At this Canadian diner, homeless people can use meal tokens to buy sandwiches

At this Canadian diner, homeless people can use meal tokens to buy sandwiches
At Save on Meats, the act of giving a token is meant to be a conversation-starter. Marc Smith/Save on Meats
At Save on Meats, the act of giving a token is meant to be a conversation-starter. Marc Smith/Save on Meats

In the world of alternative currencies, bitcoin is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But there’s another alternative to cash that’s stirring a powerful reaction in one community in Canada. Tokens the size of Ritz crackers may be redeemed for sandwiches at a diner called Save on Meats, located in the heart of Gastown, a neighborhood in the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver, Canada.

Gastown has a longstanding problem with homelessness and drug use. Drug users there consume opioids, fentanyl and heroin — and from 2010 to 2013, a local hospital reported that hospitalizations due to addiction increased by 89%. Drugs are so omnipresent that local birds created a nest from used needles in May.

Social entrepreneur Mark Brand launched the Save on Meats token program in 2012, shortly after he took over management of the restaurant and butcher shop. Save on Meats also functions as a community commissary kitchen, serving food to people who live in a neighboring single-room occupancy building for low-income individuals. In an interview, Brand said the point of the token program is twofold: to help customers gift food to homeless people and to help start conversations about shared humanity.

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Brand said he had the idea for tokens after attending a community meeting about a “gift card project” that would allow marginalized people to redeem a gift card at different restaurants. But the cards were going to have amounts listed on them, and Brand had concerns about the cards being bartered for drugs.

“I said, ‘If it has a denomination, it will immediately go back in the drug market,’” Brand said. “I was thrown out of that meeting.”

Nevertheless, the problem of creating a way to give food kept him up all night. Brand himself had once been homeless, living on a couch in East Vancouver, when an alcohol addiction took over. The day after the community meeting, he began hatching a plan for the tokens.

The exterior of Save on Meats in Gastown
The exterior of Save on Meats in Gastown Save on Meats

Save on Meats began selling tokens for $3.50 a pop, and the tokens could be redeemed for a breakfast sandwich at the restaurant. His hope was that the physical act of an individual handing a token to another hungry individual would spark a conversation. “Then, you’re going to see the human. Donating from afar versus having a conversation are two completely different things,” Brand said. The current program allows individuals to redeem tokens for over five sandwiches, including a vegetarian option, a pulled pork sandwich and a meatball sub.

To Brand’s surprise, the restaurant sold hundreds of tokens right off the bat, redeeming 120 alone on the first day the tokens became available. Brand said roughly 210,000 people have been involved in token interactions (giving tokens and receiving them) since the program’s debut five years ago, and Save on Meats also began selling $5 tokens that can be exchanged for warm clothing, too.

“Donating from afar versus having a conversation are two completely different things.” — Mark Brand, social impact entrepreneur

“It’s never been about a lack of empathy. It’s about a lack of access or trust,” Brand said about the public’s generosity toward homeless individuals. Brand currently serves as the chair for A Better Life Foundation, which provides additional support for the community through dinner fundraisers, job training and employment opportunities.

Critics of the token program say it’s paternalistic and doesn’t allow token recipients to decide what’s best for themselves. In an op-ed for the Mainlander, a website dedicated to covering politics and social justice issues in Vancouver, writer Peter Driftmier called the token program “an extreme example of denying food choice and literally tokenizing the poor.”

But Brand’s vision is larger than sandwiches and warm socks. “Giving someone a sandwich is not going to solve the problem of homelessness unless it inspires someone who can affect homelessness to do something,” Brand said. He wants people to tap into what they’re good at — like providing legal services or designing websites — to help others in need. “Take your genius and plug it into something,” he said.

Brand (bottom row, center) with employees of Save on Meats
Brand (bottom row, center) with employees of Save on Meats Save on Meats

Brand’s philosophy on resource efficiency applies to his own employees, too. He’s tweaked several job positions to cater to both his business needs and the needs of people who often have trouble getting and keeping jobs, like those with developmental disabilities.

“What if you really just needed a brunch prep cook? How do you hire someone for just 13 hours a week? Nobody’s looking for that job,” he said.

Some of his longstanding employees are individuals with developmental disabilities, Brand noted, explaining that people with developmental disabilities and other barriers to employment — like being formerly incarcerated — can save employers money with significantly lower turnover rates.

“People in the service industry turn over at a national average of about 75% per annum. People with barriers [to employment] turn over at less than 25%,” Brand said. “I don’t think we are raising them up — they raise themselves up, by having the opportunity to work with people who care.”

Correction: Jan. 2, 2018
An earlier version of this article misidentified the price of the meal tokens. They cost $3.50.