Building Community: Good Food Kitchens
This article was originally posted on Global Locavore by Lauren Bishop. You can follow Lauren’s travels and stories about people who grow, create, and eat good food on Facebook or Twitter @GlobalLocavore.
I’m standing in a busy, chaotic kitchen. The chef runs back and forth between a steamer, a grill and an oven. The grill messily drips fat on to the floor as pounds and pounds of ground chicken cook. The garlic bread keeps getting burnt because no one knows how to work the timer. It’s 15 minutes until service and we’ve yet to cook the penne, finish the sauce or throw together a mixed green salad. It is madness. But I am intensely happy.
Today is my first day volunteering in the kitchen at the Regent Park Community Food Centre (RPCFC) and I am utterly in love. The team of volunteers and staff put out two healthy, complete, and perhaps most importantly, dignified meals each day. I’ve been here since 8am and we’ve already served a breakfast of bagels, hard boiled eggs, sliced oranges and hot coffee to over 140 people. We are moments away from opening the doors to upward of 250 people for lunch.
It is the middle of the month, and many of the people in this community who rely on social assistance will have spent their allowance and there are still many days ahead before the next cheque arrives. Outrageously, social assistance rates in Ontario barely cover the cost of housing in the expensive city of Toronto and therefore leave almost no money for food, clothing and the necessities of life. Regent Park is a social housing community that for decades has been home to low income families, new immigrants, and single parents. While it was designed in the 1950s with the best intentions, it has become a neighbourhood that inspires little hope.
And yet hopeful is exactly what I feel while working at the RPCFC. Maybe that is because the RPCFC is not a food bank or a soup kitchen. The CFC model doesn’t create a one-way relationship where visitors receive handouts, but instead fosters an environment that develops self-esteem, social & physical health, and strong communities. In the words of the Community Food Centres Canada website, a CFC “brings people together to grow, cook, share, and advocate for good food…CFCs are designed to meet immediate needs first as a precondition for being able to address more complex food-related needs…We recognize that people’s skills and goals are diverse, and that they do not want to be preached at or pushed. We believe in people’s abilities to take care of their own needs…We envision a Canada where everyone has the means and knowledge necessary to access good, healthy food in a dignified way. We envision a robust, diverse food economy that sustains farmers and the land, and a social consensus that food is a key determinant of health and a public good.”
In the weeks since my first day, I have chopped venison, assembled salads, and buttered more garlic bread than I ever thought possible. While I love being in the kitchen, my favourite job has been serving the clients. During each meal, the guests sit down at long, communal tables in the dining room while volunteers deliver trays of food to each individual. Serving gave me the opportunity to meet, albeit briefly, some of the RPCFC’s diverse clients. As in all mixed groups, there were those who were so friendly and polite, while others were rude or aggressive. During service, some people waited their turn while others waved, pointed or asked loudly to be served. For me, it was an ideal opportunity to practice loving compassion. I reminded myself that each person was an individual with their own story, their own stresses and their own cultural background. I mention this not to sound holier-than-thou, but instead to highlight that it takes all kinds of people to make a diverse, vibrant community, and ample amounts of love, kindness, forgiveness, patience and respect to be a part of that community.
It has taken me a long time to understand that food is more than just a commodity, more than just an agricultural product, more than just a basic staple of life. Food is so much more. Food is a powerful community builder, a link to our environment, to our culture, to our history. Food is a source of joy.
This, in essence, is what I hope to explore here at the Global Locavore. Somedays I might be learning a forgotten homesteading technique like making cheese. Other times I’ll be devouring delicious, international cuisine in Toronto. But always I hope to touch on the deeply political, personal and important topics of hunger, health and food security. Our food choices influence the planet, the economy and our society. Through our food choices we can create the types of communities in which we we want to live. That’s the power of food. I believe this power can be a force for positive change. I am excited to explore the world through our connection to food. I hope you will join me on this journey.