Opinions 03/25/2013

The food bank in Perth, Ont., changed its name last year to The Table Community Food Centre.

The difference? Everything.

From a single-staff operation handing out canned food to those in need, The Table has become a bustling hive of healthy food, community building and empowerment.

This is what the reimagined food “centre” in Perth looks like: Dads and their kids invade the community kitchen on Tuesday evenings to learn basic cooking skills and share the meal they’ve prepared together. On Thursday mornings, pregnant and new moms and their partners cook, eat and share perinatal care and nutrition advice. There may be an after-school group in the herb garden out back, or an advocacy workshop on how to organize for social change around issues from affordable housing to improved public transit.

There’s still a food bank — now called the “Good Food Bank” and run like a grocery store where members can choose a few days’ emergency supplies of fresh fruit, vegetables and pantry staples. And three times a week, volunteers and a resident chef Judy Dempsey prepare community meals. Dempsey also shares her expertise in matching local ingredients with dishes from around the world in regular cooking demonstrations.

Expect 15 community food centres like this one across the country over the next five years — including in Winnipeg’s Inkster neighbourhood, Toronto’s Regent Park and North Dartmouth, N.S.

It may not be the recipe that ends hunger in Canada, but it does substitute in more nutritious ingredients and a more empowering environment than the typical food bank.

The world’s first food bank was the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Arizona, founded in 1967. During the recession of the 1980s, Canada’s food banks spread to almost every city and town — a sign of our collective inability to solve chronic poverty in our own communities.

Some food banks have since morphed into distribution warehouses to more efficiently source food and distribute to shelters and agencies working directly with vulnerable people.

Others have expanded their programming to include drop-in meals, job counselling and help navigating social services.

But the community food centres planned across Canada are an entirely new species that tackle the fight against hunger and the poverty at its root. It sees food insecurity, health, environment and social isolation as interconnected issues, and deals with them all at once.

“We wanted something different from the transactional experience of waiting in line and receiving a pre-packed hamper across a folding table,” says Nick Saul, president and CEO of the recently formed Community Food Centres Canada.

“It’s a place where people come that gives them a sense of hope and self-worth — a place where they feel they matter, that things can change and that they can be part of that change.”

Much of the food is sourced from local, small-scale farmers — better for the local economy, the environment and the health of everyone, including those with limited access to good food.

That local connection helps to reduce food waste, too: Steve Stacey from The Local Community Food Centre in Stratford, Ont., regularly reclaims fresh produce that’s perfectly edible for humans but headed for the cattle trough. “One farmer had 50,000 pounds of potatoes that were too big or too small to market,” recalls Stacey. “We had the space in our warehouse, and he was ecstatic to see them go to good use.”

The participatory nature of the community food centre means that members are volunteers, and volunteers are members. At the end of a 12-week cooking and gardening class at The Local, former strangers who were battling hunger alone are now part of a community seeking solutions. “Now they help the chef out with the community meal,” says Stacey.

Back in Perth, for the first time a former program participant — from its Shovels and Spoons workshop for low-income and marginalized people — was recently elected to The Table’s board of directors.

Saul’s goal, contrary to the long-held hope that food banks would be temporary measures, is not to put himself out of business.

“While I truly do long for the day where the emergency provision part of the food centre — the food bank part — doesn’t exist, we want to always have this community centre where people come together around good food,” he says.

“We want low-income people to be able to speak out about issues that affect them. We want to support people to build better lives, but we also want them to remain part of our community.”

Saul’s very worthy plan is that everyone has access to the healthiest possible food, and a community with whom to share it.

— By Craig and Marc Kielburger