On October 10th, I had the opportunity to be a part of something really special. This post isn’t my usual ramble on how to cook beans or get your kids to eat green stuff. It’s about much bigger issues of food security, human dignity, the power of good food & community and the beginning of a revolution. Please take the time to read on, because I think you’ll also agree something super-fantastic is underway in the HRM, and I hope you’ll be motivated to get involved in helping it grow into its potential.
Let’s backtrack a bit. This summer, a friend of mine gave me her copy of a book called The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. She told me it was about a man who transformed an established food bank in Toronto into a completely different model, with an entirely different philosophy and a focus on involving the very community that used the bank in the running of that bank. It sounded right up my alley, so I took it home and started reading it that afternoon. I read all 300 pages in two days. I got goosebumps and even shed a few tears. When I put it down, I thought: We need this here. I see first hand the struggles many of our families are facing with the affordability of decent food. But we’ll never get this here. After all, this kind of thing only happens in Toronto and Vancouver, right? Wrong!
The Stop’s innovative model is best summarized in this excerpt from the book jacket:
In 1998, when Nick Saul became executive director of The Stop, the little urban food bank was like thousands of other cramped, dreary, makeshift spaces, a last-hope refuge where desperate people could stave off hunger for one more day with a hamper full of canned salt, sugar and fat. The produce was wilted and the packaged foods were industry cast-offs — mislabelled products and misguided experiments that no one wanted to buy. For users of the food bank, knowing that this was their best bet for a meal was a humiliating experience.
Since that time, the Stop has undergone a radical reinvention. Participation has overcome embarrassment, and the isolation of poverty has been replaced with a vibrant community that uses food to build hope and skills, and to reach out to those who need a meal, a hand, and a voice. What was once a simple food bank is now a thriving, internationally-respected Community Food Centre with gardens, kitchens, a greenhouse, farmers’ markets and a mission to revolutionize our food system.
The tireless efforts of Nick Saul, his staff and the community to grow a model that met the needs of that community in a dignified, involved way were so inspiring to me. So when an email invitation from Ultima Foods dropped into my box a few weeks ago inviting me to attend the launch of a new Dartmouth Community Food Centre I was astounded and delighted. We were actually getting the opportunity to be a part of this revolutionary model in the HRM!
It turns out that Ultima Foods, the maker of iogo yoghurt, has partnered with five community kitchens, including the one in Dartmouth, as well as with Community Food Centres Canada (www.cfccanada.ca) the organization that Nick Saul now runs, which provides support & resources to partner organizations across Canada so they can establish responsive, financially stable Community Food Centres. These Centres work to bring people together to grow, cook, share, and advocate for good food. I was invited to attend the special launch cooking party at the Dartmouth Community Kitchen, with none other than Nick Saul and Lynn Crawford, Chef extraordinaire and passionate supporter of the Community Kitchen model.
Those of you who know me and read my posts know that I am a huge believer in the power of real food. Usually I’m focussed on its power to energize, support, protect and heal our bodies, but today I want to highlight its incredible ability to connect and empower. When people come together to cook & share a meal magical things happen, barriers dissolve, guards drop, and things get real. The Community Kitchen model invites members of the community to cook together, under the instruction of a chef. The group prepares a healthy, tasty meal, learning new skills and gaining confidence, and then sits down together to enjoy it. Friendships are made, stories are shared, and maybe just a little of life’s load is lifted.
That afternoon at the Dartmouth Community Kitchen (currently located in the North Dartmouth Community Centre, but soon moving to a bigger, independent space), we did just that. Under the capable guidance of the kitchen’s resident chef, with a few side lessons on slicing & dicing from our celebrity Chef Lynn (who is SO warm and down-to-earth by the way), we cooked up a delicious fish chowder, coleslaw, whole wheat biscuits and a blueberry crisp. It was a really great afternoon, and I left inspired to get involved in growing our new Community Food Centre.
For those of you who are still a bit unclear as to what this Centre entails, here’s how the CFCC describes a Community Food Centre (v. a traditional food bank) on their website:
A Community Food Centre is a welcoming space where people come together to grow, cook, share and advocate for good food. CFCs provide emergency access to high-quality food in a dignified setting that doesn’t compromise people’s self-worth. People learn cooking and gardening skills there, and kids get their hands dirty in the garden and kitchen in ways that expand their tastebuds and help them to make healthier food choices. Community members find their voices on the issues that matter to them, and people find friends and support. CFCs offer multifaceted, integrated and responsive programming in a shared space where food builds health, hope, skills and community.
While food banks provide access to emergency food, most aren’t able to offer healthy or sufficient food on a consistent basis. When someone is forced to access a food bank, they often feel diminished by the experience, and leave feeling far from nourished or hopeful. Food banks offer no way to reduce social isolation, to build health or to address the policies that create poverty and hunger. And they don’t consider the larger economic or environmental issues in our food system, such as the pressing need for a local farm economy that sustains farmers and the land.
By meeting an initial need and then bringing people together around food via innovative and multi-faceted programs, CFCs take a prevention-based approach to problems of poverty, hunger and poor health, working with partners and communities to build a fairer and more equitable food system.
What do we need to really get this Community Food Centre cooking? We need sponsors like Ultima Foods, we need funds, and I’m guessing we’ll need lots of volunteers. Sobeys has generously donated a large space in the community rent-free which will eventually become the home of the permanent Community Kitchen. Fundraising efforts will happen, and we will build an amazing, transformative, empowering, health-supporting Centre for & more importantly with the community.
I’m hoping to stay in touch with the Kitchen’s staff and get involved in whatever way I can. Cooking, food education, gardening and support of local farming are all passions of mine, and I’d love to channel some of that the Food Centre way. Stay tuned, I’ll be keeping you posted on developments and opportunities to support & get involved. Pretty neat, eh? Told you. 🙂