The President of Community Food Centres Canada sees food as a powerful way to bring people together and a key to dealing with poverty, health-care costs and greenhouse gases.
You and your family have been involved in public work most of your lives. Why is that important to you?
I guess it’s the way we care. For my parents, life was going to be about something bigger than what was going on in our home. They believed you have to be in the world or else you live a pretty small and isolating existence.
You played basketball as a kid. How did that fit in?
It’s a team sport. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. You have all sorts of characters on a team who are motivated in different ways. I was a point guard. It was up to me to create some cohesion on and off the court. To lead by doing rather than talking, and you have to listen to build cohesion. You had to work hard, your path was never linear, and how you rolled with those defeats or injuries was what made you stronger.
I still play once a week. Ostensibly we’re there to play basketball – but we’re all social beings. We still need to bump into each other. I’ve always searched for spaces where people can bump into each other, in all walks of life.
And that’s, of course, what you do with your community food work, though for years it seemed more natural that your public engagement would be through politics. Why didn’t that happen?
I had a very formative political experience when I worked in the Rae government (as an assistant to the premier’s adviser) in the early 1990s. But I also learned that the political system needs civil society. It gets its oxygen from what’s going on in communities.
I learned too that government matters, that it’s really important to connect the work you do to the political process, but that you don’t have to be a politician to create change. A few years later I was a public housing community organizer at Spadina and Dundas. I’d meet with people, figure out what the issues were, strategize about how to amplify them, then track down a politician and say, this should matter to you. There’s a freedom in not being caught up in a political party.
In those Harris years, politics was tough and ideological. Everything was, “You’ve got to do things this way,” and I never saw the world in black and white tranches. What I did was political, and ideological, but it wasn’t partisan per se. You have to have politicians driving hard, sympathetic bureaucrats, and a really strong civil society making noise and putting on heat for those structures to move. I’m most comfortable on the community side, but always being connected to the political one.
When did you realize that food can bring people together?
Food, community, social justice, they’re all kind of connected. When I began at The Stop (Community Food Centre in Toronto) I saw what poor people were eating and thought, this is not acceptable. It’s unhealthy and dispiriting, whether it was dented tins or bananas you could almost drink they were so ripe.
For people to have to line up out the door, check their humanity at the door, walk in, run the gauntlet of bureaucracy and be handed a hamper of fat, sugar and salt which was basically the food. Canned crap. Then be on their way. This was an undignified space to be in. So we listened. And guess what, if you listen, people have ideas.
The immigrant communities we’re working with come from such rich foodscapes. We needed to find space for them to express these cultural backgrounds. We also have to mine the territory between the commodification of food, which has caused all sorts of health and environmental problems, and the fetishization of food — “I’m going to Madagascar and eat that beautiful mushroom you can only find underneath this palm tree.”
We’ve tried to figure out how to democratize good food because there are so few people able to participate in the good-food world. We have a two-tiered food system. If you have a bit of money you can go to the farmer’s market, or to the great chef with a restaurant 100 kilometres away. But if you don’t, you’re forced into the middle aisles of those supermarkets, which is the danger zone.
We have four million Canadians in this country who are food insecure, who aren’t sure where their next meal’s coming from, or are missing meals because they don’t have enough money. So our food work is both joyful — you’ve got to eat, you’ve got to break bread, you’ve got to laugh, you’ve got to be engaged in cooking that food, or gardening, or whatever it might be — and very political.
The way we think about poverty —if you’re poor, it’s your own damn fault. It’s a character flaw. A lifestyle choice. Bad budgeting. Poverty is about a low minimum wage, about unaffordable housing, about a pension that doesn’t cover the bills, about mental illness, about poor health, about having to drop out of school to help your parents pay the rent. The single biggest determinant of where you end up in life is still who you’re born to.
I want to talk about poverty in a real way, that everybody understands, that connects us. So we can’t point fingers at each other. So when someone walks into a centre and eats a really good meal that’s cooked with love, they see themselves reflected back in that meal.
They are valued through that meal. And what does that mean? They’re worth something. Someone has taken a lot of care, so they matter. Through food, we are in the business or building hope and a sense of self-worth because if you don’t have hope and self-worth, as an individual or as a community, nothing will change.
You have to build organizations or places that reflect the future you want to see. Places that are about dignity and health and connection and pleasure and joy and sustainability. Where a middle-class volunteer and a low-income person who works at Home Depot and isn’t making enough to put food on their table can find each other; and which sparks a conversation.
You need to create those public spaces where people can imagine and converse and articulate a different reality, just as Northrop Frye said: “The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.” That’s what we try to do with these centres.
This isn’t charity. As a giver, charity is altruism, it’s empathy; in the Bible, it’s a kind of love. Whereas if you’re the receiver, it’s often embarrassing and shameful, and you feel not whole for receiving it.
I tell people about a guy like Glenn, who I’ve known for years, how harrowing it was for him as a youth, how he became an alcoholic, kicked it, built a business, lost the business, worked at a crappy minimum wage job, hurt himself at that job, found himself at The Stop, became a volunteer, got another job, moved into better housing, then had another accident and is now on long-term disability.
I saw him three weeks ago. This guy’s worked his buns off his entire life. He’s got emphysema, he’s got a walker, he’s more stable in terms of his income, but he fought like the dickens all his life to have what he’s got. It’s not grand, I’ll tell you. So when someone says to me, “Oh yeah, people deserve what they get,” or “they’re lazy,” I talk about Glenn.
What is the future in the work that you are doing, in Toronto and in the rest of the country?
We have millions of Canadians below the poverty line struggling every day. We need to bring that conversation to where we make enough noise that our politicians start to say, we’ve got to take these things seriously. We also need to move away from the idea of being consumers of food, to being citizens of food.
We created a societal consensus around the importance of a health-care system, and an education system, less so about housing. But 50 cents of every dollar in Ontario is spent on health care, the lion’s share on diet-related illnesses. When you look at greenhouse gasses and pollution and how food moves from field to table, 30 per cent of our air pollution is connected to that.
We need to create a national school nutrition program. It’s absurd we don’t have one. For our municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals to prioritize good, healthy, sustainable food, to support a different kind of agriculture that is more small-scale. To create a national housing strategy so people have more income freed up to buy better food.
Ultimately this is the kind of conversation we’re trying to engender in the world. It’s not about charity. It’s about solidarity and justice. And we do that through centres that are joyful and dignified, and are political too. Not in a partisan way.
I’m a political being but I’ve found myself working towards political goals through civil society, through the community sector, to create the energy around these goals so politicians can’t ignore them. Politics is so preoccupied with focus groups – X per cent of our society thinks this way or that — so we don’t need a larger conversation about anything because we can win the next election with only this small group in support. I’m in for the big conversation. You build ideals and values and create a majority around good ideas. It starts at ground zero, in the community, and often around a really good meal. So the fight’s on.
You have another 40 years of your life ahead of you. What do you see for yourself?
I don’t know. I grew up in a family that said don’t be a passenger. I’m not going to be a passenger. Right now I’m focused on how we build a national organization that functions and is sustainable and inspires organizations to think very differently about food, and I’ve got my hands full.
I’m a Dovercourt and College guy, but when you get to southwestern Ontario or Calgary or Dartmouth, the energy is so different, in so many ways. Framed culturally; framed by the economic situation. We’re all trying to knit something together in a way we can say, I’m proud to live here because no one’s left behind. That’s a pretty good goal to be chasing.
— by Ken Dryden (Jun 30, 2014)