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“It’s obligatory. It’s one of the five pillars of Islam.”

Shafiq is one of dozens of volunteers of multiple backgrounds and faiths running tables under the umbrella of the Full Table Project. It was started by shelter volunteer William Graham and his wife Shirley at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Once COVID hit, all of a sudden it dawned on me that the people that were a homeless group, they had been forgotten,” William told Global News, noting efforts launched at the end of March 2020.

William Graham and his wife Shirley founded the Full Table Project in March, 2020. Mark Carcasole / Global News

The Grahams then moved that original table to its current location outside The Dam Youth Drop-in on Hurontario Street near Dundas Street East in Mississauga.

“It’s there 7/24,” he said.

“We fill it morning and evening and in the summer we’re filling it three times because we put up to 150 bottles of water on the table in a day.”

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Over the last year or so, others joined the initiative, expanding it to 22 such tables across the GTA and beyond: 16 across Brampton and Mississauga, two in Toronto and one each in Richmond Hill, Newmarket, Whitby and Barrie, with more promised in Ottawa and Hamilton.

Read more: How 2 Toronto chefs made and donated 50,000 meals during the pandemic

While they receive support and donations from various community groups and food banks, Graham said they are not directly affiliated with any organizations and that they are strictly grassroots.

“So many people are coming and saying, ‘ I want to help.’ They’re saying, ‘What can I do to help?’ And this has been an ideal opportunity,” he said.

“So if nothing good comes out of the COVID, it will have brought a lot of people out and given them a chance to help their neighbour.”

Organizers said even when the pandemic is over, the tables will continue to stand. They said they believe there was a need for help before COVID-19 and that there will continue to be a need for it during the recovery.

Zarqa Shafiq maintains the Free Food Table on Charolais Boulevard in Brampton. Mark Carcasole / Global News

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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