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Meet the Once-Homeless Chef Using Food to Fight Poverty

Meet the Once-Homeless Chef Using Food to Fight Poverty

Mark Brand understands what it’s like being hungry. Briefly homeless as a teenager, he is now one of North America’s foremost social entrepreneurs bringing a new form of leadership that encompasses good in every step.

Food is Mark’s craft, and he uses a food-focused approach to fighting poverty. In 2011, Mark purchased Save On Meats, a historic Vancouver-based butcher and sandwich counter in service since 1957. Brand transformed it into a full-service diner that not only cooks up delicious and affordable burgers, but also provides 1,200 free meals a day. Mark also developed a token program for his diner to allow others to donate a meal at the shop to those in need without exchanging actual money — it’s a closed currency system to ensure it’s used towards meals. recently profiled Mark as part of their “Munchies” column. They talk to him about social entrepreneurship and the inspiration behind his social impact business model that not only feeds those in poverty but offers them employment opportunities as well. Below is an excerpt from the article, read the whole piece here.

“When I was 30 I sort of fell into addiction and alcoholism and ended up on a friend’s couch deep in East Van,” Brand says. “It was real dark. For moments, I didn’t think I was coming out of this.”

As a teenager, Brand also found himself homeless for short stretches. “I come from a place where I experienced it very temporarily, but the resources were not there and it’s a very scary and lonely place,” he says. “So I wanted to help change that. And then when you start to have an actual impact on one person’s life, you start to think, ‘what if we could do this for a bunch of people, and, more importantly, what if we could build systems that help people understand this better?’”

All of this came to a head when Save On came up for sale. The butcher shop and its sandwich counter had always been a place of respite for Brand in his toughest times. “Back then, I would come here a lot just to hang out and eat,” he tells me while dipping his haystack fries in ketchup. “So to be able to come back here and provide other people what was provided for me is really special.”

But Brand’s version of Save On does more than serve tasty and affordable burgers; it also provides 1,200 free meals a day to members of the community. Being hungry sucks, and Brand’s goal from the start was to make Save On the center of an operation to address that issue.

“You can’t do anything positive with your life unless you’re stabilized, and you can’t be stabilized on an empty stomach. Imagine going without food for days on end and then going into a meeting or trying to put together a resume. You just can’t do it,” Brand says with a growing passion and energy. “Getting people fed is number one for me. And getting fed real food. Not this bullshit styrofoam slop that goes out a lot of the time. Food is our last, best opportunity to stay connected.”

That’s why the commissary kitchen at Save On produces nutritious and fresh family-style meals that actually taste good. Each serving costs $3.50 (Canadian) to produce, paid for by a combination of government funding and funds raised by Brand’s charity, A Better Life Foundation. The bulk of these 1,200 meals go to SROs in the neighborhood, often providing residents with their one meal of the day. Since 2012, over 1.8 million of these meals have been provided out of Save On Meats.

“By making large-format communal meals, we’re able to cut down on the production costs,” says Ash MacLeod, the managing director of Brand’s operations. “But there’s also an incredible benefit of people eating together and sharing that experience. Poverty breeds isolation, and food helps break that isolation. Studies show that SROs with food have a way improved lifestyle in terms of rowdiness, damage, violence and so on. Calls to 911 go way down, overdoses go way down, just by adding food.”

Interested in learning more about Mark and what he can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].