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Take what you need, leave what you can: The Trading Cupboard

Updated: Mar 11

“Oh, good, you have toilet paper today,” is a common phrase I hear while working at The North Grove’s front desk. Every day I see more and more community members coming in to use our Trading Cupboard, where they can get canned goods, dried food, snacks, toiletries and other essentials. 

Front Desk Assistant, Jess Murray welcomes community members to The North Grove's trading cupboard.

The cupboard was created in the 1990s as a dignified way for people 

accessing The North Grove’s programs to fill immediate needs for food, diapers, and other items. People bring in items they aren’t using, like canned beans or a box of macaroni and cheese and swap them for something they need from the Trading Cupboard. 


At first, the cupboard’s entire inventory came from traded items and occasional donations. Now The North Grove is spending up to $20,000 a year to keep the Trading Cupboard stocked.

In 2022, I would see one to three people coming in to use the cupboard every day. Now, there is an average of 10 visits per day. 


Many people come in to pick up toiletries, which can be expensive and difficult to find at a discount. When people are managing small budgets or trying to provide for their family, toiletries are often the first thing they cut from their shopping list. Other in-demand items include canned meats, cereal, rice and pasta, diapers and baby wipes. 

As one person said, “The North Grove has been the biggest support system for our survival in Canada”. 

In January, The North Grove had 213 visits to the Trading Cupboard by 106 individuals. This is 139% more than the same time last year. This dramatic increase means we’ve had to change the way we do things. 


We’ve added more resources to help manage and stock the cupboard to keep up with the demand and volunteers come in every week to review expiration dates, package items like tea and diapers into smaller amounts, and help keep the cupboard organized. 

"It’s such a relief when people first come to the Trading Cupboard, and you tell them they can take what they need. They are welcomed and treated with dignity as soon as they walk in the door."

The lack of barriers is really important to people – especially newcomers. More than 25% of the people accessing our Trading Cupboard are newcomers, having moved to Canada within the last year. 

While we’ve been able to adapt and respond to the increased demand, this is not the kind of growth we want to see. The increase in visits to the cupboard tells us that the systems meant to support people are failing. 

Every week I have parents telling me they don’t have enough to feed their family. But food isn’t the only thing people are looking for. 

After people visit the cupboard, they often hang out in the drop-in room and tell me what’s going on in their life. 


They tell me about the battles they face every day with things that we often take for granted, like housing and being able to provide three meals a day for their children. 


The trading model is meant to build community. It’s not transactional. It is an opportunity for people to contribute to the community while also meeting their own needs. 

The Trading Cupboard is often people’s entry point into The North Grove, and it sets the tone for how they will continue to be treated here. So many people come back with friends or neighbours to show them the cupboard and that presents an opportunity to give them our program calendar and tell them about our weekly meals, family programming and the other free community supports available here.

And almost everyone does come back. 


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