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The Georgina Community Food Pantry began in 1986 in response to a need expressed by church representatives, service clubs, social workers and interested citizens in Georgina. The initial discussions began in 1985 and centered around whether or not there was a need to provide temporary housing for individuals or families in the Sutton area. Three public meetings were held to discuss the need for such housing, but as time went on, it became increasingly clear that an even more pressing concern was the need for a food bank.
The public input sessions revealed that most of the area churches and service clubs had been individually trying to address the discrepancy between low-income levels and high housing costs. For many families and single people, there often was little money left over at the end of the month for food after the rent was paid.
The first community meeting drew 60 people. The second attracted 30 people. By the third public meeting in the early winter of 1986 only 14 people attended. Included in the group were Max and Linda Barrett from the Salvation Army; Joan Fahey and Frank Atherton from the St. Vincent de Paul Society; Bob Johnston, the mayor of the Town of Georgina; Alex and Mary Queen; Mary McGuire; Yvonne Skilton and other representatives from church communities in Sutton, Ravenshoe, Roches Point and Pefferlaw. It was at this meeting that the idea of a centralized food bank became the focus of the discussion. It was felt that creating a single collection and distribution point would allow for a better use of community resources rather than leave the task to individual churches and service clubs. The Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul Society agreed that, between them, they would underwrite any expenses that might occur in the creation of such a food bank.
Very early on it was determined that, as well as being a non-profit enterprise, the Food Bank would be non-sectarian as well. Five objectives were outlined for the Food Bank:
1) To provide food on an emergency basis to the needy of the Town of Georgina; that is, a 3-to-4-day supply, once a month.
2) To receive and properly store contributions of food from donors, be they individuals or groups from churches, schools and other institutions, clubs or businesses.
3) To receive financial contributions in order to defray the costs of operating the Food Pantry and purchase perishable foods and other needed items.
4) To provide a distribution system that is fair to all those seeking food.
5) To cooperate with other food banks in York Region to share any overstock of food and assist and support each other.
A committee was formed and the initial search for a location began. In the spring of 1986 Max Barrett was approached by a man who owned an old, unused barn at the corner of Metro Rd. and Dalton Rd. in Jackson`s Point. The Food Pantry could use the building rent free. Although the building had no heat, that was not a concern in the spring and summer of 1986. All the churches sent volunteers, and teams were created to prepare the building. Other teams collected and sorted food donations. Others stocked the newly created shelves in the barn. Donations came in from the churches and individuals as well as the single grocery store in Sutton at the time, the IGA. Joan Fahey remembers the first opening day. Volunteers had prepared food boxes of various sizes: singles boxes; small boxes to feed a family of 2 to 3; medium boxes to feed 4 to 6 people; and large boxes to feed 7 or more people. On that first day, the Food Pantry was open from 10 am to 1 pm and the volunteers were kept busy preparing additional boxes. There was a concern that they would run out of food that first day. By 1 pm very little food was left. An older gentleman came in, well after closing time, looking for a box of food. The volunteers were able to find enough food items to fill a box. When he left, there was nothing left on the shelves.
As Joan says, everything in those days was based on a hope and a prayer but there was always enough food and donations to make food available each month. As time went on the volume of donations increased, so much so that neither the Salvation Army nor the St. Vincent de Paul Society ever had to write a cheque to support the Food Pantry. It survived totally on donations from the community.
As the cold weather settled in that first winter, the volunteers continued to work in the unheated barn, but eventually warmer accommodations had to be found. At Christmas time, the Salvation Army offered the use of one of their buildings so the Christmas hampers and toy bags could be prepared. That first Christmas, a lady came in to donate a Christmas tree along with all the trimmings in a box for one needy family. The volunteers were in a quandary. Who should get the tree? By the end of the distribution day, the tree had still not been given away. As the volunteers were packing up, a lady came in with 3 small children. She had recently separated from her husband, and although they had a place to live, she had no food or any toys for her children. She was outfitted that day with food and toys and a Christmas tree with all the trimmings in a box.
In the early years, finding a location for the monthly distributions was an ongoing problem. Finally in December 1994 a building at the corner of River St. and High St. in Sutton became available so food distributions could happen weekly. A year later, in December 1995, after the Christmas hamper and toy distribution, a fire completely destroyed the 120-year-old building. All the collected food and remaining toys, along with 9 years of records were lost in the fire. Again, the community came together and by the end of January 1996 the Food Pantry was able to rent a small building on Lake Dr. in Jackson’s Point and continue its operation. Extra storage space had to be found, so arrangements were made to rent space at the Ice Palace in Keswick and for a short time a unit in the Keswick Industrial Mall was rented as well. Christmas hamper and toy bag preparations and distribution always needed extra preparation space. Local schools, service clubs and the town library offered space for these preparations.
In January 1998 the volunteer Board actively began a search for larger, more consolidated facility since the Ice Palace had to be used for additional food storage space along with a rented storage unit at Church St and Woodbine Ave.
In 2004 the Food Pantry was deemed a not-for-profit charity by CRA and given a Charitable Number allowing it to issue charitable receipts for monetary donations.
In May 2008, the community was shocked when Mary Queen, the founding director of the Food Pantry died suddenly. Mary’s memory and spirit live on through an ever-expanding crew of dedicated volunteers and ongoing community support.
In 2009, a larger rental space was finally found at 110 High St in Sutton (an old refurbished movie theatre). This was the Food Pantry’s home until 2016. In 2013, Catherine Cook was hired as the first paid Executive Director. She was a driving force in the operation and expansion of the Pantry.
Then, in June of 2016 “The Link” on Dalton Rd came into being and with the assistance from the Town of Georgina, an even larger rented was space found. This more spacious facility is now the current home of the Food Pantry. In November of 2020 Cesar Caneo was hired as the new Executive Director after Catherine’s retirement.
The spirit of that initial organizing committee in 1985 could be summarized by a quote from Margaret Meade:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Special thanks to Mary McGuire and Joan Fahey for sharing their memories of those early days.
Thanks to Bill Malloy, Lou and Jan Michielsen for their help. Photos provided by Alf Judd.
In memory of Mary Queen, the founding director of the Georgina Community Food Pantry