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Former Feed Scarborough staff, volunteers raise concerns about council candidate's use of charity funds

Founder Suman Roy, a candidate in Thursday's municipal byelection in Scarborough Southwest, denied wrongdoing
Suman Roy speaks in a campaign video posted to X on Nov. 21, 2023.

On paper, Suman Roy is a near-perfect city council candidate. The former chef now runs a charity that serves thousands of Scarborough residents. He sits on Toronto’s Board of Health, advises the police on race-based data collection, and is endorsed by the deputy mayor. In the Ontario legislature, MPPs speak highly of his work.

But former charity workers say the real-life Roy, who is running to replace Gary Crawford in Scarborough Southwest, doesn’t line up with his public image.

“His outward persona is very different than who he is behind closed doors,” one former employee said. 

The Trillium spoke with four people who have worked or volunteered under Roy at his charity, Feed Scarborough, which grew from a holiday hamper operation to six food banks during the COVID-19 pandemic. They described a “hostile” work environment where Roy made dubious financial decisions, and where helping at-risk populations took a back seat to his political aspirations. 

Voters will go to the polls on Nov. 30 to choose a replacement for Crawford, who resigned to run for the Progressive Conservatives in a provincial byelection for Scarborough—Guildwood. 

In a statement, Roy’s campaign did not address most of the allegations in this article. 

“Suman conducts himself in a professional manner in his capacity as the manager of Feed Scarborough, as a respected member of the community and adheres to the highest ethical standards and respect for others,” it reads.

The campaign said another candidate “has been calling former staff members and volunteers, hoping to find some dirt for political gain.”

It did not say by press time which candidate it was referring to. No candidate has contacted The Trillium. The workers quoted in this story reached out on Nov. 25. 

“The timing of these accusations make it very evident that this is nothing more than an attempt to discredit my candidacy without regard for the damage that it could do to a respected charity that feeds thousands of hungry families a week. It is shameful,” Roy’s campaign said.

Three of the workers have been identified with pseudonyms so they could speak freely without fear of reprisal. The other, Deann Trainor, said she had “no problem” going on the record.

“He knows I don't like him,” she said.

One of the unnamed former workers said she briefly volunteered for a rival candidate in Scarborough Southwest, but stopped when she decided to go to the media about Roy. 

The workers said they had serious concerns about Feed Scarborough’s finances, which appear to be out of step with similar charities. 

In 2022, just eight per cent of the organization’s expenses went to “charitable programs,” with three-quarters of its spending on “other," according to Canada Revenue Agency filings. Ten other GTA food charities spent between 80 and100 per cent of their expenses on charitable programs. None spent more than 19 per cent on “other.”

The vast majority of Feed Scarborough’s revenue comes from other charities, like Daily Bread. Based on the available records, there appears to be a $1.1-million gap between the amount Feed Scarborough said it took in compared to how much those charities said they gave, according to an analysis done for The Trillium by Charity Intelligence, an independent Canadian organization that rates charitable foundations based on impact, transparency and efficiency.  The reason for this discrepancy is not clear. Questions for Roy were not answered by the time of publication.

“I haven’t seen anything like this,” Charity Intelligence Managing Director Kate Bahen said.

Allocating 75 per cent of its expenses to ”other” looks like sloppy bookkeeping by a relatively new charity — not necessarily a red flag, Bahen said. What concerned her more was the lack of spending on charity.

Roy’s charity took in almost $1.3 million last year and spent a total of just $477,724 on all expenses, including charitable purposes. Established food banks usually spend nearly every dollar, Bahen said.

“Food banks are kind of like the leanest long-distance runners,” she said. “What comes in goes right out.”

In Feed Scarborough’s case, just 18 cents per dollar donated went to charitable purposes, Bahen’s analysis found. The charity brought in almost $1.9 million but spent just $337,000 on programming over its two years. Its site says it feeds more than 3,000 people a week. Roy’s campaign said that number has now reached almost 8,000.

“I don't know how you feed 3,000 people a week for $150,000 (a year),” Bahen said. “But maybe they're just doing miracles here.”

Over those two years, Feed Scarborough spent almost $600,000 on capital expenditures, including improvements to its space, Charity Intelligence found. It’s saved the rest in a $1.2-million reserve fund.

The Roy campaign said Feed Scarborough will soon have to move its warehouse, program rooms and kitchen to make way for condos. 

“Our new space that we have secured needs investments to fix. We have been raising funds for the capital and putting them towards our new long-term home,” the campaign said in a followup statement.

There are many GTA food banks doing great work, “rather than a Mickey Mouse job where the founder is going to go off and run for politics,” Bahen said. 

“We see this a lot sometimes — how politicians will use the charity sector as their springboard,” she said. “It's become street cred. How can you be bad when you've run a charity?”

Bahen said the charity doesn’t appear to have been a good steward of its donations.

“How did you build up $1.2 million?” she said. “It was COVID. People gave you a lot of money to distribute to the people who are in need in Scarborough, and here we are after COVID, and it's in (Feed Scarborough’s) bank account. That's disappointing.”

Roy’s campaign said his charity “ensures that every dollar and every item of food has its maximum impact on the community.”

“All expenditures are audited by a third-party auditor and the Canadian Revenue Agency,” it said. “Suman is proud of the incredible growth of this organization and the impact that it has on our community.”

The campaign noted that food banks are just one part of Feed Scarborough’s programming, which also includes community gardens, a healthy meal program, an at-cost farmer’s market for local residents, policy and food security advocacy research, and mentorship and training for at-risk youth.

Those who worked for Feed Scarborough shared Bahen’s concerns.

“Once the election is over … I'm going to the CRA,” said "Nadine," another former employee. “Because that money should be going into the community.”

"Sophia," another employee, said she saw grants approved for programs, but the cash wasn’t allocated to them.

When it came time to run the programs, “we would have to find in-kind donations or just figure it out,” she said.

Trainor said Roy once asked her for help filing charity taxes but that he had recorded donations “all in one lump sum.” 

According to CRA filings, 62 per cent of Feed Scarborough’s revenue came from non-receipted donations in 2022. Charities are not required to issue receipts in Canada.

While helping with the taxes, Trainor said Roy would only let her see receipts for things like office supplies. The next day, Trainor, who moved from Newfoundland to take the job, said she told him she couldn’t help if he wouldn’t be transparent.

“And I walked out and I resigned the next morning,” she said, adding that it took an Ontario Labour Board battle to get paid. 

And then there’s the pizza oven. 

Roy bought the $8,000, six-foot-tall cooker with charity funds, said Trainor, the charity’s former project manager. It was used for parties, often attended by local politicians, police officers, journalists and developers — not to feed those in need, the workers said. 

“Meanwhile, our buses didn't have working windshield wipers. We were scrambling to find money for gas for these vehicles,” Sophia said. “Our programs were starved for resources.”

Roy always made sure to get photos with high-profile guests at his events, Sophia said.

“It's very clear that it's for optics,” she said.

The charity has played host to politicians, including “beloved” local NDP MPP Doly Begum. In 2018, he said he looked forward to “working closely with you, when I get elected to CityCouncil.” Roy ran in that year’s election, placing a distant fifth behind the winner, Crawford.

Roy is an Ontario Liberal supporter, volunteer and donor, though, and isn’t shy about sharing his anti-Doug Ford political views online.

Another former volunteer, “Olivia,” said she bartended a few of those events, despite not having her Smart Serve certificate.

Trainor said Roy wasn’t worried about throwing unlicensed parties with alcohol — or most other regulations.

“He says, ‘Don't worry about it. I have friends. We don't need permits.’ And that was his attitude for everything,” she said.

Roy’s campaign said Feed Scarborough “does not hold regular parties and has hosted one Donor Appreciation event in the last three years (which had a Special Occasions Permit and a Smart Serve bartender). Donor stewardship is an industry-standard practice in the non-profit sector and is an important way to nurture donor relationships and future contributions.”

Trainor said food safety was another area of concern. She said she called the Toronto Board of Health to inspect the charity’s kitchen in 2021.

“There'd be food that would be sitting there for hours and hours and hours. Then it had to go in a truck for more hours, and it was just so unsafe,” she said. 

“(Roy) just didn’t care. His attitude was, well at least they’re getting fed,” she said. “Those were his exact words. ‘At least they’re getting fed.’”

The inspector “flipped” when she saw the conditions and threw away hundreds of improperly stored meals, Trainor said. 

Toronto Public Health said the inspector found “temperature abuse of hazardous foods, no running water in the kitchen, no hot water in the washroom facilities and a few other infractions.” Feed Scarborough still got a conditional pass, contingent on it only serving prepackaged and “non-hazardous” food that didn’t require handling. An inspection two days later resulted in a full passing grade.

Roy blamed the inspection on a volunteer who had previously raised similar concerns and dressed her down in the kitchen in front of other volunteers, Trainor said. 

“He said, ‘What a useless person, she obviously doesn't care about these homeless people,’” and banned her from working at Feed Scarborough, Trainor said.

Trainor, who only spent two months in the role before quitting, said she became disillusioned quickly. 

“Everything that happened there, it was so unethical,” she said.

For instance, Roy gave his staff codes for free Uber rides that were meant to help low-income people access vaccines during the pandemic, Trainor said. Feed Scarborough has run vaccine pop-up clinics, and its website says it “leads the vaccine initiative in Scarborough southwest.”

Trainor said she brought up the issue in a meeting, saying the codes weren’t meant for personal use.

“And Suman’s answer: ‘I'll do what I want with what I own,’” she said. “Because he truly believes he owns everything and he doesn't have to answer to anybody.”

Acting as both the chair of Feed Scarborough and its de facto executive director, Roy “doesn’t have any oversight,” Sophia said.

When Olivia gassed up the company vehicle, she said she was reimbursed with Dollarama, No Frills or Esso gift cards that she believes were meant for food bank clients.

“They're used for gas, food, anything,” Trainor said. “Parties, he's like, ‘Here, here's a $50 gift card, go buy what we need.’”

Olivia said her breaking point came when she found out the charity’s “mobile farmer’s market” re-sold donated food in low-income areas.

“People saw the food bank signs and naturally expected to receive free items. When we asked them for money, it was humiliating for both parties. That was my final day,” she said.

Roy’s campaign didn’t address the allegation but said two of its community gardens provide food for the farmer’s market.

Overwork was a constant problem, those who spoke to The Trillium said. Olivia said she was often called in four times a week when she had signed on for one or two shifts. 

“They couldn’t keep staff,” she said.

“If we left before 7 p.m. it was a good day. Like, that was a miracle,” Sophia said, adding that she often had hours of work to take home. She started work around 8 a.m., she said.

She said employees were expected to work almost every weekend. 

“And if we tried to say we couldn't come in on a weekend, oftentimes … he would say, ‘Okay, well, then how is this work going to get done if not by you?’” Sophia said. “How are you supposed to answer that question without it turning into a fight? And oftentimes it did.”

Sophia said she’s well aware of how common unpaid overtime is in the non-profit sector, but that it’s “at an unprecedented level” at Feed Scarborough.

While setting up for one weekend event the night before, Trainor said Roy yelled at her because pictures of volunteers were hung wrong and he was expecting an important politician. She left, and soon after got a call from Roy.

“He says, ‘It's time for us to have a conversation. I expect you to be in my office … you better be here by eight in the morning,” she said. “And I'm like, ‘Well, really, I don't have to be. I've chosen to be because it's an event for the food bank, but I'm not required to show up.”

Trainor said she averaged 12 hours of unpaid overtime a week, “easy.”

Sophia said Roy threatened to close another employee’s community garden program if she didn’t show up on the weekends. 

“It was hostile,” she said. “And unethical.”

Another battle happened during pride month, when Roy demanded workers take down a small pride flag so as not to “scare off conservative donors,” Sophia said.

The workers said they believe Roy started the charity as a springboard to bigger things. 

Back in 2021, Trainor said Roy promised she could take over his job when he went into politics. That’s why she left Newfoundland, she said. 

“He was told by, I forget the politician’s name … that the only way to do it is you have to prove that you're fighting for something for people,” she said. “So that's how he got into this food bank thing.”

“I'm so stressed about Thursday,” said Nadine, referring to election day. “I think the main concern is that he's clearly empire-building. He is clearly not putting the community first with Feed Scarborough. So why would he put community first as a city councillor?”

Roy’s campaign said people should “focus on what is important and not wild accusations and hearsay.”

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