Naveed Norani – General Manager, Potluck Café


June 16, 2020

The Potluck Café is an award winning social enterprise that has been operating in the downtown Eastside (DTES) since 2001. They provide community meals, employment training, community food asset maps, peer-led outreach, and other resources. When COVID hit they had to switch gears rapidly into securing food for some of the most vulnerable residents of the DTES. Shortly after the ‘first wave’ hit, Potluck Cafe and their partners were delivering 1200 meals a day to SRO and homeless residents after many local food providers had closed.  

As regular food purveyors around the neighbourhood shut down, the precarity around food security reached an urgent state. Potluck found itself at the centre of a coordinated effort to get emergency meals into the community, partnering with other food providers lik HAVE Cafe, Wildebeest, Goodly, the South Hall banquet facility and teams of volunteers from local community organziations, Teamsters, and film industry workers who had been laid off due to the pandemic. 

General Manager Naveed Noorani discusses the importance of community partnerships and food security during the pandemic.

This interview took place on June 16th, 2020. Some of the information discussed below was true at the time of this interview but may currently be different. 

Naveed: Potluck came into existence over two decades ago and the first generation of it was a program that was started off as ‘Dinners for Binners’. Shortly after that took off we got our place at PHS (local housing non-profit Portland Hotel Society), where we are located right now. The program at that time was to provide meals to the residents in the building that we occupy as well as provide low cost meals to people in the community. We’ve got a number of staff who have issues that are residual from addictions or mental issues or physical’s extremely difficult for them to find traditional employment – you know to get that 8 hour day or certain amount of days per week and the dexterity, the speed at which work is expected – so there is a number of expectations that happen in most ‘normal’ workplaces But Potluck has been hiring people from the DTES for a number of years. We’ve invested over 350,000 hours of labour and $4 million that has gone into supporting the community. That’s done two things to build a healthier community by giving people greater agency over their lives. First by being in employment. Second it has been an economic driver for the community because once they start earning, the growth factor takes place as a natural outcome of that. We had our best year ever until the beginning of March when Covid hit us. And we were busy working on our new space that we leased in January. And our focus was to get our design and development work within the shell of the space we had leased. And get into fundraising. In the second week of March Steve Johnston (Executive Director  at Community Impact Real Estate) had invited a number of us from the community to talk about what to do if COVID comes. And it did. And I volunteered, because of my experience in the hotel hospitality industry, to coordinate the need for delivery of food to a number of locations. And that’s really how the story began of what we were doing up until COVID . 

Alasdair: We’re really fascinated by the organization that happened – the different groups that came together. Whether it was the funders, distributors, there’s restaurants cooking for you. Is that what came about from that meeting or can you explain how that came to be?

Naveed: Sure. From that meeting the City connected with us and said ‘we need 1200 meals to be prepared’. 

Bill: So the 1200, there’s like 5500 SROs in DTES is that right? 

Naveed: Right. So part of those are private and others are run by BC Housing. The BC Housing took care of theirs separately. 

And we connected with HAVE Café, who are another social enterprise in the neighbourhood. And we connected with Goodly Food on SW Marine Drive. And then we got a number of volunteers from the Vancouver film industry. We used our new location, which is just a shell of a new building, and we were able to turn that into a distribution center. Then we mobilized a distribution team to take all the food that is coming from different venues and break it into the needs of different SRO buildings and then have a squad of rental vehicles and volunteer drivers go about to each building to drop off the food. Our biggest focus is: how do we achieve this accuracy, timeliness, nutrition, safety,  and to do it at the cheapest factor possible? So the big fact of anybody coming in is of course health and safety. I’ll go into that in two fold. One was: How do we keep people safe while doing this? So we set about building some protocols in how we handle food. When it’s delivered, who is bringing it in, where it’s dropped off, where we would drop food off, and how we could avoid any infection. It’s a zero error kind of situation as far as handling infection. And we were, knock on wood, extremely successful. 

Naveed: When we onboarded the teams from the Teamsters and the film industry and our crew at the centre as well as the kitchen crew one of the things we adopted right at the beginning was nobody who is not involved in the work inside the centre can enter the centre. Period. You deliver at the loading dock, you pick up at the entrance. But no entry to the place. The second thing we did was to go through an expert’s opinion on sanitizing the facilities. And the other benefit we really had was being in an empty building was we could do anything we needed to in that place. We spent a lot on gloves, sanitizers, masks, and just making sure when people went out they had enough. And at the workplace we made sure nobody would enter Potluck. We talked to our providers and said ‘here’s the big risk you’ve got’. If you see a failure in the system that would be a critical flaw. If any of the providers went down. For example Goodly were producing 700-800 meals a day. If they were hit with an infection, we would have to onboard, retool, retrain, another group of people. Another thing to mention is when we got Goodly and Wildebeest onboard, it’s a learning experience to learn ‘what are the food needs for that community’? And the natural inclination is ‘of course I can make them meals, I cook at a restaurant’. But they need food that is very specific. It has to be low spiced, what is termed ‘gummable’ because many have dental issues. So just the content factor and what works with that community was a downloading training factor for us to have with all the members who were providing food. 

We would make sure that the drivers were keeping themselves safe. Sanitizing everything we could, including the vans. That was one part. Second part is: there are a number of people living in SROs and the focus of the City was shelter in place. And by having meals provided to them that would eliminate the need for them to go out and look for food. So by doing that we stipulated that every one of our partners has to conform to Canadian nutrition guidelines. And we gave them what the food contents should be in terms of protein and vegetables. So if that’s the one meal we’re giving to that community, it absolutely has to be a nutritious meal. The second thing that came into play here was: How do we get 1200 meals out, in the time that the health dept feels it safe to do so -within 2 hours. That was the threshold we were given by the City, and Coastal Health. So maintaining  a sanitary environment, maintaining sanitary handling, nutrition guidelines, people’s safety, and tight turnarounds of food. We ran like a Swiss clock! We were able to get food from SW Marine Dr to the DTES in 20 min. Whereas normally that would take more like 40-45 minutes. But there’s a large segment of the community that was left unattended, which was the large homeless group. And we set about raising funds and getting donations and going after grants ourselves and through (Community Arts Space) WePress and we raised over $200K to deliver meals to homeless people. Before we did that, one of the most amazing stories is how the community contributed to this effort. South Hall Banquet and Wedding Palace donated close to 9000 meals at the onset of the crisis. And so we decided when we had gathered enough money, that we could run a program, that we could serve 1200 meals a day. We broke that up between ourselves, HAVE café, South Hall Banquet facility, and Wildebeest Restaurant. Now, in doing that, bringing in Wildebeest, they employ people from the community too. They’re also members of the DTES business that needs help right now. And they have the capacity to do what we require and to the standard levels we expect. So we ran that program with them and at the peak of our delivery system, we were turning out close to 2400 meals a day. 

And in that, when we are talking about peer networks, delivery with the SRO meals was worked out with drivers delivering boxes of meals. However for the homeless people, we worked with a number of groups involved in coming to the distribution centre, picking up the quantity of meals that they were assigned, and they had a peer network that would go and personally hand out food to the homeless people. In my opinion that group deserves the highest praise because at a time when everyone is very conscious of their health and welfare they were putting their own lives at risk and delivering food.

Bill: So how many people are working on this, or involved in providing 1200 meals per day? 

Naveed: If you look at Potluck we have about 8 on our end. HAVE Café have the same. So 16. We had 12 in the distribution centre, so 28. Goodly Food probably another 10, so 38 people. There’s 4 people in administration doing different things to keep it all together. So about 40-42 people trying to make this happen. Now that’s just us. If you add on the other 1200 meals being served to the homeless you can comfortably add another 20 bodies to that effort. 

Bill:  Are you still providing food to those who are homeless?

Naveed: No. We’ve run out of funds for that.

Bill: When did that end? 

Naveed: I believe it was June 1.

Bill: And it started in April? 

Naveed: Yes in April.

Bill: So what’s happening now to meals for the homeless now that that funding has run out? 

Naveed: So there’s a couple things that are happening there. One part of the community, some of the social enterprises who are working on assisting places that were producing food get back online. So they would have access to the food opportunities that existed prior to COVID. The city has done a fairly good job of coming up with a map that helps people understand where food access is. So if there is a need they can go to that. But I think one part that I believe needs the food is the more vulnerable part of the community that has health issues and can’t move around. They need help. 

Alasdair: Were there any changes regarding the food distribution in the community that have come out of this that will persist once this has started to subside?

Naveed:  Looking at the opinion of experts, my biggest fear is COVID 2.0. We talk about shelter in place but what happens to people who have no shelter or place? This is a major societal issue, let’s be real. So we actually witnessed a larger population in the streets than we would have normally, because when you have 300-400 hundred people maybe visiting their friends, that’s not happening anymore. They’re all on the streets. What happens to that group?

There still is a need for food. There’s no denying that. Was there a need before? Yes, but there was an economy before. Where people could find a market or odd jobs or a number of things. Those jobs have also dried up. So there is no economic factor to help them buy food. And it’s become a catch 22 situation. But my biggest concern is what happens when COVID 2.0 hits us. The comforting part of the argument is with this experience under our belt we have a proficiency now so that won’t be an issue. But the impact that situation has on our industry and the people who work in it too is a big concern. 

Alasdair: Of course. And the funding becomes a big challenge too I imagine. 

Naveed: True, we can see that. Out of the blue I got a donation from the turkey farmers. They heard about it and offered to donate. We got a number of donations from very generous donors. We do a lot of business with SAP, who decided to give us 25% of last year’s billing back to us, which worked out to $11k. I made an executive decision to move that money to food for the homeless. I mean would that have helped me on my financial statement? Oh yea, my accountant would be happy. But the question is: How do we do the right thing? And often the right thing is not the least painful thing. With that in mind we said we’ll figure it out if we do get in a mess, but today our mission should be to feed people because that has been what Potluck has been about all along. 

Alasdair: Were you surprised by the level of support that came together in the community, particularly with things like restaurants who aren’t always engaged in community work? 

Naveed: You know, Vancouver has a different social fabric that it’s made of. People are genuinely caring and genuinely community minded. It was not a shock. I think it was more being overwhelmed with the support we were getting. At a time like this when things are bad. Like when someone in ‘Foundation X’ calls and says ‘we’re normally an arts foundation but we would like to give you a check for $8K to feed people’. That touches you. It’s a feeling that philanthropy is not something that is a dormant issue in Vancouver. Philanthropy really extends to the people who need it at the grassroots level. We see a number of philanthropic events taking place – Children’s Hospital, BC Cancer, etc –  throughout the year and there’s some amazing contributions that are made. But this came out as a curveball. And philanthropists were willing to say, hey this is a meaningful cause. Now I should not keep out the City which has made an incredible contribution to this. And the federal government through a number of grants we got. The Vancouver Foundation. Food Centres of Canada. We have a good cross section of philanthropy and government funded grants that came through to us. 

Here’s the honest truth. Everyone loves an article about Vancouver being the best city in the world. You know on FB we love to share it and it gets a thousand likes and shares and all that type of stuff. We, the people who live here and make this city, do it in a time of need, when we want to make our city the best in the world. I think through the number of people who worked in this make this the best city in the world. I couldn’t say that for everywhere – I’ve been fortunate to live across the world and work in a number of places. The coming together of the community here was actually during COVID. 

Alasdair: You mentioned the collaboration of the Sikh organization, I’ve seen them setting up in the alley behind the Carnegie. You mentioned them teaming up with the Muslim Centre during Ramadan, which is partly a time for distributing food to the less fortunate. Could you explain that a bit more? 

Naveed: Yes, in the month of Ramadan Muslims tend to fast from sunrise to sunset, and so they have a meal at sunset. And so these folks were trying to distribute 300-400 meals, 2 or 3 times a week. It was a one stop shop. So the best option there was, it was halal food because it’s vegetarian so it conforms to their religious means. Secondly it’s a meal that is provided in the evening so it’s easy for them to come across and deliver. It can be prepared during the day and brought over before sunset. And three, doing that it takes a load off what they would have spent to produce the food during those times?. So connecting those dots, again it shows the generosity in the community. Thankfully being involved and being connected very intricately with what’s going on in the DTES, we were able to say here’s a good match for this need. 

The part we need to understand as human beings is we have transcended in our thinking, due to Covid, its takes adversity sometimes to get to that level. And now we know if we need something we can reach out. It’s been a humbling experience for everyone. 

One of the biggest things that’s in front of us is: what are we going to be doing that’s different from what we were doing last year, that serves the needs of tomorrow, and continues to engulf the community rather than playing solo. And that’s a broad question and needs a lot of brain work. A lot of talk with people who are on the ground. For example one of the things we learned even before Covid was that the community has access to food during the day but a lot of residents sleep during the day and wake up at night. And they’re looking for food because that’s when they take their medication. So that’s the kind of program we’re trying to work around. So it’s those kinds of measures that we as a community driven institution adopt that will leave a better residual effect on the community for tomorrow. And I think that’s the mindset that people need to adopt.