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Canada’s libraries step up to help vulnerable people during pandemic

It has been more than a month since the Toronto Public Library (TPL) network, the largest public library network in North America, closed its doors as part of the city’s efforts to control the coronavirus. There’s still no word on when the libraries may reopen, but librarians Courtney Cardozo and Gail MacFayden are already back at work, putting together food parcels. Nine TPL branches have been converted into food distribution centers in the past few weeks, in partnership with three local food banks.

More than 100 library staff volunteered to pitch in with the food distribution scheme. They packed their first hamper on March 25. “We’re working five days a week, putting together 500-600 hampers per day [at our main distribution center] and getting them set up to go out to the branches,” says MacFayden, a regional manager, in a rapid-fire interview before the day’s food distribution at the Albion Library gets underway. 

Ryan Noble is the executive director of North York Harvest, one of the Toronto region’s largest food banks. He explains that as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many smaller nonprofits which distributed food aid closed their offices, and volunteers at those organizations — mostly seniors — were concerned about leaving home. “Most of our food gets distributed through volunteer-driven agencies… and when schools and community centers closed, we lost another link in the distribution chain,” he says.  

That’s where the libraries came in. “Food banks raised the [distribution] issue with the city council and the emergency operations office, and the idea of using the libraries came together very quickly,” says Noble. 

Library staff deep-cleaned the TPL’s Ellesmere Sorting Facility and created a storage space and a hamper-assembly area. “They [library staff] sort, we transport,” says Noble. To minimize crowding, recipients call ahead to request a hamper and receive an appointment time or date, although people in need who drop by unexpectedly on distribution days are not turned away empty-handed. Distribution staff respect strict social distancing and wash their hands every 15 minutes to keep themselves and others safe. Hampers contain food that is “as accessible and culturally neutral as possible,” including canned goods, rice, beans, and usually some perishables like vegetables or yogurt, packed with love by local librarians. New children’s books are also included in hampers for families that request them. 

“In general, libraries are great distribution points,” says Noble. “They’re safe, accessible, welcoming, dignified, and usually close to where people live. Lining up to use a food bank is a difficult experience; it’s a public admission that you need help. It’s hard for people, especially now, when we’re starting to see some people who have never used a food bank. We want to make sure people have a dignified experience.” He also points out that library staff have experience working with the public, including vulnerable people. 

“We know how to move stuff, and we serve the public every day,” says MacFayden, the library manager. “We are a public service and we were so sad to see the library close, but this gives us purpose and a way to help.”

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