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ROOTED:Newmarket Food Pantry nears 35 years of donations, community support

From inaugural 1986, serving 20 people a week, to 2021's 15,000 served and 440,000 meals distributed yearly, the volunteer-powered food bank has been a literal lifesaver for individuals and families in need

For almost 35 years, the Newmarket Food Pantry has supplied individuals and families in need with food and supplies that not only support them in times of need, but uphold their right to basic human dignity.

With more than 440,000 meals distributed and 15,000 clients served in 2021 alone — 35 per cent under the age of 18 — the charity has cemented its reputation as one of Newmarket’s most reliable and enduring institutions for good.

Few know the positive impact of the Newmarket Food Pantry better than Keith Profit. A 34-year volunteer with the charity, he has been active and present through the charity’s founding, rapid growth and impressive six relocations, and was also a board member up until 2020.

“Newmarket is wonderful,” said Keith Profit. “The number of people that have gotten involved and helped with the food pantry is amazing. It’s such a caring community.”

Formed in 1986 by a young nurse of the Christian Baptist Church, who sought to assist those living under the poverty line, the Newmarket Food Pantry — though it would not be known by that name for several years — was an immediately popular amenity. Serving roughly 20 people a week out of a large container built for that very purpose, word of mouth soon spread and the need to establish a joint mission with other churches in the area grew. Clients were now being referred by community agencies, and most were single parents with young children.

Then-mayor Tom Taylor was instrumental in uniting Newmarket’s Christian Baptist Church, Trinity United Church, St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Bethel Church, and Newmarket Alliance Church, which each operated small food banks of their own. To ensure a smooth and united operation, it was agreed that the service would be strictly non-denominational.

Growth was rapid, often outpacing the buildings in which they based their services. In succession, the Newmarket Food Pantry — which became a registered charity in January 1998 — rotated through Christian Baptist Church, a storefront in the Old Davis Tannery, 510 Penrose St. (now the location of Inn From the Cold), 171 Main St., and, finally, 1251 Gorham St. in 2017, where the charity remains today. Perhaps most interesting was a stint in the Old Town Hall and former police station, where food was stored in the jail cells downstairs.

Also changing through the years was the system by which residents received their allotment of food. Though they initially distributed pre-packaged boxes, volunteers later saw the virtue of touring clients through the pantry instead.

“We found that in preparing boxes of food, people would get the food and go outside and take a look at it, and there was something their kids or their family wouldn’t eat, so it ended up in the garbage,” said Profit. “They had no choice in what they got. It was just a box of food. This cut down on that.”

The emergence of COVID-19 also saw a marked change to the operations of the Newmarket Food Pantry, with the number of first-time users doubling over the past couple of years. In 2021, $1.3 million worth of food was donated to clients.

The charity has recently expanded with a brand-new community kitchen, while their CEREAL (Community Empowerment Resource Education & Awareness Learning) Centre will be used to foster community connections, provide educational workshops (such as cooking for one and after school meals for youth), offer tax return support, and support clients with more food and greater nutritional support.

“Some of the most shared words from our clients about what the food pantry means to them are hope, opportunity, independence, and security,” said Adrian Bain, executive director of the Newmarket Food Pantry.

“We have had food bank guests tell us the food bank literally saved their lives. Guests have shared stories of their children doing better in school because they are not going to school hungry, or parents getting employment opportunities because they weren’t so worried where their next meal was coming from.”

Liz Blight, volunteer coordinator at the Newmarket Food Pantry, has been with the charity since 2007. Already a volunteer at the Newmarket Seniors Meeting Place, she was convinced to help out at the pantry by then-chair Maureen Huismans, who volunteered at both.

Currently, the Newmarket Food Pantry has about 120 volunteers, helping with deliveries, warehouse sorting, donation pickups, and more. In 2021 alone, more than 11,000 volunteer hours were logged.

“When you volunteer, there’s a feeling you get that you’re really making a difference, that you’re helping people,” said Liz Blight. “It’s a wonderful feeling. Most people are so grateful that you seem to always have a smile on your face.”

For more information on how to volunteer with or donate to the Newmarket Food Pantry, visit them online.