Cheers for Team Toronto: Local Stadium Donates 500,000 Meals

Toronto scores big with a food project that helped the needy.

Cheers for Team Toronto: Local Stadium Donates 500,000 Meals | Toronto scores big with a food project that helped the needy.

Just over a year ago, Toronto fans celebrated the Raptors’ win of its first NBA championship. Over two million fans, about one third of the Greater Toronto Area residents, came out for the victory parade on June 17, 2019. Although the stands in the Scotiabank Arena have been empty, Toronto celebrated a recent win in their beloved stadium: the provision of over 500,000 meals for the needy.

It all started on March 12. The stadium’s 24 arena chefs, FoodService and Hospitality reported, were busy prepping in the kitchens. They were readying meals for thousands of hockey fans who were coming that night to watch the Maple Leafs play the Nashville Predators. With four restaurants, 88 concessions, plus 44 corporate suites, the kitchens were hopping. At noon, when a pandemic was declared by the WHO, management decided to suspend the game.

Chris Zielinksi, head chef for Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), was quick to respond, shipping out 27,000 pounds (12,247 kilos) of the prepared meals to food banks the very next day.

This may have been the end of the hockey and basketball season, but it was just the beginning for Zielinski and his staff. After consulting with Toronto Public Health and food hygiene experts, according to The Star, he set up a makeshift kitchen and food prep area in the huge arena, right under the blank scoreboard. Masks and gloves were provided for the workers.

Together with 24 chefs plus dozens of assistants, they sent food to the staff and families at 14 Toronto hospitals as well as 30 non-profit community centers, agencies, shelters, and food banks. Second Harvest pitched in and delivered meals to 300 locations. As most food banks had provided buffet-style meals pre-coronavirus, these pre-packaged individual meals became the better choice. This endeavor was a key element of a local campaign called Bringing Toronto Back to its Feet

Zielinski’s project required careful planning and logistics. The team received financial assistance from large corporations, with fresh ingredients and canned goods arriving from supermarket chains and food manufacturers. 

As the initiative grew, more ovens, large fridges and freezers, trays, as well as trucks were needed.  All were provided without delay.  BMO Field, home of the Toronto Argonauts also joined in, offering its stadium and kitchens to assist in the rescue mission.

The chefs cleverly developed a porter system to avoid interaction with other chefs when getting ingredients from the fridges. When an item was needed, the porter was called and the ingredient delivered.

The chefs worked in the arena’s five kitchens. When food was ready, it was wheeled onto the arena floor where tables were set out and assembly began. Socially distanced, people then packed up the meals, wrapped, labelled, and wheeled them to waiting delivery trucks.

They started by making 2,800 meals a day and soon ramped it up to 12,000 meals a day with 80 people on staff. Working steadily five days a week, as of mid-July, they had expanded to nine kitchens, delivering 500 thousand meals.

When cooking these amounts, the ingredients are staggering. Zielinski told Kiss 92.5 radio they used 80,000 pounds of chicken and cooked 60,000 chicken wings each day. Although he did not count every grain of rice, he estimated they boiled 40 million grains of rice daily!

The Star also reported incredible food stats: in one day, they cooked 5,000 pounds of pasta plus 4,490 gallons of chili and rice in huge 30-gallon pots, plus 26 gallons jerk marinade and 1, 700 pounds of chicken legs. They varied the menu each day and were careful to provide healthy food plus vegetarian options.

Zielinski’s incredible initiative finished a few days ago. He was elated with the support he received from the city and donations from local industry. He told FoodService and Hospitality that a lot of people wanted to help, and “this was truly a Team Toronto effort.”

Scotiabank Arena reopens on August 1 with the Maple Leafs competing in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Zielinski feels these past few months have been very educational for chefs and the restaurant industry, teaching them how to be creative and smarter during challenging times. Toronto continues to score big and loyal fans are very proud.

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