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

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The pandemic was barely a week old last march when two Toronto-area chefs began doing the math on a growing food crisis.

Humber College had to shut down its culinary arts program as well as its cafeterias and was sitting on $50,000 worth of food it couldn’t use. And with so many Canadians off work, food banks and shelters were seeing a significant rise in clients.

Add those two issues together and you get a remarkable 12 months of charity work from chefs Keith Hoare and John Placko.

It all started with Keith giving me a call and saying, ‘Can you come out to Humber College? They’ve got a lot of food. Their classes have stopped. They want to donate it,’” Placko recalled to Global News.

So they picked up the food in their cars and brought it to the food bank. It didn’t take long for the word to spread. Suddenly, Hoare and Packo were busy going to restaurants and food suppliers to pick up food from that would have been used at weddings and conventions.

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READ MORE: Food banks aren’t meant to be long-term solutions in a pandemic: experts

“It’s almost criminal to be throwing away good food when people are … struggling money-wise,” Placko says. “It should not be going to landfill.”

They were collecting food from over a dozen sources and delivering it to the food banks in Mississauga, which had seen a 30 per cent increase in clients. And it proved to be essential, because the two biggest entities responsible for collecting food — churches and schools — weren’t open.

“I mean, churches and faith groups are suffering as well,” says Peter Costello, director of Eden Food for Change.

Another issue that presented itself was the fact many shelters and food banks were forced to close their kitchens. So there was nobody cooking the prepared meals that many seniors and people with disabilities rely on.

And once again, the chefs came up with a plan. Along with their wives, they began cooking in their home kitchens.

“We’re probably at about 40,000 to 50,000 meals that we’ve sent out to shelters and food banks,” Hoare says.

READ MORE: ‘The worst is yet to come’, report warns as Ontario food banks see rise in first-time users

The two chefs couldn’t be more different.

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Placko, an expert in molecular gastronomy, was all set to launch a chocolate business before the pandemic hit and he had plans to share his expertise at various shows and events around the world.

Hoare teaches culinary arts at Thistletown Collegiate Institute in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood. Every month, at least pre-pandemic, he and his students would prepare a meal for a youth or women’s shelter. And when he won an episode of Chopped Canada, he used his $10,000 prize to help pay for a school trip to Spain.

So they had the expertise, but there was a massive volume of food being donated and Leigh Baguley, sales manager at Chef’s Warehouse, wondered how they would pull it off.

“I guess I was optimistic that the food could be put to use,” Baguley says. “But realistically knowing that they were doing it out of their home kitchens, it was seen to be a big dream that they could use them all.”

But they did, and the carloads of food soon became truckloads.

“I haven’t focused on all the stuff that I can’t do because of the pandemic,” Hoare says. “I focused on what I can do because of the pandemic. And what I can do is do what I love to do: cook and share my food with people.”

The two chefs are hopeful their story creates awareness for food insecurities and convinces people to donate to their local food banks.


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