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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Save on Meats creates food currency for the DTES

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Mark Brand, owner of the remodeled Save on Meats in the DTES, has teamed up with Village&Co to help feed the homeless over the winter months.

Brand, has sunk a ton of money into the building at 43 West Hastings—an institution since 1957—kept the neon sign, and restored the butcher shop, bakery and diner. He’s also employing the unemployable, installed a roof top garden to grow produce, and created a type of currency to feed the homeless.

The “currency” is a token that can only be exchanged for food at his diner. He kicked off the program at the end of November thinking he might sell a thousand, and sold 5,000 in the first 10 days. His reasoning is that give money or bus passes or gift cards and 90 percent of the time it’s turned into drugs, booze or cigarettes. It’s a big reason that people won’t give handouts.

“All it is, is giving somebody a sandwich, it’s really black and white,” he told me. “What’s really important to me is being able to create the conversation between the affluent and the people who are struggling. The token has to be handed to someone. You are not doing a random donation you have to look somebody in the face and give it to them.”

Village&Co took the concept into the digital sphere. Whenever someone clicks on the hashtag #shareameal on any social platform, the agency attaches a Save on Meats sandwich token worth $2.25—to the office Christmas tree.

On December 31, the tokens will be donated to the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, where they will feed as many people as possible in January—a time when the homeless become invisible again. Village&Co was founded a couple of years ago by Justin Young and Nora Ahern who were making big bucks in a large ad agency in the better part of town. Now they run a small social media shop on the edge of Chinatown.

Brand received national attention in November when he appeared on CBC’s “The Big Decision” and Arlene Dickinson invested $250,000 into his business.

He is not without his critics. They say he’s part of the problem—he’s making the area trendy again and increasing rents and prices for the poor. He’s also accused of making money off the tokens—many which will never be redeemed.

Personally I don’t have a problem with this, he should be making money. No, he’s not going to fix the systemic problems of the DTES, but he’s not going to hurt them either. And at the very least he is offering an easy way for the rest of us to support the downtrodden of the area.


Eve Lazarus is a writer with a passion for history and heritage houses. She is the author of At Home with History: the secrets of Greater Vancouver’s Heritage Houses and blogs obsessively about buildings and their genealogies at Her latest book Sensational Victoria: bright lights, red lights, murders, ghosts & gardens was recently launched!




  1. The problem is that by giving these tokens you are taking choice away from the receiver. If I give $2 to a street person, he/she can use that $2 on anything they want. Giving them a token — if it is to be of any value — obliges them to visit SOM and get a sandwich even if that is not what they want.

    The tokens are significantly more valuable (in moral terms at least) to the supplier and the giver than the recipient.

    And trust me, Eva, you get just as much a personal interaction when you hand a toonie to a streetperson than you do when handing them a corporate token.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jak, but I completely disagree. No one is saying stop giving change if that’s what you want to do, but many people—myself included will not give change to the homeless knowing that it will likely (rightly or wrongly) end up on booze, smokes or drugs. I will however buy a token for food and that person has the choice to use it, refuse it or give it away. Is SOM making a profit on these? I don’t know—I hope that they are, I’m not sure what you mean by moral terms—I don’t see the difference between giving a
    token and toonie here.

  3. I think this program is a great idea. First of all it allows people who would otherwise donate nothing to give something of value – at least I think it has value (who wouldn’t want a free sandwich?) Maybe even other vendors (DTES and elsewhere) will start similar programs (or join forces) to provide more choice than just SOM. Second, doesn’t this type of program provide a mechanism for DTES residents and others to benefit from the businesses that are “excluding” them? 

    If it really is about choice then the intended recipient can simply choose to not accept the SOM token. Jak (though well intentioned, I’m sure) makes it sound as if the recipient is somehow entitled to a cash handout.

  4. I have a brother on the DTES. I was really happy to see this option. This is something I can give my brother for Christmas that he can actually use. I’m thrilled that he can get a hot breakfast sandwich when his money may have run out. I hope he’s happy with it, I’ll keep you posted.

  5. Instead of giving tax cuts to the rich – to spend on their ridiculously luxurious life style – we should be insisting that they have to accept tokens that can only be contributed to worthwhile programmes that the rest of us support. Of course they can then make all the PR hay they want from their generous “donations” to hospitals and art galleries or whatever – they just can no longer write it off as an allowable business expense. And we can exercise the right to make moral judgements on the expenditures of the exceedingly wealthy as well as the exceedingly poor.