What is Really In a Red Coffee Cup?


Written by Karen Giesbrecht & Simeon Pang

Christmastime amplifies things. Everything seems bigger and brighter as the days draw closer to the coming of the Christ and all the seasonal traditions and festivities that surround this global event. There are opportunities for creativity, generosity, closeness and sharing the love that the holidays generate.

But there are also amplified occasions for loneliness and inequality. How can a moment in history that brings such a great light into the lives of believers the world over, also be the advent for people experiencing some of the darkest times of the year? And how is this hope for love and acceptance communicated by the smallest things?

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 3.09.43 PMAt Christmastime, sweet and spicy latte from Starbucks, in attractive red cups is one of our favourite treats. But they also symbolize something we are increasingly distressed by. Almost every week, we see our friends on the edges of poverty walk into a community meal with a disposable cup from Starbucks or other specialty coffee shop in the neighbourhood.

A few folk have likely fished the cup out of the garbage, hopefully rinsed it out, and filled it with free coffee from a local charity. Others have spent the few dollars they have on the drink, forgoing more nourishing food or other necessities. But why? Maybe because good coffee communicates status, especially at a time of year that highlights the differences between the rich and the poor. The red cup communicates:

  • I’m ok
  • I belong
  • I’m a true Vancouverite
  • I deserve an indulgence for once
  • I can pass as one of the well-off ones…

In Vancouver, in particular, we are rich in good coffee shops. And we are rich in folk who are willing to donate time, goods or money to help those in need, especially around Christmastime. To all of you who show such tangible kindness – Thank-you, thank you, thank you!

However, during this season of generosity and cheer, let us consider that sometimes the way we help can actually hurt the recipients.

Here’s how: sometimes when we give or volunteer, we do so in a manner that increases feelings of shame and inequality for the recipients who are not encouraged to do what they can for themselves, or who are not afforded opportunities to be generous themselves with what they have.

As we seek to celebrate the dignity of all those we serve & serve alongside, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Visit a community meal as a guest. Come with the openness to experience, with others, what it feels like to line up, be lost in the crowds, to eat food you may not prefer, and to be shown kindness by the volunteers, but not necessarily given a voice.
  • Find someone who does not dress like you, or who obviously came from a different place, and learn their name.
  • Offer to do some of the harder tasks at an event – like dishwashing, scrubbing pots, or taking out the compost.
  • Keep an eye out for people who are new, or who do not seem to be connecting with others.  Invite them to share simple jobs like bussing tables or keeping the coffee table stocked.
  • Collect basic hygiene items: socks, toques, gloves, underwear & backpacks, being most needed when it’s wet & cold. A drive for specific items, rather than bags filled with secondhand clothes, is more helpful.
  • For Food Safe rules, most food must be made on site – especially potentially hazardous foods that may spoil or be undercooked, like turkey & mashed potatoes. Homemade baked goods are less risky for food-borne illness & are a treat for guests, especially if they contain nutrient rich nuts & dried fruit.
  • Sponsor a community meal, or part of one: a healthy, balanced meal can cost $3-$5/person, or $450-$750 for 150 people. Adding fresh fruit for dessert is about $40; salad is $60. Fresh produce provides vitamins, minerals & fibre that is often limited in the diets of people who live in poverty.
  • Paying a community member to wash dishes for 4 hours is ~$50 (at minimum wage). Employment allows people to gain workplace skills, a sense of purpose & independence.

“I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” ~Maya Angelou

Who is Changing the Conversation around How We Eat?

As we explore who is involved in providing nutritious food in ways that foster community and build on the strengths of the vulnerable, let us introduce you to…

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Elaine Cheng is a Food Consultant, Nutrition Analyst, Educator, and an Entrepreneur from Vancouver. Surrounded by food tasting classes, she recently completed her Master in Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. Afterwards she moved to the UK to teach cooking to vulnerable communities with the former Jamie Oliver Food Foundation where kids have never tasted juice from real fruit.

Why did you get interested in sustainable food?

Elaine: Learning about how we view food abundance in Europe and America is overwhelming. Shortly after, I took a trip to the villages of Guatemala and witnessed food and water scarcity. Comparing the two worlds fascinated me. Inspired by the range of innovative ideas around food and social impact currently existing in Europe, I wanted to bring some of these initiatives to Canada to start a conversation around food waste and redistribution. I started my company Food Connections to host events like Feeding the 5000 – a global communal feasting event made from surplus wasted food to raise awareness about the fact that 40% of all food produced is discarded.

Through your work, what changed in how you see food & poverty?  

Elaine: Hunger is not an issue of charity, but of justice. Through working with marginalized populations, I’ve come to realize it’s more of a poverty of relationships and dignity than it is a poverty of food, money, and shelter. There is more than enough food in this city, and in this world to go around, and the issue is way more complex than just donating food to charities. If we want to make an impact, we may need to take a little more time to learn the real gaps in the system by listening to the voice of all parties involved, so we know where to best divert resources (whether monetary or surplus food) to maximize convenience and efficiency on all levels. I believe food has the power to bring people together of all socioeconomic statuses and cultural backgrounds. We’ll learn to respect food a little more as we view it with a community lens rather than just a commodity in which we are entitled to having.

What do you need to keep going?

Elaine: I love sharing and building my networks through meeting people. Everyone has unique skills or networks that can contribute to this issue. We’ll need talents of all areas – the only requirement is that you’ll have to share the same passion.  At the moment, I’m specifically looking for people talented in tech (app development), system design, and an experienced grant writer/fundraiser. If you’re interested in chatting more about the food waste issue in Vancouver or have a creative idea brewing, I’d love to meet over coffee to bounce ideas.

Contact Elaine: elaine@food-connections.com