In the media 05/27/2013

Support for Canada’s three million food insecure people, who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, needs to change from supermarket leftovers doled out at food banks to food centres where people can come for a meal, be treated with dignity, and stay to gain new life skills, says author and community organizer Nick Saul. 

Mr. Saul was director of Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre from 1998 to 2012, shifting the organization away from a food bank model and into a community hub with a kitchen garden, cooking lessons, and a portal for other social services in the working-class neighborhood. Though there is a wave of interest in eating locally-grown food, sustainable farming, and other whole food movements, it’s a wallet- driven revolution and it’s leaving low-income people out, he said. “Still, with all this talk about food, it’s astonishingly rare for anyone to touch on issues of justice or equality. … The reality is, the poor, marginalized and hungry rarely get a place at the discussion table,” Mr. Saul writes in The Stop. 

Mr. Saul co-wrote The Stop with his wife, Andrea Curtis. Ms. Curtis is an author and penned the children’s book, What’s for Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World. Mr. Saul’s way forward has been met with resistance from those in the social sector who say promoting community food centres over food banks doesn’t address immediate hunger, but he believes the point is to treat low income people with dignity and to give them the tools to be critical of the larger issues—like government social policies and the minimum wage—that mean they are ultimately unable to afford food after paying the rent and other obligations.

Governments need to look at food in an interconnected way, said Mr. Saul. “We need to think preventatively and integratively, and I often find that that’s hard to do in government. Is food a community and social services issue? Is it an [agriculture] issue? Is it an environmental issue? Is it a health issue? We need almost a Minister of Food who can quite pointedly connect the dots,” he said. “Government is so slow. Civil society leads on this stuff,” he added.

Poverty and its related issues cost Canada at least $25-billion a year, according to the National Council of Welfare. Last year, Mr. Saul left The Stop to become president of Community Food Centres of Canada, which will bring the community food model to other Canadian cities. His goal is to open up 15 branches of the organization across Canada in the coming years. He sat down with The Hill Times to talk about his book, his new job, and the politics of poverty in Canada. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and style.

In the early chapters of the book, you talk about changing the public perception that beggars can’t be choosers. How do you turn that idea on its head—people deserve dignity and quality of service? 

“Isn’t it as simple as, you should treat people the way you expect to be treated? It seems pretty straightforward. How we’ve gotten to a place where we think the castoffs of big industrial food is okay to be, literally, thrown at low-income people as they walk into doors at food banks. “The fact that three million Canadians are food insecure—which means that they’re not sure where their next meal is going to come from, or they’re missing meals so their kids can eat—that’s a startlingly big number that we need to pay attention to.

“People aren’t hungry because there isn’t enough food. Walk into any supermarket and it’s overflowing with food. We throw out 50 per cent of the food we produce. It’s about distribution and ensuring that people have the economic means to walk into that supermarket and buy their own food. A lot of those vulnerabilities are obviously rooted in better public policy.

“This is a provincial issue, but social assistance rates that support people to live with dignity and health. We need to have a national housing strategy. We need to have minimum wages that allow people to work hard, because people want to. No one is poor because they’re a poor budgeter or it’s a character flaw or it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s got nothing to do with poverty. 

“Poverty is about the things I’m talking about: inadequate social assistance, low minimum wages, lack of affordable housing and childcare. Those are issues that we need to continue to fight for so that our collective tax dollars are actually able to create some equity in our society. So that if you are down on your luck for whatever myriad of reasons: for an addiction, for health, a low wage job, that we’re not going to ridicule you or beggar you. We’re going to create a social infrastructure that supports you to bounce back and become a taxpayer again. I mean, everyone wants to work, no one wants to be poor.

“That’s kind of my perspective. The community food centre idea is trying to create a place that is generous and respectful and doesn’t point any fingers. It says you have something to contribute, come on in, have a great meal, and how do we improve your lot? How do we make a safer, more inclusive, community? You can do that through good food.” 

Marginalized people are rarely at the table when it comes to determining policy. So how should policymakers and advocates incorporate their point of view and issues into larger policy decisions? 

“At The Stop, we named healthy food as something that was really important. That doesn’t mean healthy food is going to somehow end up in your community centre. You have to name it, raise money for it. You’ve got to fight for it. Changehappens because you fight for it. “My point being, if we think that our democracy, it’s important that all voices are heard, you have to name that and create structures to allow people to actually voice what they have to say, what’s on their mind.

“In the case of The Stop, we created fora in those early days as we were trying to re-imagine our organization away from the transaction of a handout of not very healthy food to a place where we were using the power of food to create health and inclusion and sustainability and greater equity.

“We created a space for people to speak. Whether that was in town halls or one-onone sessions or surveys, neighborhoods have a lot to say, and the fact is that those voices, those folks, are most adversely affected by policies such as reduced social assistance rates or a low minimum wage. They’re out there trying to hustle just to keep themselves together, so it’s asking a lot for them. But if you don’t create meeting spaces where you provide food, provide daycare for their kids, do it at a time that works for them, then I don’t know how you get those voices.

“You’ve got to name it, and then you’ve got to create vehicles by which people can actually participate in a meaningful way. It’s not easy, it costs money, you’ve got to be creative. We lack creativity on how we support voices to be heard. People have meaningful things to say, and I would humbly suggest that low-income people have a lot to say about these issues. Our organization is one attempt to try and create space for them to come in and then not only articulate their particular situation but then link it to the broader public policy issues that need to change.”

You mentioned the idea of a national housing strategy. What do you think about creating a national food strategy, as some are calling for?

“This is a classic example of how we need to create vehicles of hearing a diverse set of voices. Our current [agriculture] policy is all about big, export, chemical, monoculture.

“If you look at an organization like Food Secure Canada, which I have a lot of respect for, which is a national organization, they did the people’s food policy. They talked to 3,500 Canadians from coast to coast to coast in a really robust conversation that said, ‘We don’t want to see food as a commodity,’ which is the way our Ag stuff, for certain, works. It’s just like a commodity—got to grow it, sell it, conquer the markets wherever you can go.

“They talked to people who saw food imbued with culture, with the environment, with health. A holistic perspective on food. We’re way ahead of government on this. Government is so slow. Civil society leads on this stuff.

“Food Secure Canada, if you read their report and recommendations on a national food strategy, it’s holistic, it’s preventative, it is interconnected. It sees the connection between good food and good health. To me, if I were to point to a voice right now that is reflective of a democratic process, it’s Food Secure Canada’s work on this.

“The average food item in Toronto travels 4,500 km from field to table. That has a huge impact on our environment. They say a third of greenhouse gases and pollution are connected to the way we move food from field to table. When in every province in the country there’s an explosion of diet-related illness: diabetes, cancer, heart-disease, obesity. That’s what you get, all of those things, when you treat food as a pure commodity.

“To link this back to Community Food Centres Canada, which is the organization I work for, it’s one of those organizations where we talk about food not as a commodity.

“Farmers’ markets and community shared agriculture and gardens and schools and 100-km restaurants, all that stuff is led by the wallet, the consumer. That consumer good food revolution leaves low-income people out. So if we can agree that sustainable local food is the best food for our planet and our bodies, we believe everyone should have access to that, so how are we going to do that? Partly it’s through public policy change, like a national school nutrition program. That would be a really good place to start.”

You’ve mentioned social programs, income inequality, are these realms where the federal government can intervene or are you looking more towards the provincial government?

“Our first kind of pressure point is to try to create these community food centres from coast to coast to coast. We’re trying to build 15 over the next five years, in the midst of a $20-million capital campaign to do that.

“We are still trying to figure out our way as to what our key public policy issues are. We’re surfacing those through the work on the ground. Right now, I kind of lean on Food Secure Canada stuff, to some extent, so there are some kind of obvious federal plays, like a National Housing Strategy. That’s something that the feds could absolutely say, ‘This matters.’ Because the vast majority of funds that people spend in my neighborhood is on housing. It’s why so many thousands of people don’t have enough food to eat, because they’re spending all their money on housing. It’s a bit of a crisis when it comes to housing. The other key issue for us is social assistance rates, which is a provincial matter. We will eventually probably create a linked campaign across the provinces that speaks to the inadequacy of rates, because they’re woefully inadequate.

“We need to think preventatively and integratively, and I often find that that’s hard to do in government. Is food a community and social services issue? Is it an Ag issue? Is it an environmental issue? Is it a health issue? We need a Minister of Food who can almost quite pointedly connect the dots.

“It is connected. It’s complicated, but you can figure it out, and the more we think about it as an integrated issue, I think the better off we’ll be.

“I always think social change happens when you have good, smart, politicians. Good, smart, bureaucrats, and a really lively civil society. If you were to do a Venn diagram of those three things, in the middle you’d have change. You’re putting pressure from down below, you have folks who are receiving it and thinking from a bigger perspective, and change happens.” How is your new job at Community Food
Centres Canada?

“I left The Stop in August, and there’s eight of us working at Community Food Centres Canada. The kind of first thrust of our work is to trying to raise dollars that allow us to build Stop-like organizations. The model is built off of what we created at The Stop. We have two community food centres in Ontario aside from The Stop, one in Perth and one in Stratford. We just announced a month ago Winnipeg, Dartmouth, and another one in Toronto, in Regent Park. The idea is to create 15 of these.

“We’re partnering with Food Secure Canada on some of the campaigns they’re working on, but we’re honestly trying to figure out if we’re going to interject in this conversation. I come out of a neighbourhood-based organization and much of our work was provincially focused. I have to learn too. I’m in the process of trying to figure out the federal landscape, and I’ll be honest about that. But we’ll certainly have something to say, and it will come through what we’re learning on the ground, and how we link what we’re learning on the ground to what public policy needs to change.”

— By Jessica Bruno

Published on May 27, 2013 in the Hill Times. View the PDF here.