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Hunger Does Not Stop with Social Distancing

By a Stop Community Advocate

I have had the great privilege of interviewing someone I admire tremendously for the work she does in the community, Maria Carrusca.

Maria is in charge of the Dinner with Dignity program at Roncesvalles United Church which ran regularly, feeding the homeless and forgotten every Sunday, before COVID-19 hit Toronto and the world.

I had been attending Dinner with Dignity for about 2 years and right away I noticed Maria had a certain angelic presence. She always went over and beyond for her community members and you could tell she cared deeply about each and every one of us. Maria, along with Reverend Anne and her team of dedicated volunteers, made Dinner with Dignity such a warm and welcoming place for us to come in from out of the cold, out of the misery of the daily grind of living in poverty in Toronto and enjoy a great, hearty, delicious and fulfilling meal. Most Sundays, we even got seconds!

It is incredible what Maria could put together with a small budget from the church, donations and very generous assistance from Feed it Forward with Chef Jagger Gordon. It was always great, even if just for a few hours, to be able to forget about all your problems and enjoy yourself.

Maria started out with Dinner with Dignity as a volunteer herself, about 11 years ago. She had such an impact that eventually she would end up leading the program, becoming the Director of Community Meal Programs at Roncesvalles United Church in 2016. I must admit that for the longest time, I always thought that this was Maria’s full time job. She is so dedicated and passionate to this work, and it looks so time consuming that I thought this must be what she devotes most of her time and effort towards. So I couldn’t believe it when she told me that she actually had a full time job running her small business, Drapes and More and that Dinner with Dignity is something Maria does on the side out of passion and kindness and simply wanting to help those less fortunate.

As she put it so beautifully, “there is no greater expression of love than to plan, prepare and serve a meal to family, friends and to the less fortunate, as I do so with great humility.” When COVID hit and everything in Toronto started shutting down back in March, Maria was so determined to still keep feeding those in need that she set up tables outside in the church parking lot, enforced social distancing measures (as best she could with our rough crowd), and still allowed us to get some food to take home. But then unfortunately the church had no choice but to shut down all the great services and programs that it runs and Dinner with Dignity was put on indefinite hiatus.

You would think that with all this going on, Maria would finally give herself a much-needed break. But as Maria likes to say, with a line she got from her hard working volunteer and friend Brianne, “hunger does not stop with social distancing.” So with the Dinner with Dignity church doors closed for the time being, Maria and her friend Brianne go out every Saturday and Sunday and hand out soup, sandwiches, snacks, fruits, water and juice to the homeless in some of the hardest hit, most impoverished parts of Toronto.

They usually have a rotation of a 3rd volunteer that helps them out: Stitch, Eric, Renato, Daniel and Trish. I went out with them one Sunday and anything I write will not do justice to the incredible work they do helping and feeding those in need each and every single weekend. They drive to a few different spots in the core of the city where tent encampments have popped up and expanded out of control since the pandemic hit. The regulars have come to recognize Maria’s shiny red Prius and they usually start to line up right away. Maria still loves to shout “soup, sandwiches, come over!” to attract any stragglers. Maria and Brianne do the best they can to enforce social distance measures and ask them to line up behind a bucket where they place soup, snacks, a sandwich of their choice (there are usually a few options), and a drink on top of the bucket and then the community members takes their items from the bucket and move along.

It is without a doubt a street involved crowd, where you can see first hand what a toll drug addiction, alcoholism and mental health issues can take on a person. Not to mention there is still a pandemic going on. But Maria still continues to feed the homeless and does it with such grace and humility. We need a lot more Marias in this world. It would be such a better place. Of course it must be said that programs like Dinner with Dignity would not even need to exist if we didn’t have such a socioeconomic crisis of poverty and economic injustice in this city. It is because of the gross failure of public policy and government officials that so many people have come to rely on meal programs like Dinner with Dignity and many others that operate throughout the city. It is a crisis that keeps getting worse and unfortunately continues to be ignored by those in charge.

In Toronto, The Daily Bread Food Bank has seen the number of families seeking food each day go from 120 pre-COVID to more than 300. From social assistance rates that were already so far below the poverty line and have now been frozen by the Doug ford government. To the severe lack of affordable housing with wait lists that are now pushing beyond a decade. The skyrocketing cost of shelter which takes up most or all of people’s income. Lack of job opportunities and training. Chronic unemployment and the much less discussed under-employment where people have to try to fit together 3 different part-time jobs just to make ends meet.

It is unbelievable what we have come to accept as a society. These were all huge problems even before the pandemic hit. Now they have been exacerbated beyond any possible reasonable limit. It is no wonder so many people on the fringes turn to drugs and alcohol. We could do so much better. We should be doing so much better. Meal programs like Dinner with Dignity are absolutely amazing, they are a godsend to those that depend on them. But they are not the solution, they are merely a band-aid on a much larger problem of economic justice that needs to be addressed and resolved.