For many of us, the pandemic hasn’t impacted our lives beyond wearing masks and missing get-togethers with family and friends. We have work. We have our health. We have food in the pantry. 

We’re lucky. But not all of us are.

It’s challenging to think about, but finding housing and food are struggles for many of our neighbours. Issues around food insecurity, in particular, have grown exponentially during the pandemic. According to the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, there was a 30-per-cent increase in the number of families looking for help in the first half of 2020 alone. That demand only increased as employers struggled to keep staff employed due to pandemic restrictions.

Using a food bank or accessing other social assistance programs can carry a social stigma, but it’s an unjustified one. Homelessness and food insecurity aren’t failures on the part of individuals. They’re failures of our society to address the systemic issues that cause them.

Working to erase that stigma is the goal of the team at St. Mary’s Parish in downtown Kitchener. The team is driven by the idea that everyone should have access to good, nutritious and well-prepared food, no matter their situation.

In late January, they launched Tiny Home Takeout. Operating Tuesday through Saturday from 5-7 p.m., Tiny Home Takeout offers hand-crafted pizzas and soups to anyone in the community on a pay-what-you-can basis – no questions asked.

“It’s the foundational idea that everybody deserves a really good meal,” said Tony D’Amato, Outreach Co-ordinator at St. Mary’s. “It’s a universal experience to really have great food served with dignity and care. Everybody deserves really good food; it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich, whether you’re poor. It doesn’t matter whether you are housed or unhoused. It doesn’t matter whether you have mental health conditions or addictions or not; everybody deserves that as a baseline.”

Tiny Home Takeout was inspired by the community it serves. The idea started to come to life in late 2019 as Father Toby Collins met with some young church members to discuss how they felt they could contribute to the community. “Whenever you want to build a project for longevity, you involve the youth right from the start,” said Father Collins. Churches and startups have a lot in common – when you want to get people together, you feed them pizza. 

The youth group went a step further than just eating pizza. They participated in a group pizza-making lesson as a team-building event. Seeing the joy from making pizza reminded Father Collins of a Hamilton-based parish that provided fresh-baked bread from their kitchen. These two things coming together inspired Father Collins and the St. Mary’s Outreach team to look at providing excellent quality pizza to everyone in the community. But knowing what food you’re going to make is one thing. How you produce that food is another. 

Sometimes you need a little faith. Faith and a gently-used commercial kitchen.

St. Mary’s reached out to a commercial kitchen provider to outfit their kitchen for what would become Tiny Home Takeout. At the same time, Communitech was converting their second-floor kitchen space into offices. The Communitech team was in the process of selling the equipment when the deal fell through. It just so happened that another local leader had suggested to Father Collins that he reach out to Communitech about their kitchen equipment. “I told them what it was for and the response was that ‘I think we can get that donated,’” Father Collins said. 

The timing was good, too. “It was a day before the first lockdown started. It was down to the wire, but I remember looking here in St. Mary’s and seeing all the amazing kitchen pieces that we couldn’t afford down in the hall and wow – we've got something to work on during this during this lockdown.”

With the food and the kitchen set, the project’s final pieces came together during the second lockdown. Father Collins said the church saw a community where homeless people or people precariously housed in shelters were going without meals. Some people could afford to pay rent but barely afford to pay for food. “We did our homework and realized that we needed to feed people, but we also needed to have a sustainable project.”

Some Outreach team members worked with a tiny home project in the summer of 2020, which inspired the team to look at them as an option. “We thought, why not combine the two? You have that feeling of being at home and getting nutritious food,” said Father Collins. “We’ve got some marketing people who are associated with the parish and an art design person. We just put the team together and kept brainstorming ideas, and next thing you know, Tiny Home Takeout was born.

“What I love about Tiny Home Takeout is that we’re inviting everyone to share the same table. We’re saying nobody is too good for this food and nobody is too bad for this food because we all deserve a decent meal,” said D’Amato. “We’re all people. We’re all neighbours. If you call Kitchener home, you’re welcome here.”

Tiny Home Takeout has been providing meals to the community for a month, and for D’Amato, the experience has been nothing short of amazing. “I’ve had a guy give me $300 for one pizza,” he said. “I have some people off the street come and they’ve clearly been panhandling, and they’ll give me 15 cents for four. I have single moms come and feed their families for $2. I have people come and grab a soup and leave $50. It’s almost enough to bring you to tears.”

The pay-what-you-can model does more than make great food accessible – it makes it equitable to everyone. D’Amato previously worked in a men’s shelter and said that for many, being able to pay makes them feel like they’re a part of something good. “They almost light up a little bit and they start checking their pockets because it allows them to be an equal player in it. I think that really gives a lot of dignity to the experience.”

D’Amato sees Tiny Home Takeout as more than a way to recognize there’s a problem, but as a way to help solve it. “I wouldn't say it’s raising awareness, because I don’t think it’s raising awareness. I think we’re actually trying to solve the problem. We’re not saying, ‘Here’s something you should know about.’ We’re taking a step and saying, ‘Let’s try to shrink this gap by one per cent today, and then show up tomorrow and do it again.’”

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While you’re grabbing some ‘za for the greater good, I see and hear that...The University of Waterloo Faculty of Arts and Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre presents the Indigenous Speakers Series featuring Dr. Evan Adam on Thursday, March 4 at 12 p.m. Dr. Adams will be addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities in Canada. The Data for Good Meetup kicks off 2021 with a meetup on Thursday, March 4 at 7 p.m. Come learn about the exciting plans they have for their chapter in 2021 and how you can get involved. Femme Folks Fest kicks off on Monday, March 8, with an Artist Talk with Festival Playwright in Residence Michaela Jeffery at 7 p.m.