This Month’s “Best of”: Celebrating Community and Food

April is almost over! How did that happen? Anyways, that means it’s time for us to post our favourite food security and food justice contributions of the month. Here they are:

The “Stone Soup Festival”, a much loved community food event, will kick off on May 11. The festival is a celebration of food, art, environment and community, and will be held at the Britannia Community Centre. Expect a food market, local artists, community groups, talks and workshops, live music, tea leaf reading, children’s activities, free soup and more.

Last month we featured the inspiring TED talk of guerrilla gardener Ron Finley. This month we came across yet another great article focusing on “underground” gardening. Have a look at the ten most awesome guerrilla gardens from around the world. Who would have thought it’s possible to plant cacti in a hydrant?

Next time you’re in Kitsilano, take an extra minute and walk by the traffic circle at the crossroads of 6th Avenue and Trafalgar Street. What you’ll find there is Mary’s herb garden, a gardening project that invites passersby to please pick the sage, thyme, and rosemary that is growing in abundance there. Thanks so much Mary. We don’t know who you are, but we are truly grateful for your generosity and community spirit!

Thank you very much for reading!

Re-Defining Charity to Bite Down on Food Injustice

204_mainThis is part three in a three-part series that explores new ways to end hunger in our communities that foster dignity, health and equality for everyone. Written by our Lead Partner Jonathan Bird.

Charity is a slippery concept. For instance, Canadian law does not have a fixed definition of what charity is or of what qualifies as a charitable act (say, for tax deduction purposes). Instead, the tax code along with decisions of Canada Revenue Agency change over time in response to court decisions on individual cases. So in a sense “charity” is whatever judges decide it is; the accumulated history of their decisions (or “common law”) guides the courts and government regulators. Canadian common law recognizes four categories of what is charitable: relief of poverty; advancement of education; advancement of religion; and other purposes beneficial to the community as a whole in a way which the law regards as charitable.

Notice that charity is categorized as relief of poverty rather than elimination of poverty. Implicit here is the widely held assumption that charity simply means compassion prompting gifts of money, goods, or services to the needy. Charity is just a voluntary response to minimize the negative effects of crisis in the lives of individuals (even if these individuals constitute an identifiable group). It often carries further assumptions about who is deserving of good will and compassion. By definition it is not concerned with justice: it does not seek to correct unjust societal structures or ask what should be owed the poor by right. In fact, Canadian charities are severely restricted in carrying out advocacy for policy change.

However, there is growing pressure in Canada to legislate a clearer, more comprehensive definition of charity that takes into account what we’ve learned in recent decades about what causes poverty and how poverty can be both overcome and prevented.

Where might we find a better definition of charity that lets us connect to the roots of the common law definition while leaping into the 21st Century? Wikipedia offers a useful beginning: “The word charity entered the English language through the Old French word charité which was derived from the Latin caritas. Originally in Latin the word caritas meant preciousness, dearness, high price. From this … caritas became the standard Latin translation for the Greek word agape” used in the Bible. Agape, or caritas, is the unconditional and sacrificial love that God has for humans and that we in turn are to have toward one another. With this love we recognize ourself in the other – Jesus said “love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbour as yourself” – and therefore we cannot rest until we have secured for the other (now our “beloved”) the same justice and flourishing life we want for ourself.

Because Canadian common law is founded on centuries of court judgments and legislation made within an explicitly Christian context, this overlooked yet central tradition could be useful in reinterpreting those past decisions. But charity based on universal humanity and the common good is by no means exclusively Christian. Jesus was quoting directly from Jewish Scripture to summarize all of Judaism – and Judaism agreed both then and now. Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and other major religions have their own versions. Personally, I am especially keen to see how the historical practice of potlatch among First Nations could help reframe Canadian charity. And there are plenty of non-religious precedents, not least among them the various United Nations resolutions and declarations on hunger, health, and poverty that Canada has signed.

So where is Planted in all this, and how can we as individual citizens best collaborate for systemic justice? Legislators are moved less by lobbyists than by growing numbers of stories coming out of their ridings of grassroots community food projects that are succeeding and would succeed all the more if laws and policies were different.

Planted is all about broadcasting those stories, and connecting and supporting the people behind them. Collaboration for systemic food justice starts with neighbours helping neighbours as equals who each have their own unique and necessary gifts to bring to the table: their self, their life experience, their dreams, their curiosity, their willingness to experiment, their professional skills and contacts, their social networks, their firm knowledge that they haven’t made it this far in life on their own merits alone and that they cannot get to where they want to go by themselves.

Collaboration has to scale up to city and region wide efforts – but we will not achieve the flourishing and fair life we seek if we start somewhere else. And if we proceed by some other means, the journey will be neither so fun nor so enlightening.

Hungry for Justice: Home Economics for the Kitchen-less

This is part two in a three-part series that explores new ways to end hunger in our communities that foster dignity, health and equality for everyone. Written by our Lead Partner Jonathan Bird.

“No, my room doesn’t have a kitchen, but I do have a hotplate and last month I bought a skillet,” says the man whom I will here call Richard. We are talking about our favourite foods and recipes while we cut up vegetables for the dinner salad at a bi-weekly community kitchen. (Community kitchens bring groups of 6 to 18 people together to prepare and eat a meal more cheaply than they could do so individually, satisfying their need not only for affordable good food but also for good company and opportunity to learn cooking skills and nutrition.) Since this community kitchen is new, I am steering conversation toward menu ideas. What do we like to eat? What could we learn here that we could then cook at home too?

Richard continues: “I got the skillet because I like, you know, to splurge every once in a while and have a steak. But I haven’t used it yet. I’m afraid the guys down the hall will smell it.” I ask him if he is worried that they will come hassle him for a taste. I too like a steak once in a while, and I must admit that I get annoyed when I have to share rare treats. “No,” Richard says, “I don’t want them to feel bad because they don’t have any.”

Awkward pause. It takes me some moments to process my evident selfishness and Richard’s self-sacrificing thoughtfulness. And then I get stuck on the injustice of Richard’s predicament, and that of the other guys in his building. Even now, weeks later, I am shifting irritably in my chair just writing about it.

See, Richard lives in a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel just off Broadway. He pays a little extra so he does not have to live in the Downtown Eastside, but he still cannot afford even a bachelor apartment. His room is twelve feet wide by fifteen long. He has to share a bathroom at the end of the hall on his floor. His hotplate is likely against the rules (as a fire hazard expressly forbidden by insurance companies), and he has no refrigerator or freezer for storing fresh food or leftovers.

For this minimal shelter, Richard pays $475 a month ($50 more than the going rate at Downtown Eastside SROs) out of $906 a month that he receives in total from the government as a person with a permanent disability – in his case, a mental illness diagnosed three decades ago in his first year of university. With careful budgeting he can sometimes splurge on a steak, whereas his fellow residents cannot, because the welfare rate for people expected to look for work is considerably lower: $610. So after paying rent, and for a book of bus tickets and a prepaid cell phone (for job hunting), and for personal hygiene and laundry, they have not much more than $20 for food per week. Denied a kitchen of their own, they have no choice but to eat out, which consumes their cash in a couple of days, leaving them entirely dependent on charity food programs.

Now multiply Richard and his co-residents by a factor of thousands. The latest numbers show there are 4,484 privately run SRO units in the City of Vancouver. Almost none have kitchens. Add to these the 1,500 SRO units purchased in the last several years into non-market status by the provincial government, most of which are being renovated without cooking facilities added to the rooms.

People like Richard are caught in structures (buildings, governments, markets) that make for injustice. The food security movement is about far more than community kitchens or neighbourhood gardens, farmers’ markets or heritage seed stock. It’s about being conscious of the power each of us has to contribute to the common good, so that by our collaborative actions – as individuals, organizations, and interlinked sectors – we can demonstrate to policy makers and industry leaders that structural change is not only possible but necessary. Community kitchens are no more a substitute for a just society than bread lines.

Richard inspires me. Not only am I humbled by how he denies himself “extras” so that others will not feel left out, I am challenged by something he did later that evening when we continued the discussion about future menus with the whole community kitchen group. Everyone agreed there should be more meat for those who wanted it, but we were struggling with how to keep costs within the $30 limit the sponsoring organization had set for each meal. Richard pulled out his wallet and extracted the only cash he had. “Here’s $5 bucks,” he said. “Put this toward next week’s groceries.”

Richard’s pocket money will not change much in the world. Richard’s spirit could.