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.

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