Tag Archives: social assistance

The politics of food: a reading list

bookshelf food politicsIn our house, we devour books about food. Cookbooks, kids’ books, odes to the tomato, the apple, the cow or cod. We’d read poems about tofu if there were such a thing. (Anyone?) But it’s not just because we like to eat—though we do—it’s more because food is connected to so many other things we care about. Things like community, health, the environment and social justice. We’re not the only ones who’ve noticed.

So Nick Saul and I  wrote a list of some of our favourite Canadian books that see food in this integrated way—not just as fuel for the body but a tool for building a more just and sustainable world—and 49th Shelf has it up on their blog.

Some of the books will be familiar to regular readers. I did a week long series with Jeannie Marshall a year ago here.

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Filed under City gardens, Community Food Centre, Kids and food, School feeding, School gardens, School lunch, What's for Lunch?

New book coming out in March

The Stop coverI’m thrilled to report that my new book, written with my husband, Nick Saul, is nearly ready and coming out from Random House Canada in the spring. It’s called The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement. It’s an account of Nick’s 14 years working with the community, volunteers and staff at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto to transform it from a tiny, inadequate food bank into a thriving, multifaceted community centre that supports people to grow, cook, eat, share and advocate for good food for everyone. Part story about The Stop’s people and evolution, part argument for re-imagining emergency food, part call for a new kind of food system altogether, it’s written in Nick’s voice (it is his story, after all), but the book was a true collaboration.

These days, Nick has left The Stop to head up Community Food Centres Canada, an organization that aims to spread the model they developed across the country. We hope the book will be a great calling card as he and his dedicated colleagues work to bring its innovations to other cities and towns.

The Stop is nearly finished (from our perspective—I’m sure the publisher has a few things to do before it ships out in March!), and we’ve been showing it to others, many of whom have offered very moving words of praise. A number of our food movement and activist heroes—people like Marion Nestle, Jan Poppiendieck, Frances Moore Lappé, Naomi Klein and Raj Patel—have provided blurbs for the jacket copy and publicity material. What a humbling and thrilling experience it is to show your baby to someone you admire and have them say they think it’s important and brave and must be read by everyone. Check back soon to read the advance praise here.

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Filed under Community Food Centre, What's for Lunch?

The big cave

Day 5: Do the Math

KD in a snack bowl: our final lunch

With no milk, no eggs, no vegetables and a can of soup left, we caved on Saturday night and gave up on our welfare diet experiment. We went back and forth on it, wondering if we were throwing in the towel too early—we could have had a small bowl of soup for dinner, after all, and there were enough corn flake peanut butter balls for breakfast….

But after two days at the provincial basketball finals (Nick as coach, our eldest son playing and the rest of us cheering—loudly) we were headachey and hungry and too exhausted to discuss any more. I felt a bit ashamed—until, that is, I began to gorge on crackers and cheese. I was desperate to fill my maw as quickly as possible—to eat and eat and eat. Just because I could. I have craved flavour, savouriness, real, chewy taste, and the delicious cheese, crunchy crackers, savoury baba ghanoush and hummus really hit the spot.

I had to force myself to stop, worried about feeling sick after eating little this week.

But though I’m no longer hungry (and the headaches have subsided), I continue to feel ashamed. Being able to quit the experiment so easily is a startling reminder of the great privilege we have compared to those we are attempting to show solidarity with, and, as a result, a reminder of the terrible inequities in our society. People on social assistance can’t just pack it in because they’re tired and bored of the same old soup or had a really tough weekend. They have no choice.

And choice is the thing I keep coming back to. Losing the ability to make choices about how I live and eat, how I socialize, where and how I go where I go was by turns depressing, disheartening and isolating.

I don’t really mean the ability to make choices as a consumer (although that, of course, is the first thing lost by someone living in poverty), instead, this lack of choice goes much deeper. Partly, it’s because food isn’t like other consumer goods—you don’t absolutely need a TV or nail polish, whereas food is essential, a basic need, and not being able to have any say in what/how much you eat feels like being striped of something equally essential. It feels like losing freedom, it feels like losing yourself. It made me feel enervated, sad and trapped.

I’ve been careful all week when I talk to people not to overdramatize my experience Doing the Math. I know it’s an experiment and a stunt and it’s not some magic wand that gives me deep insight into what it’s like to live on social assistance week after week, month after month. But I do feel like I have a more emotional understanding of some of the challenges.

I also have an even greater respect and admiration for people on social assistance—like many of those in The Stop’s inspiring Bread and Bricks advocacy group—who manage to find deep reserves of strength and dignity, speaking up and fighting back, despite living in extremely difficult circumstances.

Finally, this experience has left me feeling even more profoundly (and, I think, constructively) angry about our inadequate response to poverty and hunger in this province. Over and over this week I found myself trying to explain to people that the food bank hamper isn’t just a supplement to an already stocked fridge, it is the only thing many people have to eat after paying rent—and despite the best efforts of non-governmental organizations like The Stop, it’s inadequate to boot.

It is not just wrong that social assistance fails to meet basic needs and leaves people hungry, isolated, depressed and unhealthy, it is immoral.

I hope this project and the ongoing work of the Do the Math team will also inspire others to reassess what they think they know about social assistance and to challenge our society and our government to provide adequate supports (based on real life costs) to those in need.

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Slowing down

Day 3 of Do the Math

I thought this was going to be easier. After all, I come from a long line of frugal cooks. My paternal grandmother studied “home economics” in the 1920s, and was known to not only save small sandwich bags (the precursor to the ziploc, which she washed and hung on the line to dry), but pretty much everything else. Once, when she was looking after my brother and me while my parents were away, I  found a bowl of soggy milk-covered granola in the fridge that one of us had failed to finish—she was saving it for later. My own mother is also a master of making something out of nothing in the kitchen— I grew up on powdered skim milk and creative combinations of whatever was in the fridge served with her inimitable style.

Attempting to plug into this ancestry this week, I’ve been trying to get creative with what we were offered in the hamper, but as the days go by, it’s getting more and more difficult. Not only is our food running out, leaving us with little to get creative with, it’s incredibly monotonous (some more potatoes with your potatoes? More KD? I thought you’d never ask!).

It turns out, this isn’t easy at all.

And it isn’t about being creative or frugal. (I can’t imagine even my mother could find a way to make what we have left in our hamper interesting, tasting or, frankly, nourishing. It’s just bits and pieces, leftovers, scraps. An onion, a can of Spagghetios, a bag of those infernal apple chips.)

Lunch: "enriched macaroni product" with HFCS, enzyme-modified cheddar cheese, and MORE! Ready in 2 minutes!

This is about inadequate social assistance rates that leave thousands of our fellow citizens hungry and undernourished. This is about the lack of dignity accorded to the poor in our society. This is about shortsightedness: when someone is forced to rely consistently on the kind of food we’ve been eating this week they are likely to have health problems associated with their diet, and we all pay for that at some point (in lost productivity, in health care costs, in social disintegration).

I’m sick of the food and the little niggling headache and the stomache pains I seem to develop everyday around 3 p.m.

My husband, on the other hand, enjoyed a delicious lunch today at The Stop‘s drop-in program (something all Do the Math participants are encouraged to do):

Cheese and potato Kugel; lentils with broccoli and cauliflower; salad greens from The Stop's Green Barn greenhouse; Ace Bakery bun.

I don’t even resent him his greens (and cheese, glorious cheese!) because seeing this food just makes it more clear to me how vital programs like this drop-in lunch are for people struggling with poverty and living on social assistance. These meals at The Stop, made with love, skill and passion by trained chefs and a dedicated volunteer crew, are like a waving flag of health and dignity. They are not just delicious and healthful, they are a signal to people who use The Stop that they matter, that their health matters, that they are more than their poverty, more than their circumstances. It’s a lot of freight for a lunch to carry but according to Nick, today at least, it did its considerable job—and more.

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