During the display of the Home Grown exhibit, MOV hosted a series of dialogues about food in the Downtown Eastside with members of the DTES Kitchen Tables Project. The project aims to find practical solutions to improve the food security of the Downtown Eastside, through making nutritious, affordable food available and employing people to create and distribute it.
The series began with discussions about the issues that non-profits experience in their efforts to improve the nutrition in the DTES. Many lack the capacity to provide the nutritious food that their clients need, whether due to limited budgets or space or lack of staff. The panelists noted that while food security in the DTES is often discussed, non-profits rarely receive funding to feed people. Instead society must bear the cost of increased policing and hospital use.
Society’s attitudes are a huge barrier. They made reference to the ‘poverty mentality’, the assumption that because people are poor, they are less deserving of basic nutrition and a minimum standard of living. Consequently, non-profits and the people they serve should be grateful for whatever they are given.
But as was discussed in an earlier post, donations of food are not always as helpful as they may seem. The food is often not very nutritious and non-profits have limited capacity with which to deal with the donations they receive. They are often put in the uncomfortable position of not being able to refuse donated food that they don’t need. Consequently food waste is a big issue.
Food programs in the DTES produce a surprising amount of garbage, food that is lost to spoilage, rodents, or simply cannot be used. Disposing of it can be expensive. In some cases, the money saved by accepting a donation of food was equal to the amount it cost to dump the surplus that could not be used.
With assistance from DTES Kitchen Tables, eleven community kitchens in the DTES are exploring ways to reduce their waste. Many are interested in composting but lack the capacity to do it themselves, opening the door to the possibility of creating a composting business that provides employment for DTES residents.
Still, composting costs money that many of the non-profits cannot afford. One proposed solution was to retrofit buildings and appliances to make them more energy efficient. The savings could then be used towards paying for composting. Reducing waste will save organizations money as well, as the cost of dumping garbage is expected to increase over the next few years.
Another waste they are looking to eliminate is disposable dishes. Many organizations in the DTES rely heavily on styrofoam to distribute food because it seems to be the cheapest option available. But once one factors in the cost of disposing it afterwards, it no longer seems to be the best option.
Purchasing food presents it’s own range of problems and issues. Many organizations in the DTES buy from large distributors, but are too small to take advantage of the savings that ordering in bulk would provide. Consequently buying local or organic is out of the question.
One of the roles the panelists envision for Kitchen Tables is as a facilitator for group buying. The organization could bulk order staple foods on behalf of community kitchens and contract with local farmers to guarantee a market for their produce. The food could then be prepared, packaged and preserved by Kitchen Tables on behalf of other community non-profits. This would allow them to produce healthier foods than are available for sale more efficiently than individual community kitchens can.
They are also seeking new ways of distributing food. Joyce Rock, Executive Director of the DTES Neighbourhood House wants to see an end to line-ups in the DTES. The current system of distributing food is impersonal and dehumanizing. People wait in lines for long periods of time in order to sit alone at long tables or carry away some food. She envisions food as a way of creating community and fostering relationships that empower people.
That means eliminating the wait and bringing food to where people are. What if food was given out at clinics or laundromats or other places people gather and wait? There are important benefits to doing so. Hunger and the uncertainty of not knowing where the next meal will come from is stressful, and this can cause people to act erratically or with violence. People are calmer and easier to deal with when they are not hungry.
Food carts were another suggestion for distributing food, and an item that Kitchen Tables could get funding for. But some felt that the money could be better spent elsewhere. Why spend money on a cart when you can use it to employ people instead? If you pay DTES residents to distribute it it they have the opportunity to build skills, earn money and connect with their community, with far more benefit.
DTES Kitchen Tables is currently exploring the feasibility of starting a ‘food incubator’ in the Save-On Meats building. They envision it as a supportive space where people can learn how to start food businesses. People will be able to get professional advice and assistance and have the opportunity to sell their products in a storefront at ground level.
We would like to thank all the members of the DTES community who came to participate and lend their insight during the DTES Kitchen Tables dialogues. The discussion was fascinating and informative and the panelists’ dedication to bettering life in the DTES has been inspiring.