TORONTO -- In a pandemic that has created food insecurity, as well as financial trouble for restaurant owners, The Toronto Drop-in Network came up with an idea that they thought would have mutual community benefit.

“We know within our 51 drop-in centres that there’s huge increases in the demand for food and a lot of restaurants not being able to support themselves because of the situation we are in,” says Diana McNally, training and engagement coordinator at the Toronto Drop-in Network.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t have access to food right now,” says Johl Whiteduck Ringuette, chef at Nish Dish in Toronto. “This particular program is reaching out to black and indigenous restaurant owners to help support us, get the food out.” 

The pilot project, called the Meal Voucher Food Security Program, was made possible after receiving funding from the city. The project aims to feed Toronto’s vulnerable residents by ordering from restaurants that could benefit from the business. 

“We were granted $140,000,” McNally tells CTV News Toronto. “We wanted to partner with small, independent restaurants that are entirely BIPOC-owned as a way to address racial inequity, bring food to people who need it and at the same time support businesses that we want to remain in this neighbourhood.” 

Nish Dish was one of the restaurants selected for the program. It’s also a restaurant that has faced hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Our restaurant closed down within a matter of weeks because we have to specialize in large order catering,” says Whiteduck Ringuette. “Anishinaabe food is incredibly hard to access. Closing down the restaurant caused a huge financial devastation for our business.” 

The meal voucher program works in two ways – restaurants can deliver meals to one of the city’s Drop-In centres, or people in need can receive a voucher for a meal at one of the restaurants in the program. 

McNally says Whiteduck Ringuette and Nish Dish stood out as a chef and restaurant the Toronto Drop-in Network wanted to support. 

“This is a way of trying to connect with them and trying to sustain the amazing work and the amazing food that they provide,” she says. “I know that [Whiteduck Ringuette] has been utilizing different kitchens in order to do that, and I’m hoping at some point we can actually expand this program.” 

This week, Whiteduck Ringuette and Nish Dish created 260 meals for Sistering, another relief organization in the city. The meals included turkey and vegetable soup with wild rice. 

“I’m bringing the Anishinaabe wild rice,” Whiteduck Ringuette tells CTV News Toronto. “Today’s rice comes all the way from 6 hours north of Winnipeg. It is basically a lake that isn’t touched by human beings and this family of Ojibway get to go in there and harvest that wild rice in a traditional way and then get it to us. So it comes a long way.” 

McNally says the unique offerings at Nish Dish is an example of why the restaurant should remain in Toronto. 

“To make sure that this isn’t a city that is only comprised of major chains, but has that diversity but especially that diversity of restaurant and cuisines, which is part of what we love about Toronto,” she adds. 

“There are very, very few Indigenous restaurants in the city,” says Whiteduck Ringuette. “We’re happy to be able to assist and share the love that we have for our traditional food with the community.” 

You can find out more about the Meal Voucher Food Security Program here