The Burrito Project: Combating hunger in Toronto by any beans necessary
BY ADAM MCDOWELL
The Burrito Project’s mission sounds pretty straightforward: providing burritos to people who could use a good meal. But open up the wrapping, and there’s a deeper purpose: challenging the inequity in how North American society allocates food resources. Or, as the Burrito Project puts it: Combating hunger “by any beans necessary.”
The Toronto chapter of the Burrito Project started in 2015 in the vicinity of Scadding Court Community Centre (across from Toronto Western Hospital), taking its inspiration from the Montreal Burrito Project, which in turn is part of a continent-wide network of burrito distribution that began in Los Angeles more than a decade ago. After going on hiatus, it restarted in 2019 in Moss Park, east of downtown. This neighbourhood is something of a food desert, having only a tiny container market, open on Fridays and Saturdays, to provide residents with affordable fresh produce.
Here’s how the Burrito Project Toronto works: One day each month, an all-volunteer force prepares around 100 burritos, in the kitchen at Ralph Thornton Community Centre. Next, the team mobilizes in Moss Park, giving the nutritious and tasty wraps out to anyone who shows up with an appetite.
“There are a lot of shelters in that area and there’s a lot of low-income housing,” explains Rae Lee, an organizer on the all-volunteer team. Lee is a street nurse in her day job, so she knows the area well. “There are usually a lot of people outside walking around, so that’s where we hand the burritos out.”
On days when the Burrito Project is active, hungry people can also purchase burritos on a pay-what-you-can basis at Moss Park Market. Any voluntary cash contributions help pay for ingredients and cover the kitchen rental fees. Ultimately, however, most of the funding for the Burrito Project TO comes in the form of a grant from A Well-Fed World.
Lee stresses that what the Burrito Project does isn’t charity: It’s not just about feeding hungry people. The organizers also want to draw attention to the way society allocates food resources on a more structural level. In-between call-outs for volunteers to make and hand out tasty wraps, their social media platforms share news of upcoming social justice events amplifying the voices of those affected by poverty and discrimination in the GTA.
“We believe that everyone has the right to food security, food choice and access to healthy, nutritious food,” says Lee, who believes the Burrito Project “shouldn’t need to exist,” because “giving somebody a burrito doesn’t solve the inequalities that cause food insecurity.” She does believe, however, that there is value in providing someone with a warm, healthy meal that day, and in building community. “We want people who are hungry to know that they’re not invisible, ” she says. “We see them, and we support them.”
The Burrito Project TO’s monthly burrito barrages take place the first Saturday of each month—at least in theory. In practice, the group sometimes has trouble getting access to its kitchen on the desired days. And there have been the odd times when they’ve needed more hands on deck to operate at full capacity. Would-be volunteers can contact the Burrito Project Toronto through its Facebook page. They can be any age to hand out burritos and must be 16 or older to work in the kitchen.
The actual burrito-making happens under the direction of Helen Prancic, who is also a founder-chef for Animal Liberation Kitchen, a vegan restaurant and catering service. She’s in charge of the “how do we make it taste good?” aspect of the project, Lee says.
The recipe is built around black beans, rice and vegetables, including tomatoes and bell peppers. The project volunteers take pride in making food that is actually delicious. “We want people to enjoy what we’re giving them. We’re always asking for feedback, because we want to improve it.”
So the question remains whether one controversial burrito ingredient is included.
“No cilantro,” Lee says. “I personally like it, but we want it to appeal to the masses.”
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