“Never underestimate the power of a good meal.”
Nick Saul, co-author of “The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement”
Regular readers of the Star will recall a recent series of articles featured on page 3 entitled, ‘Big Ideas that will remake Toronto’. On Feb. 22nd, Debbie Field, the executive director of Foodshare Toronto wrote in with her big idea. “What if Toronto agreed to put first in planning, urban design and social policy … fresh fruits and vegetables within a 15 minute walk of everyone’s home.”
Ms. Field imagined an urban environment where people are knit together through a common interest in food. Not just an interest in filling our tummies, but in locally grown, home grown, always fresh, accessible food that would be used to prepare meals that reflect the rich, deep and complex cultural mosaic that makes up Toronto.
The truth? The raw material already exists for just such an endeavour.
Fresh, Accessible Food
Guy Farintosh is no ‘run of the mill’ farmer. Unless independent, hard working, committed and a bit of a loner is ‘run of the mill’.
Guy discovered The Stop Community Food Centre, which is located in Toronto’s Davenport West neighbourhood, by mistake a few years ago. Or, rather, The Stop discovered him. In its efforts to bring fresh food to their community members, The Stop contacted Guy, who runs a large ‘pick your own’ vegetable farm north of the City.
A bus load of community members from The Stop has visited his farm for a few summers now.
It was through Guy that I was introduced to The Stop. One cold day this winter he dropped off a book at my house. The Stop: How the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement is a fascinating read. The authors, Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis, dramatically changed my view of food as it relates to the economically disadvantaged in our city.
The story begins with personal reflections on Nick’s responsibilities as the executive director of The Stop, then a small, under-resourced food bank in the west end of Toronto. As food was metered out to needy recipients each day, there was an unsettling feeling in his stomach. Where was the progress? How was this changing the lives of The Stop’s community members? Was the food bank just dumping food into a bottomless pit of demand? Was it any different than other food banks in the country? Where was the dignity in reaching out each week for free food?
While being careful to acknowledge the generous impulse behind food banks and the importance of meeting the emergency food needs of low-income people, Mr. Saul takes us on the journey that he and his team have been on since 1998. He exposes the frustrations of handing out low-quality food for free, and discovering the life events that led community members to need the food bank, and how stigmatized many felt at having to rely on the service.
Mr. Saul explains, “The food bank experience is so often a slow, painful death of the spirit – forcing yourself to visit a crowded, ill-equipped, makeshift place, answer personal questions, and swallow your pride as you wait in a lineup. Reaching the front of the line only to be offered bizarre processed food products or slimy, wilted lettuce that couldn’t be revived with electric shock treatment is the final nail in the coffin.”
All of this suggested to Mr. Saul that there was a better way to meet the needs of the many hungry people in our urban setting.
When the Metcalf Foundation supported the “Income Security Council”, a program to explore the possibilities of increasing assistance to the underprivileged in the city, one woman attending a public meeting stood up and said, “My name is Jane, and I’m a drain on the system.” These words focus our attention on one of the biggest problems with food banks: people who are forced to use them do not feel dignified by the experience of putting out their hand for free food.
The Stop provides a very practical example of one person’s journey of discovery as Mr. Saul seeks answers to the burning questions that relate to why, in a country with as vast resources as Canada’s, healthy food is not accessible to all. I will warn you that this journey did not take place in a straight line. Perhaps, if someone had been able to show Mr. Saul the way, someone who had asked the same questions years before and had discovered the answers, then perhaps the road would have been less bumpy. The book is one of the ways Mr. Saul chose to share The Stop’s learnings and experiences. Those lessons and successes are also being transmitted through Community Food Centres Canada, the national organization Mr. Saul and a team founded in 2012 in order to provide partners with resources and support to create Community Food Centres like The Stop across the country.
When we blaze new ground, there are always surprises. This book is full of them, including some struggles that illuminate the complexities of the process. Bringing people together to collaborate on such a critical question as, “How do we make healthy food accessible to everyone?” will always stir up a mixture of responses. The Stop does an excellent job of parsing these out.
One of the answers to the question evolved as The Stop sought a new home. The idea was to provide a place where people would not just receive a hand-out of food, but where they would also learn how to prepare it for the table, preserve it for off-season consumption, and have access to ground on which to grow their own.
The Haves and Have-nots
Located in a more affluent part of the city than The Stop’s main location, the Green Barn, anchor tenant at the Artscape Wychwood Barns, provides the perfect site for illustrating the connection between all the players in the food system, from farmers and home cooks to backyard gardeners, chefs and educators. Building a big tent around the issue with room enough for everyone, is a key principle here, as it is in The Stop’s volunteer program. As Mr. Saul describes in the book, Community Food Centres encourage community members to work as volunteers. “Supporting others in their community, these volunteers put the boot to the idea that low-income people are lazy or don’t want to contribute.” A mutually supportive atmosphere begins to form when program participants volunteer alongside donors, corporate partners, foodies, etc. These connections allow for a “blurring of the lines between those who give and receive, helping us move from charity to solidarity.”
There are barriers between the haves and have-nots where food is concerned. Within these barriers all kinds of misunderstandings can fester. The shared experience of growing food, sharing it and advocating for access to it for all is ‘a great equalizer’ according to Saul.
Debbie Field, in her article here in the Star, asks us to ‘imagine’ community gardens, composting, bake ovens, beekeeping, fruit trees and urban farms added to schools, parks, yards, roofs and balconies of buildings.
‘Imagine’ indeed. Truth is we need not imagine any longer. Such a system exists in microcosm: The Stop and fellow Community Food Centres in other cities, along with the hundreds of community and allotment gardens, community kitchens and other food initiatives that already operate in our 416 area and beyond are testament to the fact that there is life beyond food banks.
“The Stop”, by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. Random House Canada.