Opinions 07/12/2017

It’s a Tuesday evening deep in the heart of asparagus season, and the wide, stone-topped kitchen island at The Local Community Food Centre in Stratford, ON, is packed with people. A country twang wafts from the stereo while everyone has a snack and cup of tea before getting to work mixing and measuring, cutting and slicing for the meal they’ll share at the end of the night. The menu evolves according to the interests and skills of whoever turns up, though coordinator Kate Van, whose infectious laughter fills the space, has recipes on hand.

A fresh load of veggies have come into The Local’s warehouse, thanks to donations from nearby farmers, and the group that’s gathered around the island agrees the highlight of tonight’s dinner will be asparagus soup from scratch.

There’s a warm hum in the room with people laughing and chatting, sharing knife skills or practical advice, maybe a recommendation about where to find ESL training or housing support. There are regulars, some of whom have been coming for nearly three years, parents with their children, single men who’ve never cooked before. Some of the participants are young people with developmental challenges, and everyone makes sure the kids have help if they need it.

The demise of food skills in Western culture has been lamented for many years now. Cooking shows and celebrity chefs may be flourishing, but we’re more likely to tear open a box of frozen pizza than cook from scratch. Cheap, processed convenience foods are everywhere and with many people stretched for time and money, home cooking is often one of the first things to go.

According to recent data from Health Canada, only half of Canadians are comfortable cooking something like soup or a casserole from scratch, and fewer would consider baking without a boxed mix. But the data is perhaps more interesting when it comes to those who face food insecurity — people who don’t have enough money to afford stable supplies of food. Low-income Canadians report that they are actually very skilled at stretching their limited dollars. Eighty-four per cent say they shop with a budget (compared to 43 per cent of people who are food secure). Food insecure respondents also report having about the same level of food skills as do their food-secure neighbours.

In other words, our food skills as a nation aren’t great, but people living on low incomes aren’t any worse than other groups — in fact, in some areas, they’re more skilled than others.

The data puts a definitive end to the stereotype that people go hungry because they’re bad budgeters who don’t know how to shop for off-cut meats. Of course, low-income Canadians face other substantial barriers to healthy eating, including lack of access to adequate cooking facilities and fresh food stores. Most importantly, what low-income people lack is the money to buy good, healthy food.

But does this data suggest community kitchen programs that support people to learn cooking skills are misguided? Or, perhaps worse, that they distract us from fighting for the policies that can end poverty and food insecurity?

That’s definitely not what you’ll hear at the Intercultural Community Kitchen at the brand new Hamilton Community Food Centre. In fact, the buzz of at least five different languages being spoken while people trade cooking tips, exchange recipes, prep and devour food would surely drown out such talk. And it’s not the story coming out of the Young Cooks program at the Dartmouth North CFC in Nova Scotia, where kids as young as seven years old learn how to create homemade tomato sauce, plant seeds in the garden, build confidence and make new friends.

When we surveyed our community members about what they’d like to see more of at their local Community Food Centre, cooking programs and community meals were some of the top suggestions.

There’s big, necessary and ongoing work to be done advocating with low-income people to address poverty. We need properly funded policies that work toward economic and health equity. We need to fight to ensure everyone in this country has adequate income and access to healthy food.

But you can’t march to the ramparts for justice on an empty belly. And you can’t expect people to go to the ramparts at all unless they feel connected to one another and have a sense of a shared mission. In community kitchens, participants pick up essential cooking skills and food knowledge, but it’s the circle of care, this sense of belonging — a key building block of any social or political movement — that is equally important.

Back at The Local, Kate makes this explicit by ensuring everyone starts the evening with a buddy. The regulars are always paired with a new person but throughout the night people drift around a bit, tasting and testing, adding a little of this, a little of that, building confidence as they experiment and gather feedback from each other.

“When you come here, you know you’re important,” says Kate. “People just feel it.”