My hands are covered in toner from our finicky photocopying machine when the garden assistant opens the door, the sounds of the busy street racing inside with her. Everyone in the open space looks up. She’s tanned after a summer in the sun and seems excited.
“You have to come into the back,” she says. “We’re making callaloo.”
I’ve never heard the word, but I’m glad of a reprieve from the maddening machine. We head out the door, around the side of the apartment building and into the food bank. Rhonda is inside the community space. With more staff, we’re now able to use it regularly, including for the new community kitchen groups that Rhonda has started.
A cluster of people is sitting at one of the round tables. And I can see through the small pass-through into the cramped kitchen that there are more inside. The smell wafting out is thick with garlic. We all sit down, and Herman, our garden neighbour, emerges wearing an apron, carrying a tray covered in leafy greens that he’s steamed and cooked with salt fish, garlic, onions, salt and pepper, and sweet red peppers. “Callaloo,” he says proudly.
Rhonda tells us the story as we take our tentative first bites. One day recently Herman came into the garden and saw some volunteers pulling out what they thought was a weed. “That’s no weed,” he told Rhonda. “It’s callaloo.” So she asked Herman to show everyone how the Caribbean specialty is cooked and eaten, and today a group of volunteers is trying out his favourite vegetable.
The verdict is good. It looks and tastes a lot like spinach or kale. Herman is pleased, proud to show off his Jamaican roots.
Rhonda did a bit of digging and discovered that Jamaicans aren’t the only ones who love this plant. People all over the world know it and its different varieties as “amaranth” and eagerly eat the tender leaves, stalks and seeds. She also found that farmers north of the city call one variety of the plant “pigweed” and consider it a scourge. The seeds spread easily in the wind and they struggle to contain it on their farms.
I look at the faces around the table—Herman and Rhonda; Francesca and Dorino; Gordon, who’s been working at the plot since the first day we dug the fence posts; a woman who lives in a rooming house nearby and suffers from severe diabetes.
One person’s weed, it seems, is another’s delicacy. In fact, as I’m beginning to realize, food is never just food.
[…]Some people have argued that teaching people to cook from scratch is actually the answer to hunger and poor health in North America. Such cookery advocates argue that cost, or income, is not the major barrier to eating nutritious food. Frugal food bloggers chronicle their attempts to live on a dollar a day; Slow Food USA hosted the $5 Challenge with the cheeky tagline “Take back the ‘value meal.’” Mark Bittman, the celebrated New York Times columnist and cookbook author, writes regularly about health and sustainability as linked to “the all-but-vanished craft of cooking and associated thrift.”
They’re right, of course. Acquiring food skills is essential for anyone who wants to break the habit of relying on processed food. But for many people at The Stop, like those on low incomes everywhere, it’s not so simple. Lack of income is a major barrier to buying fresh food and making meals out of it. Shopping, prepping and cooking time is often extremely limited for people who might be working several minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet. And many who use our programs don’t even have a stove or a kitchen to cook in. Trying to live on a social assistance check of less than six hundred dollars a month in a rooming house or jammed in with others in a one-bedroom apartment means proper cooking facilities are frequently unavailable.
And you can’t discount the social exclusion faced by people living in poverty. Sharing a great meal with others can help you feel connected and alive, as it does for Rosa and the rest of the Meals Made Easy crew, but if you’re on your own in a dingy, miserable room, cooking a meal by yourself can simply serve to highlight your solitude.
While we can’t claim community kitchens—and the food skills learned there—are going to end the poverty or hunger of participants, they can definitely help low-income community members eat more healthily, have greater control over their personal circumstances and break out of their isolation.
For Rosa and her family, the kitchen was a gateway to The Stop’s other programs. They soon became involved in the Earlscourt garden. Rosa had some farming experience from back home in Italy, and they already grew beautiful roses as well as some vegetables and herbs in their backyard. Their mint even won a gardening contest Rhonda organized. As he’s grown older, Tony has become involved, too. “I have two green thumbs,” he says proudly, holding up his hands.
“Except when you first started, you couldn’t plant straight,” his mother laughs. “I tell him, ‘Plant it like the CN Tower, not the Tower of Pisa!’”
Tony shrugs. “Now I know.”
The Stop has become a huge part of Tony and Rosa’s family life. They volunteer and also drop in for meals, taking part in programs whenever they can. “I was raised in this place,” says Tony, who lives at home and works for a major big box retailer. “I’m one of The Stop kids.”
Some staff and volunteers, in fact, know Rosa as Mamma. She hasn’t forgotten what it felt like to be a newcomer in the big city and she’s glad to help those people who come from far away and still feel like “little birds.” When she’s introduced to people new to The Stop, those who are scared and nervous and worried about saying the wrong thing, she offers up her big, warm smile and says, “Welcome home.”