Protein & Community Kitchens

When a Greeting is More than “What’s the Meat In Our Meal Tonight?”

From Simeon, our community kitchen coordinator (who gives away his British identity here by using “lasagne,” the plural of “lasagna” that we tend to use in the New World).

Each week, I (Simeon) attend a medium-sized community meal which promotes inclusion and ownership through participation. As a group, we work together to prepare a meal that is eaten by up to 50 people. All are encouraged to contribute financially ($2), or by helping out with a set-up chore or cleaning at the end of the night.

In doing so, we recognise that shared experiences bring together a diverse group of cultural backgrounds, age groups, lifestyles from the neighbourhood, parks and streets surrounding the church and we realise our need for companionship and shared purpose. The majority of those who come every Thursday night, do so out of respect and in service to the wider community.

However each week, almost as often as I am greeted and asked how my day went, I am asked the meaty question, “What are we having for dinner?” Some nights I take this at face value and answer “curry”, or say “it’s lasagne,” without saying what the dish’s key ingredients are. But the reason I’ve been told outright by some guests who ask that question, is that other places that offer food don’t serve meat [but we do]. And that’s a big draw to this particular programme.

And I understand, don’t get me wrong. As a true omnivore – I like the taste of the odd steak, sausage or wing. But for those who are constrained financially, who rely on food banks, charity soup kitchens and faith-based free meals, you can feel the disappointment when you answer the question of “What’s in the meal”, by saying that it’s vegetarian.

I already try to diversify the types of protein we serve at the community meal I run out of Grandview Calvary Baptist. In fact, there are many alternative protein sources and meats are not our only choice. In addition to the humble chickpea, bean or tofu for example, did you know that quinoa, peanut butter, green peas and hemp are all rich sources of protein?

Once a month, we also ask our diners to join together in our quest to show respect for the earth and the impact our choices make to the environment. We do so by eating in a way that diminishes our community’s ecological impact on the environment – by going vegetarian.

We do this because the amount of water and grain that goes into the production of beef, for example, as well as the CO2 emitted, demonstrates the massive footprint exerted every time we gulp down a beef stew or enjoy a juicy open faced beef sandwich (both on offer, in the past, at the community meal). The truth is, we really don’t need to eat so much meat, not from a health perspective, nutrition perspective, environmental perspective and not from the cow’s perspective!

Guests of DTES Free Meals Have Something to Say

Planted was invited to participate in the HomeGround Festival last week, put on by The Carnegie Community Centre and Oppenheimer Park. If you know anything at all about the Downtown Eastside, you’ve probably heard it called “one of Canada’s poorest postal codes.” But you may not know that this small neighbourhood has, hands down, the deepest sense of community and comraderie of any district in the city.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that so many people living and working in the Downtown Eastside are genuine survivors who’ve learned that life is more possible when done together. No doubt it has something to do with the fact that thousands live on old age pensions, disability payments, or social assistance in tiny run-down hotel rooms that lack kitchens or private bathrooms – if they have a room at all. Sidewalks, parks, and community spaces have become by default one giant living room for what amounts to an extended “street family.”

Because so many Downtown Eastside residents lack adequate income or access to spaces for preparing and storing their own food, they depend on charitable food programs for an extraordinary percentage of their nutrition.

The HomeGround Festival is a three-day celebration of the creativity and kinship in the Downtown Eastside, revolving around high quality meals. Like the City’s website says, “People living on severely limited incomes feel included by the rest of society when real care is taken in the preparation of the food they are offered.”

Karen Giesbrecht and I, as lead partners for Planted, were therefore delighted to spend a couple of hours talking with festival-goers who visited the tent set up to educate people about food security and nutrition.

We asked them this question: “If we could get all the people responsible for running all the free food programs into one room, and we gave you a chance to speak to them, what one thing would you want them to hear from you?” Here’s a sample of what they said.

Speak gently to people. Be respectful. Don’t say “Hey, you!” or shove them around with your words. Even if they’re doing something wrong or something they shouldn’t. They could be having a bad day, and you being harsh just makes it worse.

Sanitation! It’s lacking everywhere: people handling garbage and then food. I was a commercial fisherman and I had to keep after the guys on my boat. I can tell you a thing or two about working with food. I prefer to grow my own food.

Put your hair up in nets. I have Hep C and HIV, so I can get sick from contaminated food. Clean water is also hard to get down here.

Cook the food properly. It’s nice when its nutritional. Some people like the vegetarian option, but I think it’s too stringy. I want more meat!

Give us a questionnaire about what we want to eat. We don’t get a choice and we can’t say anything. I’d love more potatoes and whole tomatoes – but not the GMO kind, because they’re tasteless and all look alike and they aren’t red, just kind of orangey. It’s great to get a real tomato, because it’s all misshapen and not in a blister pack.

Karen and I weren’t entirely surprised by these comments. We’ve heard similar often enough during informal surveys and formal Participant Advisory Committees we’ve done at soup kitchens and free meal programs around town. (Contact us if you want info or help for getting constructive feedback in your own food program.)

That’s one reason why Planted is co-sponsoring a subsidized Foodsafe (Level 1) course on April 18th for volunteers and low-income participants of charitable food programs. Click HERE for more details.

I think what strikes me most about the comments is how reasonable they are. What the poor want is what anyone would want: tasty and attractive natural food, prepared safely and well, served with kindness and thoughtfulness.

Cleaning Up Bodily Fluids

Have you ever been in the middle of preparing a community meal, feeling the pressure to get everything ready on time, and then had to stop everything to respond to an accident?

Being prepared is the best way to minimize a crisis. If you do have to clean up the kind of bodily excretions that we would rather not write about, a accessible kit with the supplies and procedures makes the process quick, if not necessarily easy.

Bodily fluids such as vomit, feces & blood may contain bacteria or viruses that may cause illness. If not cleaned up properly, they may spread and infect other staff, volunteers or guests.

A clearly labeled spill kit with the necessary supplies & instructions can help respond to the incident quickly. For example:

Garbage bags
Disposable gloves
Masking tape
Paper towels
Sanitizer (i.e. bleach or Quat Shot)
Yellow “Wet Floor” Signs (accessible, if too large for the kit)

To clean flat surfaces (floors, tables, sinks, etc):

If required, direct people away from the site of the spill with signs & barrier tape
Put on 2 pairs of gloves
Open the garbage bag
Using paper towels, clean spill & excess liquids
Remove the outer pair of gloves & put them in the garbage bag
Sanitize the area – spray with a sanitizer, wait for 10 minutes (or as instructed on the product label), then wipe clean
Throw paper towels & gloves into the garbage bag
Seal the garbage bag & take directly to a dumpster (if possible)

The Relationship between Hunger & Health

Planted exists because we want to bring together a passion for food and a concern for those in our city who are hungry, malnourished, or in short supply of quality food. We all know the discomfort of an empty stomach, but do we realize the far reaching implications of chronic hunger and poverty?

Here are a few:

1. Hungry people are more vulnerable to engaging in risky behaviours, such as eating food from dumpsters, eating expired food, engaging in theft, or prostitution.

2. Hungry people may lack the money to buy quality food, clean water, and hygiene supplies, and likely have few resources to fall back on if they get injured or ill.

3. Hungry people may experience a decreased quality of life, as they may sacrifice quality food in order to meet other needs.

4. Irregular eating habits may cause fluctuating blood sugar levels, which can cloud one’s thought processes, cause irreversible damage to ones eyesight, kidneys, and other vital organs, and contribute to anti-social behaviour.

5. Hungry people have weaker immune systems, and are more susceptible to infectious diseases; illnesses hit harder, get severe faster, and return more frequently.

6. Hungry people who are also sick have higher nutritional requirements – overall calories, good quality protein (a luxury for the poor), micronutrients, and fluids.

7. Hungry people who are also sick cannot tolerate strong medicine; empty stomachs contribute to side effects and discourage people from adhering to treatment requirements.

8. Hungry people who are also sick may be unable to prepare nutritious food for themselves, orwork to maintain their income, plus may face stigma or discrimination, depending on the nature of their illness.

9. Malnourished, infected pregnant or nursing mothers increase the risk of infecting their children.

10. Children born to malnourished mothers may have low birthweights and developmental complications or delays.

11. Hungry students do less well in school, leading to poor life outcomes.

12. Hungry people may lack the mental, emotional and/or spiritual reserves to care for themselves and their dependants.

13. Hungry people may lack the social capital to help them access available resources.

Adapted from “Names, Not Just Numbers: Facing Global AIDS & World Hunger” (Donald E. Messer, 2010)