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.

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