Dining in the Dark (Part 1)

From David Neufeld, a friend of Planted:

With less money and more time on my hands after leaving the workforce due to vision loss, I started eating at community meals organized by my friends Karen Giesbrecht and Simeon Pang. This presented an opportunity to explore the experience of the visually impaired within this community.

Community meals can benefit those with vision loss, but there are challenges that prevent participation. Understanding issues facing those with visual impairments at community meals can reduce these barriers.

Economic & Social Factors Amplified by Vision Loss

For most, community meals provide economic and social benefits. Group meals can be less expensive while providing greater variety and nutrition than those made on our own, and a shared meal breaks the monotony of eating alone. For some, cooking at home is not an option, while others do not even have a home to cook in. Vision loss amplifies economic and social risks.

Among disability groups, visual impairment results in some of the lowest rates of employment. Even impairments not severe enough to qualify for disability benefits reduce employability. Vision loss can increase meal expenses – shopping is restricted to stores close to transit routes, and when finding items in a store is difficult, seeing labels for price comparison is almost impossible. Easily browsing grocery aisles, looking for inspiration and bargains, is a luxury for the sighted, and home delivery is a luxury for those with disposable income.

Perceptual disabilities such as vision loss increase the risk of isolation. Being unable to identify faces or people until they speak or identify themselves inhibits conversation. Poor vision is also a mobility impairment that limits travel. Not only are some locations inaccessible, but it takes more time and mental effort getting to those that are transit friendly. This can discourage venturing out, resulting in social withdrawal.

Diversity in Disability & Capabilities

The type and degree of visual impairments differ, as does the capacity to cope in a visual world. Some achievements of the visually impaired can seem remarkable to the sighted community, while something small and unexpected can present an insurmountable impasse. Whether something is an obstacle and how a person copes varies between individuals. Most problems have solutions and, through necessity, the visually impaired are problem solvers. It is worth noting that a vision disability is not always readily apparent. At first glance, someone with a visual impairment often appears sighted. The guide dog or white cane may not be visible, and some legally blind people do not use either if their remaining vision is sufficient.

Community Meal Awareness

Lack of awareness may be the first barrier to the visually impaired visiting community meals. Vision loss restricts the amount of information available to an individual. Meal programs that are accessible to the visually impaired may consider contacting the local office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) to discuss their program. Like all charitable service and support organizations, the CNIB has a volunteer program for validating and training volunteers that may be helpful.

Getting to the Meal

Accessibility is the next major barrier to inclusion, and this includes the entire travel route to the venue. Convenient proximity to public transit and unobstructed travel paths between transit and the venue can encourage participation, but familiarization with the travel route may require a guide’s assistance for the first few visits. Obstructions for walking include things like low hanging branches, uneven steps, and clutter. Controlled pedestrian traffic crossings should have audible pedestrian signals.

Accessible Ambiance

The ambience of a meal affects accessibility. Sensory overload in a crowded, noisy room is distressing when orientation depends upon sound and other senses. This is especially difficult in an unfamiliar venue. Navigating through the world without sight requires a greater degree of concentration and focus.

Guide dog users are cautious about bringing their service animals to busy environments, especially with strangers who do not understand that guide dogs should not be petted or distracted from their job. Distractions and noise stress the dog and can degrade their ability to guide. If needed, offer the guide dog user a water dish and guide them to where the dog can relieve itself. Incidentally, registered service animals are permitted by law to all places that humans are permitted, including restaurants, kitchens, and community centres.

Do All Volunteers Need to Get a Criminal Record Check?

Do volunteers at charitable food programs need to have a criminal record check, or is it optional? Does it depend on what kind of population the program is serving? What’s the process and does it cost? Who exactly is a volunteer, when programs (such as Planted recommends) follow Asset Based Community Development principles to blur the distinction between volunteers and guests/clients in order to promote skill-building, friendship and mutual transformation?

For answers, we need to turn to the BC Ministry of Justice and the Criminal Records Review Act.

Do volunteers at charitable food programs need to have a vulnerable sector criminal record check, or is it optional?

Paid staff who work directly with children and vulnerable adults, or who may have unsupervised access to them, must have a vulnerable sector criminal record checks done before they are hired and at least every five years afterward. Legislation does not require criminal record checks for volunteers in such positions, but the Criminal Records Review Program (CRRP) recommends it.

Who is a “vulnerable adult”?

You can safely assume that anyone elderly or poor, and everyone being served by your charitable food program, is a vulnerable adult. Legislation offers this definition: “an individual 19 years or older who receives health services, other than acute care, from a hospital, facility, unit, society, service, holder or registrant referred to [elsewhere in legislation].” Food programs qualify as a health service, and most charities would include any kind of service whatsoever.

Who is a “volunteer”?

This is trickier. Technically, a volunteer is an individual who “(a) voluntarily provides services to a registered specified organization, and (b) receives no monetary compensation in relation to the services or the time spent providing the services.” Clearly, this definition includes virtually everyone serving in a standard soup kitchen, and it would be best if each of them undergoes a criminal record check before starting to volunteer.

But at what point does a vulnerable adult who is accessing your food program become a “volunteer” when she starts to take an active role in the program, such as helping in the kitchen or serving food, and you begin giving her increasing responsibility or training? What about “volunteers” whose job description is simply to participate in the program activities on the same terms as the vulnerable people who rely on your food program? In other words what happens if your program is designed to erase the difference between host and guest, volunteer and client?

We put these questions to staff at the CRRP. They simply referred us to the definition in the Criminal Record Review Act, which we quoted above.

In the absence of specific response from the CRRP we propose that, if you are running a food program on Asset Based Community Development principles, then you should create documentation that clearly states a primary goal for assisting the vulnerable is to put them on the same level as others in their community, and that this is to be reflected in who does what tasks in the food program. “Volunteers” would be only those who have actual or implied authority over others in the program, such as a lead person overseeing activity in the kitchen or elsewhere. At a minimum, these lead persons are the ones who would need to undergo a records check. However, we aren’t qualified to give legal advice, so you should consult a lawyer to verify what roles and degrees of authority go beyond mere participation in a program and count as volunteer work.

What’s the process for getting background checks done? Is there a fee?

There are two types of background checks – a generic criminal record check, and a vulnerable persons criminal record check. Your volunteer organization has discretion to decide which check you want to obtain. Once it is decided, must complete the same one. Checks can be done through your local RCMP/Police or the Criminal Records Review Program in Victoria. Checks through your local constabulary or police must be done in person and typically cost $25, but the CRRP is free for volunteer organizations and done online.

The CRRP process for organization-based requests is described on their website here, and the enrolment form to register your organization in the CRRP can be downloaded here. Once enrolled, you’ll be sent an digital “key” that you can give to prospective volunteers, so they can fill in their information online. Be advised that the CRRP verifies the identity of volunteer applicants by using personal secret information submitted through the Equifax credit history service; the CRRP will not have access to their credit history or personal information. But if the volunteer doesn’t have a credit card or credit history, the online service won’t work for them.

Community Meals & Concussions

The 2014 Vancouver Homeless Survey reported that 80% of Vancouver’s most vulnerable people have one or more challenging health conditions. If we surveyed guests at different community meals, the statistics would be similar. One common and likely under-diagnosed challenge is concussions or traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s).

Individuals recovering from head injuries may report:

There are ups & downs in the recovery process
It can take a long time to get back to their pre-injury self
They have to limit the events they attend, and limit time in public spaces
Visual & auditory stimulation can cause headaches, frustration, inability to focus, forgetfulness, fatigue, etc.

Things we can do for participants of community meals:

Watch for people who display the symptoms & allow them to take a break in a quiet space or pack food to go. Many meals are set-up to encourage people to eat together, not to be a take-out restaurant, but I am relaxing my stance on that as I learn more about the prevalence & severity of head injuries.
Keep noise to a reasonable level, including dishwashers, machines, music & too many people in a room at once. Background music can set a good tone, but can also be excessively stimulating. Ask for ongoing feedback from guests.
If able, designate quieter areas in large dining spaces for people who need or prefer less noise. A simple sign or vase of flowers could be used to indicate the quiet spaces.
Have volunteers especially trained to watch for participants who seem to disengage or become agitated during a community meal. Encourage 1-to-1 conversations with that individual, which are often easier to follow than a whole table discussion.
Ensure there is adequate lighting, but no direct light shining in someone’s eyes (i.e. broken light covers).
Clean up spills immediately to prevent slips & falls.
Encourage guests to seek medical help if they complain of ongoing symptoms, or if you notice distressing personality changes.
Continue to educate yourself and your team about head injuries. Healthlink BC or the Centre for Disease Control are good places to start.

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)

We can Share More Than a Sense of Loneliness

From Planted’s Community Kitchen Coordinator, Simeon:

Vancouver may be one of the most livable cities in the world, but that doesn’t stop the residents of this world-class city feeling lonely and isolated, according to a 2012 report by the Vancouver Foundation. The reality is, that after our basic needs like food and shelter have been met, true quality of life is to be found in our sense of belonging and interconnectedness.

But the reality is that loneliness is becoming more common as people live alone or become isolated from relatives and friends, especially in retirement, when lifestyles shrink in line with budgets. And as more people are living longer, more people are spending a bigger part of their lives feeling lonely, which can have a significant impact on their physical and mental health.

And the statistics surrounding loneliness are not fun reading. According to recent studies, chronic loneliness can increase the chances of an early grave by 14 per cent, which is as bad as being obese and almost as bad as poverty in undermining a person’s long-term wellbeing. Far from living the good life, many retirees struggle with the effects of co-workers, family and friends “moving on” with their own lives.

Community Kitchens, like the one run out of Holy Trinity Anglican Church twice a month in partnership with South Granville Seniors Centre, get folk out of their apartments to partake in something that they “LOVE to do”, according to a recent email from a participant. The goal of a community kitchen is to build on the strengths of participants to improve nutrition, social interconnectedness, and promote a more equitable society around food by cultivating community solutions to hunger and isolation.

“At first, I had no idea what a Community Kitchen was all about. After attending the first one, it became clearer to me what we were going to be doing. I find the positive experience to be quite rewarding. I love to cook, learn new things, and to have input from those attending. I feel like I have contributed to these sessions.” – South Granville Seniors Centre Community Kitchen participant.

Why not consider establishing a Community Kitchen with a group of friends or neighbours – invite a few people who you know are struggling with isolation, for whatever reason, and use the act of preparing a meal and eating together to build stronger relationships with those who are feeling the pain of being alone?

Upcoming Workshop: Community Kitchen Connect the Dots

Join our community kitchen coordinator, our registered dietitian & your fellow food program coordinators & volunteers for a discussion about:

Contributing to the City of Vancouver’s goal of increasing our food assets by 50%
The value of participatory food programs, such as community kitchens
Building a culture of involvement & participation
Resources are available – information, training, food, kitchen space

Date: Saturday, March 7, 3:30 pm – 5:30 pm

Venue: Planted’s & CityGate’s offices, #301 – 291 East 2nd Ave, Vancouver

RSVP: to Karen Giesbrecht (karen@plantednetwork.ca; 778-840-4775)

No cost for this gathering
Limited street parking is available (transit is one block away on Main Street)
The venue is not wheelchair accessible (up 3 flights of stairs)

Connecting the Garden to the Table

Written by Imelda Lee & Queenie Hewitt, Friends of Planted

A Rocha Canada has been organizing bimonthly healthy eating & living workshops at Tenth Church’s Oasis Café’s lunch community. The goal of these workshops is to continually engage eaters around food and gardening over the winter months, bridging the gap between fall harvests and next spring’s growing tasks at ‘The Healing Garden’ on site at Tenth Church.

The third Tuesday of January was the first workshop of a series on cooking grains. We demonstrated how to make a simple dish, polenta, using cornmeal. Did you know corn is considered a grain and not just a summer vegetable that is delicious on the BBQ? Polenta refers to a cornmeal-based porridge traditional to Northern Italy that can be served directly, baked, or fried. Cornmeal is prepared in many different ways around the world and one of our guests recognized the similarity of the dish to “grits”, a Southern US variant made with a coarser grind of corn, known as hominy.

The demo was neatly integrated into the meal as our finished polenta was served for the community lunch, topped with a tasty chickpea tomato stew. For the demo, we

Set up a portable electric stove on a table
Set a large saucepan on top, boiling water in it (optional soup stock)
Adding the cornmeal and seasonings

In a few minutes the cornmeal thickened and we stirred in ground sage and basil, allowing our participants to modify the balance of herbs according to their preferred taste. We experimented with instant chicken broth to the first batch and found it overpowering, so we simplified it more and just added salt to later batches. People were curious, and they wandered over to the demo table. We had lots of grins and smiling faces, hopefully, inspired and empowered, learning how simple it is to cook this inexpensive grain with a plethora of serving options.

Guests and volunteers also had the option of taking home a baggie of cornmeal and herbs ready to try at home! Of course, we sent them home also with a recipe for the same tomato chickpea stew they ate at lunch, to make it a complete plant-based protein and nourishing meal!

Next workshop will be on the first Tuesday of February, and cooking rice to go with a curry dahl topping. By March, we’ll be starting vegetable seeds and experiment with growing tasty microgreens.