Some people have argued that teaching people to cook from scratch is the answer to hunger and poor health in North America. Such cookery advocates argue that cost, or income, is not the major barrier to eating nutritious food. Frugal food bloggers chronicle their attempts to live on a dollar a day; Slow Food USA hosted the $5 Challenge with the cheeky tagline “Take back the ‘value meal.’” Mark Bittman, the celebrated New York Times columnist and cookbook author, writes regularly about health and sustainability as linked to “the all-but-vanished craft of cooking and associated thrift.”
They’re right, of course. Acquiring food skills is essential for anyone who wants to break the habit of relying on processed food. But for many people at The Stop, a Community Food Centre in Toronto, Canada, like those on low incomes everywhere, it’s not so simple.
Lack of income is a major barrier to buying fresh food and making meals out of it. Shopping, prepping and cooking time is often extremely limited for people who might be working several minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet. And many who use our programs don’t even have a stove or a kitchen to cook in. Trying to live on a social assistance check of less than six hundred dollars a month in a rooming house or jammed in with others in a one-bedroom apartment means proper cooking facilities are frequently unavailable.
And you can’t discount the social exclusion faced by people living in poverty. Sharing a great meal with others can help you feel connected and alive, as it does for people in our community kitchen like Italian immigrant Rosa Lamanna, but if you’re on your own in a dingy, miserable room, cooking a meal by yourself can simply serve to highlight your solitude.
While we can’t claim community kitchens—and the food skills learned there—are going to end the poverty or hunger of participants, they can definitely help low-income community members eat more healthily, have greater control over their personal circumstances and break out of their isolation.
For Rosa and her family, the kitchen was a gateway to The Stop’s other programs. They soon became involved in the Earlscourt garden. Rosa had some farming experience from back home in Italy, and they already grew beautiful roses as well as some vegetables and herbs in their backyard. Their mint even won a gardening contest our community kitchen and garden coordinator, Rhonda, organized. As he’s grown older, her son, Tony, has become involved, too. “I have two green thumbs,” he says proudly, holding up his hands.
“Except when you first started, you couldn’t plant straight,” his mother laughs. “I tell him, ‘Plant it like the CN Tower, not the Tower of Pisa!’”
Tony shrugs. “Now I know.”
In the neighborhood where I live in downtown Toronto, the Italians and Portuguese are well known for their creative gardens—apple and pear trees on postage-stamp lawns, zucchinis draped from old steel pipes and hockey sticks, tomatoes growing in apple baskets and plastic buckets on any available surface. We’re across the street from a Portuguese man named Tony whose entire side lawn running the length of the house is cultivated with tomatoes, kale, beans and various fruit trees. He could feed many of our neighbors in the summer months.
Tony remains an anomaly, but more and more people around the world are beginning to see the potential of growing food in cities. Chefs and environmentalists cultivate bees in parks, on rooftops and in backyards. In Detroit, long-neglected lots are being turned into massive urban farms. Supermarkets like Toronto’s Big Carrot and London’s Thornton’s Budgens grow vegetables on their roofs. In Delhi and Mombasa and Hong Kong, people are cultivating alleys, balconies and abandoned lots to grow food.
Our community garden at The Stop is part of this explosion in urban growing, but even while our harvests become more and more bountiful and our garden programming becomes more varied and fulsome, we have never considered that the goal of these projects is to bring an end to hunger in Davenport West. Our garden is primarily a way to build community, engage people with their food and foster new skills.
One-on-one, through informal sessions, town hall meetings, surveys and programs, community members talk about the shame and humiliation they feel having to use food banks and receive charity. Gardens don’t prevent that feeling, of course, but they help alter the conversation. People might become involved in planting or weeding and have a chance to bring home some of the food. And when they share the work and the produce, their connection to what they eat, to each other and to the organization changes. It’s no longer a “we give, they take” proposition. It’s collaborative—and something to build on.
Bookshelves groan with the theory behind this “community development” approach to supporting people to improve their lives. The late Brazilian intellectual Paulo Freire—with his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed—has been especially influential. His focus was education because he saw it as inherently political; Freire believed in fostering social change through working with the poor and marginalized. He advocated for valuing lived experience, for people being agents of change in their own communities (as opposed to having it imposed from outside), for dialogue and working together as a function of mutual respect.
I read Freire while doing my master’s degree in sociology, studying the potential for popular education in labor organizations, and found his writing inspirational. But for me, none of what we’re trying to accomplish at The Stop is truly about theory or strategy; it’s more a way of being in the world. Listening to people—whether it’s in the garden, kitchen, food bank or classroom—is the root. It’s a glass-half-full approach that begins from the premise that people are the experts on their own lives and, given the right support, have wise and intelligent ideas about how to improve them.
Of course, like everything worth doing, community development requires patience and a certain amount of optimism. There are bound to be frequent setbacks and detours. When I worked at a homeless shelter, one of our initiatives was helping to create a shared business—a community economic development project.
A colleague and I put up posters and convinced some guys to come to a meeting to discuss the kinds of businesses they’d like to be involved in. About ten men showed up—some for the free coffee and doughnuts, others because they wanted to work. There was Ron, a stringy older guy with a quick wit, who’d spent his life on the move, riding the rails and crisscrossing the country; James, a teenager from Grenada waiting on his refugee claim; and Mike, a forty-something First Nations man who spent his days waiting for work from the contractors who troll the downtown streets hiring cheap manual labor.
Once we started talking, we discovered that all of the guys had some skill and experience working with wood—some had been contractors, others general laborers or carpenters. We decided that together we’d create a woodworking co-operative. We applied for and received a small city grant to buy some tools, and looked around for a wood shop to rent or borrow. We found space at a local community centre and launched Inch by Inch Woodworking Co-operative by making small cedar garden boxes for container planting. From there we moved on to wooden rocking horses and garden chairs. We were even commissioned to build a cabinet for a popular downtown restaurant.
A lot of the time, we were making it up as we went along, but the guys were pleased with the work, proud to be connected with something constructive, and glad to have some extra money. Not everyone stuck around, and sometimes it was difficult to find them when we needed them. Many of these men were living dangerous and itinerant lives. One of the guys who passed through Inch by Inch turned up dead, killed on the street. But there were also triumphs, like Ron, who managed to gain enough stability in his life that he entered supportive housing and eventually moved into his own apartment.
My colleague and I often joked that we were doing pretty well at the community development part of it—but not so much the economic element. None of the men were going to become rich by building rocking horses, they might not even become self-supporting, but the co-operative helped push back the four walls of the shelter or rooming house they were living in, giving them a positive place to be with others. For all of them, it was a better spot to begin the long, difficult work of changing their lives.
At The Stop, we see the garden as a similar stake in the ground—a beginning, rather than an end in itself.
The summer garden assistant opens the door of our office on the bottom floor of a public housing apartment building, the sounds of the busy street racing inside with her. Everyone in the open space looks up. She’s tanned after a summer in the sun and seems excited.
“You have to come into the back,” she says. “We’re making callaloo.”
I’ve never heard the word, but I’m glad of a reprieve from the maddening copy machine. We head out the door, around the side of the apartment building and into the food bank. Rhonda is inside the community space. With more staff, we’re now able to use it regularly, including for the new community kitchen groups that Rhonda has started.
A cluster of people is sitting at one of the round tables. And I can see through the small pass-through into the cramped kitchen that there are more inside. The smell wafting out is thick with garlic. We all sit down, and Herman, our garden neighbor, emerges wearing an apron, carrying a tray covered in leafy greens that he’s steamed and cooked with salt fish, garlic, onions, salt and pepper, and sweet red peppers. “Callaloo,” he says proudly.
Rhonda tells us the story as we take our tentative first bites. One day recently Herman came into the garden and saw some volunteers pulling out what they thought was a weed. “That’s no weed,” he told Rhonda. “It’s callaloo.” So she asked Herman to show everyone how the Caribbean specialty is cooked and eaten, and today a group of volunteers is trying out his favorite vegetable.
The verdict is good. It looks and tastes a lot like spinach or kale. Herman is pleased, proud to show off his Jamaican roots.
Rhonda did a bit of digging and discovered that Jamaicans aren’t the only ones who love this plant. People all over the world know it and its different varieties as “amaranth” and eagerly eat the tender leaves, stalks and seeds. She also found that farmers north of the city call one variety of the plant “pigweed” and consider it a scourge. The seeds spread easily in the wind and they struggle to contain it on their farms.
I look at the faces around the table—Herman and Rhonda; Francesca and Dorino; Gordon, who’s been working at the plot since the first day we dug the fence posts; a woman who lives in a rooming house nearby and suffers from severe diabetes.
One person’s weed, it seems, is another’s delicacy. In fact, as I’m beginning to realize, food is never just food.
It’s impossible to open a computer, a newspaper, go to a bookstore or turn on your TV without reading or hearing about food. Where farmers’ markets were once rare in urban centers, they’ve now become popular gathering spots for everyone from families and downtown hipsters to retirees and tourists. People everyone seem to be talking about their favorite farm-to-table, local, organic restaurant, store or coffee shop.
But for the most part, poor people have had little voice in the growing conversation about creating a healthier food system. When change is all about throwing around your individual economic power—the ability to deny or award a company, store or individual your business according to how they operate—people on low incomes get left in the dust. They are, more often than not, forced to choose food that is the cheapest and most accessible, rather than the tastiest, healthiest and most sustainably or ethically produced. And what makes changing this situation even more urgent is that low-income people are more profoundly affected by the ill effects of the industrial food system than anyone else. As food activist Mark Winne explains in his book Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, the rich get local and organic, the poor get diabetes. All over the world, this scenario plays out, as the rising cost of food affects low-income people more immediately and forcefully than it affects those with a financial cushion.
One of our key jobs at The Stop is to ensure that our community participates and has a say in the issues that affect them. But I also think that we can have a role tapping into the largely middle-class enthusiasm about food we’re seeing and connecting the dots between the poor and everyone else. If local and organic is good for the middle class and good for the planet, why shouldn’t low-income people be eating this food, too?
After all, entrenching a two-tiered food system that benefits some while fostering greater suffering for the poor is hardly a just or desirable long-term goal. The costs of such inequality—in exploding rates of diet-related illness as well as health care expenditures—are already clear. And unless the changes to farming practices, production, processing and distribution that the middle class is increasingly demanding are systemic—unless everyone has access to sustainably grown food—none of it will be effective. When a river is poisoned, after all, everyone gets toxic water. Advocates for reimagining the food system simply can’t afford to leave low-income people out. There’s no way to build a genuine, far-reaching alternative without them.
I don’t think simply handing out food and sending people on their way is good enough—not now or ever. The Community Food Centres we’re building encourage engagement in everything from gardening, cooking and eating together to guiding and shaping the programs and services to setting our course for the future. From this platform it becomes possible for people to move beyond their community to articulate their needs on a larger stage. That’s how social change happens—from the ground up.
Adapted and excerpted from The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement. To learn more about The Stop and other Community Food Centres across Canada, visit www.cfccanada.ca, www.mhpbooks.com/books/the-stop or follow @aplaceforfood on Twitter. You can read a little more about The Stop at The New Republic.
Nick Saul was the Executive Director of The Stop Community Food Centre for 14 years. The Stop is a community-based nonprofit that uses the power of food to bring greater health, dignity and justice to its low-income neighbourhood. He is now President and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), an organization taking The Stop’s model to other neighborhoods across the country. Andrea Curtis is an award-winning writer and editor. Her latest book for children is What’s for Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World.