In the media
Part of The Globe and Mail's Food 53 series: This summer, the Globe names, and celebrates, the most influential people in Canadian food – chefs and CEOs, farmers and winemakers, plus researchers, restaurateurs and, of course, eaters
The word “dignity” isn’t heard often in conversations about food. But if you spend more than five minutes talking to Nick Saul, you’ll find it peppered through the discussion.
His organization, Community Food Centres of Canada, is spreading the message of “good food for all” across the country by creating community food centres – not soup kitchens and not food banks – that nourish, teach and empower people who don’t have access to healthy nourishment. They have become living, growing organizations that connect people to their food, to each other and to their sense of self.
In 1998, when Saul became director of The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto’s Lansdowne and Dupont neighbourhood, his primary interest was poverty. As he became more immersed in food culture, he saw how food connected people to bigger issues of health, happiness and justice.
“All people have a right to healthy food and to be treated with dignity,” he says. “Food is the ultimate connector. We all eat. We all celebrate around food. [But] food divides us as well. There are the people who have the means to go to the farmers’ markets and search out specialty items. And there are those who are left eating items from a food bank that can be high in fat, sugar and salt.”
Under his 15-year leadership, The Stop has grown into a dynamic centre that breaks the mould of how those in need can access good food. There is a chef who cooks local, seasonal dishes for clients; there are gardens staffed with experts who mentor would-be gardeners. There are women’s drop-ins, libraries, after-school programs and lots and lots of cooking classes.
At the national organization, Saul, 50, is seeding the success of The Stop to other parts of Canada. Since 2012, the CFCC has overseen the opening of community food centres in Toronto’s Regent Park, Dartmouth, N.S., and Winnipeg. This fall, they’ll establish one in a beautiful space in Calgary. At the heart of The Stop, and now at eight community food centres across Canada, is the recognition that food, health, justice and community are all intertwined. Each centre is attuned to local needs but their mission is to enhance skills, create access to nourishment, advocate for food-justice policies and build stronger, healthier communities.
The centres are vibrant places, filled with people of all ages and walks of life engaged with food – and each other – in many different ways. But one glance at the tables where people sit eating, and you know that some of the diners have long and difficult stories to tell. It is those stories that Saul loves to hear and they come easily as people break bread together, or sip their soup made from local ingredients, beautifully garnished and thoughtfully served.
“When I can tell the stories about the people I meet, I can talk about how change happens here. The public policy realm is where real change happens; you have to keep talking about the reasons why people are hungry and poor,” he says. “Hunger isn’t about lack of food; it is about lack of money.”
Saul’s passion and charisma take him from chatting at the drop-in centres to fundraising in boardrooms and hanging out with the country’s top chefs. I know from personal experience that when he asks you to be involved with his vision it is hard to turn him down – for a number of years, I was on a fundraising committee at The Stop. He won the Jane Jacobs Prize and just received an honorary degree from Ryerson University. But don’t ask him about going into politics. “I have a family,” is his way of saying no.
Saul tries to bring the values of the Community Food Centres home with him as well. He grew up partially in Tanzania and Mozambique in an engaged, political family. “My dad was a great cook and we always ate together. Our world was bigger than our table.”
He says he is relentless about putting healthy food on his table and talking about global issues with his two boys. He and his wife try and divert the amount of waste hitting the compost by meal planning and by being vigilant about checking the fridge before they go grocery shopping. He even suggests rotating the older items to the outside so it’s the first thing you see when you open the fridge door.
I gave Saul the challenge of suggesting a meal that would encompass his values of using healthy, inexpensive items that also cuts down on food waste. He quickly suggested a rice bowl, which is a favourite meal in his house. It is a good way to use up veggies that are starting to wilt and any leftover protein from another meal.
Saul suggests chopped up carrots, celery, kale, cabbage and quick pickled onions on a bed of brown rice or quinoa as a start. Add on any tangy, sriracha-based sauce (or whip up the one in the recipe below), top it with a fried egg, and it is a meal that can be served with dignity in any kitchen in the country.
- By Emma Waverman
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