Running Ottawa's Only Halal Food Bank: Interview with Syed Mumtaz AkhtarWritten by Chelby Daigle
Muslim Link interviewed the current chair of Sadaqa Food Bank, Syed Mumtaz Akhtar, about how Ottawa’s only halal food bank is managing with increasing demand.
How did you first become involved with Sadaqa Food Bank?
ICNA Relief Canada came to Ottawa in about 2005 or 2006 in order to set up the food bank. I was President of the Ottawa Muslim Association (OMA) at the time. They launched the project in 2007. After finishing with the OMA, I joined the food bank.
I’m also on the shura (council) of ICNA Relief Canada. I’m retired now so I devote a lot of my time to the food bank. I love this project because it is so rewarding.
How do you recruit volunteers for the food bank?
We recruit people through advertising and emails. As soon as someone comes to volunteer at the food bank, they want to stay because they really feel that they are helping people. Many high school students come in to do their 40 hours of volunteer service. Sometimes, whole families come in to volunteer. We can always use more volunteers because there is a lot of work to do.
Who do you serve at the food bank?
Our main clientele are Muslim families in need. We make sure that everyone qualifies for services. There is a lot of need in the city. Some people come just once and some people have depended on the food bank for years. Clients come every Saturday and Sunday. It is a very busy place. Each weekend, we serve about 140 families a week.
But although we focus on Muslims, in Islam you can’t say no to anyone who comes to your door. So we also serve non-Muslim clients who come to us too.
How do you collect food for your clients?
Although we are independent of the Ottawa Food Bank, about 25% of Sadaqa’s food comes from the Ottawa Food Bank. We apply each week and they drop it off. If we receive non-halal food items from them, we give them to our non-Muslim clients. We will not give anything non-halal to Muslims.
We also have bins to collect food at Muslim businesses across the city. We have volunteers pick up these bins each week. Muslims in this city are very generous. If we run out of food, we just post photos of our empty shelves on our social media and send it through our email list and subhanallah the next day, our bins will be full.
We also provide halal meat to our clients. We have eight freezers and two fridges full of meat. They are full now because of Eid al Adha. Many local Muslims donate to us for Eid. We also buy halal chicken from local butchers. We have good relationships with local halal butchers and they provide us discounts because it is for a good cause.
Often local Islamic schools will have food drives for us and different events will also collect food for us, like the Expressions for Muslim Women event.
We also have good relationships with local Muslim organizations, and many local mosques give us Zakat and Sadaqa.
In Ramadan, we give about $60 worth of food packages to 400 to 500 families. This year a group of young Muslim professionals called The Bytown Project helped us with putting together the food packages. We couldn’t have done it without their support as it was a lot of work.
But we don’t just collect food. In September, we give students in need school bags and school supplies.
How do you cover the food bank’s other expenses?
Fundraisers like the one this Saturday help Sadaqa handle emergency expenses. They also help to cover our rent and utilities. Our utilities are high because as I said we have eight freezers and two fridges. We moved from our Coburg Street location to our location now on Colonnade partly because of the expense and because that location was not very accessible, it had stairs.
We are planning to buy our own facility because long term it will be cheaper and this is a permanent project.
What are some of the challenges facing your clientele?
Many Muslims on social assistance depend on our food bank. Right now, the newly arrived Syrian refugees are coming to us for halal meat. About 50% of those who come to the food bank don’t speak English. Most speak Arabic or French. We always have Arabic speaking volunteers as the majority of our clients are Arabic speakers and that was even before the Syrian refugees arrived in large numbers.
Tell us about how the current US Ambassador Bruce Heyman came to volunteer at the food bank.
We met at the annual general meeting of the Ottawa Food Bank. He wanted to come and visit the food bank. He and his wife volunteered making food packages and talking to clients. We had a wonderful time. They are very friendly and helpful people. We are definitely open to more visitors to the food bank like this.
Finally, what are some key messages you would like to share with Muslim Link’s readers?
They should consider giving Zakat and Sadaqa to the food bank. You could also donate to us for your child’s aqiqah. But also think about volunteering. A problem I see in Ottawa’s Muslim community today is that we are very generous with money but we are not building relationships with each other. In Islam, feeding someone is a high priority. When the Prophet (pbuh) moved to Medina, he emphasized the importance of feeding the poor and building relationships between Muslims. So we are good at feeding the poor but we are not building relationships with one another.
We don’t know what is happening in each other’s lives, what challenges we are facing. How many of us say “Salam” when we pass by someone we know is Muslim? Do we know if they need help? Just like we should greet our neighbours and check in on them, these Muslims are more than our neighbours, they are our brothers and sisters in Islam. If someone needs something we should be the first one to go and help them. People are in a new country, they may need help finding jobs. We should be there to help. If you don’t have money to donate, you can help in other ways, you can volunteer, you can just talk to them.
Also, we are looking for volunteers with particular skills who could help support our work and support the work of our board. For example, a student came from Abu Dhabi to do his Masters. He contacted me and offered his services. He saw our previous website and offered to build a new one, and he did. That’s how we got our new website. So we need help from people who are willing to offer their skills in this way.
To purchase tickets to this Saturday’s Sadaqa Food Bank fundraiser click here
To donate to Sadaqa Food Bank click here
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