RR With Food Episode 4 - Karen Secord and Simon Bell
4:18PM Dec 20, 2021
Hello, welcome to Righting Our Relations with Food, a podcast series where we meet with guests from across the country to discuss food security and food sovereignty, and how we can make changes to our food system with a focus on Canada. Righting Relations is a national network of adult educators and community organizers working for radical social change, and this series is part of a larger project on food sovereignty and the sustainability development goals. If you're interested in learning more, please check out our YouTube channel and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Today I'm excited to welcome Karen Secord and Simon Bell from the Parkdale Food Center in Ottawa, Ontario. Karen has been the executive director of Parkdale Food Center since 2012. She's a storyteller, a longtime freelance writer and a former marketing manager. She has a passion for people, and her commitment to social justice and her work is driven by the belief that food is often a forgotten human right. Simon is Parkdale's Kitchen Manager and a veteran of the Ottawa food scene. He has worked in kitchens from Montreal to Paris since the mid 90s, and now helps those who entered the Parkdale kitchen to learn, grow and teach others their personal food stories. Karen and Simon, I'm excited to have you here today. And I'm looking forward to learning more about your work.
So maybe, maybe I might start by just giving you a little bit of history about what the Parkdale Food Center is. So the Parkdale food center started, when all food banks started, back in the early 80s, in '83, I believe. And it started, like all food banks, as a way to distribute food through a charity model. So it was really about white people giving out the kind of food that that they felt that other people should be, should be eating. And most of them were church based. Eventually, individuals took over, but they were still mostly run by charities, by volunteers. When I came on board, in 2012, at the Parkdale Food Center, very quickly, probably within a week, I started questioning why people were standing in line, why there was a barrier between the haves and have nots, why everybody giving out the food was white, why people didn't have choice in food. And the big question is, why? Why, in Canada, where there's a right, a human right to food, were there food banks in the first place? And so we began to make changes. So, by 2013, we had our clients, who we call neighbors, volunteering, participating, being involved in everything that the food bank did. We now run a variety of programs. We have a commercial kitchen, we have three chefs on staff, we make food and, and we have lots of input from from all kinds of people. So there's been a huge change. But there's lots definitely lots more work to do. Because food banking is still here, driven by corporations and by charities.
So I came on board to Parkdale Food Center almost six years ago. I started as a volunteer, like helping with a weekly workshop in the kitchen where, you know, people from all ages, abilities, backgrounds, came into the kitchen together to make a big meal and to share knowledge about food and to share food, more importantly, and I quickly fell in love with it. I'd come from a restaurant background, and I just sort of fallen out of love with the profit over people side of food that I really didn't agree with. So, you know, I eventually got a job with Parkdale Food Center, and then sort of took it from there, and it's grown. It's grown year by year. It's It's pretty amazing. Pre-COVID, everyone sat together - staff, volunteers - everyone mixed together, sat together, ate together. And it was usually the highlight of everyone's week. A perfect opportunity to get to know each other and to better understand where everyone's coming from.
Simon, you know, often people say to me and to you, "it's so great that you're teaching those people how to cook!" and Simon and I both get a really red face and you know, steam comes out of our ears when we hear people say that. Is that is that the truth? How do you answer that, Simon, when people say that?
How do I - I tell them they're wrong. And I think that type of, like, paternalistic kind of approach to things, to be like, "Oh, I'm the chef, and I'm kind of the person that knows everything" is super backwards. Of course, I had to learn that. It wasn't like, I didn't sort of pick that up right away. But I learned really quickly that everyone had something to share with food and something to teach. And that, like, myself included, had a lot to learn from others. And I think that's, that's how it should be right? I don't think it should be or think like a top down approach to anything works personally, and especially around food, though.
We know that people who come to food banks only a small percentage of people who are food insecure, and we know that across the board there are BIPOC people, and you know, people coming from other countries, for example, and Indigenous people, like they know how to cook, there's a great appreciation for food, for, for growing food, for where it comes from. We're the ones that are backwards, because they get sent to go to a food bank and, and, you know, food banks have been propelled forward because of corporate food. There's all of these food experiments and big corporate food labs, and then they can't sell them. So where do they offload it to? Food banks provided this great opportunity for these big corporations have a place to offload their food. And they just have to give it to food banks, and then they get this big, philanthropic, you know, halo, that they're offloading the food. So imagine a newcomer from, you know, Afghanistan, from India, from Syria, coming into a food bank and seeing their kid seeing all of these boxes have this cereal, which is so bad for you. And they're quickly getting addicted to, you know, to sugar. So we often hear stories of people, you know, getting diabetes, and kids with high cholesterol. And it all goes towards this attitude that people of privilege have, that beggars can't be choosers: "they should be so lucky for whatever I give them, they should be grateful." And so Simon and I are on this mission to tell people that we need to be giving people the best possible food. And since 2012/2013, we have been giving people chef-prepared, beautiful food. And since the start of the pandemic, in fact, we started a new program called cooking for a cause Ottawa, and we have kept about 20 food businesses solvent, and they're producing 4000-5000 meals a week for 31 social service agencies across Ottawa. And, for example, people at two harm reduction sites are getting meals - chef-prepared, beautiful, incredible meals - seven days a week. And what the harm reduction workers are saying is that there's fewer escalations, people's wounds are healing faster, people are gaining weight back to the way they were before they started using drugs, and more people are coming out. And when they have an issue, they're actually talking to nurses and doctors,
Yeah, in fact, the harm reduction workers are referring to the chefs and business owners as harm reduction workers now.
We knew the importance of good food. And, you know, really, everything we do, is built around good food. And people, people come out for good food, relationships are built around good food. But good food isn't just what I grew up with. And, and I think, like, Simon would agree that we've learned so much from our neighbors from other countries who have taught us amazing things. And because when we first started, people didn't know what quinoa was, you know, the guys had only had mashed potatoes before, you know, a typical, you know, white, European diet. And now Simon, like, how many cultures different kinds of food have you had people try?
Yeah, I mean, I think I think part of, like, I like to think that the kitchen Parkdale operates is very much as a collective. So anyone with an idea and like the will to make it happen is more than welcome to come to the kitchen and make food from their heart or from you know, from their culture.
Yeah, Karen, I just have a question for you: when you said about the newcomers, like what do you think, what are the challenges for newcomers accessing, say, like, good quality foods?
Well, in Canada, we have a huge problem. It's called income inequality. And so we have woefully inadequate income and growing income inequality. And people that go on - for us it's Ontario Works, I'm not sure what you call your welfare system in Winnipeg - they literally tell people where the food bank is. So they know, they're fully aware that they are not giving people enough income to meet their human rights for food. Food banks are they are a blight, there is no way that there should be any kind of food bank. I think that COVID has set food banking, has set us back 20 years. People were back talking about hampers, Feed Ontario made - literally made boxes of food, with cans in them - and we were told this is what we were to give out to people. Like, in normal times, we give out unlimited fruits and vegetables, we create a market and we say to people, please take what you need, we do what it takes to make sure that they have fruits and vegetables. Because good food is good health. And we created something called a Prescription for Good Food. People that go live in other areas and maybe, you know, have a medical condition or whatever, or they can go to their doctor or their social worker, and have a letter signed, saying "I have a medical reason to come to Parkdale", which is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of in my life. Because everybody deserves good food! And it hurts me to do it. But the reason we did it is because I want to take all of those prescriptions and present them to the Minister of Health, the Ontario Minister of Health, with a bill, and charge her for the money it costs us. Because I'm doing their job, we are literally doing the job of the government. And, but everybody thinks that charity is good. And charity is wrong. Right?
Charity, like charity has its place in emergencies. But this is a 40-year old emergency at this point. It's, it's, it's like, it's embarrassing and shameful to think that charities are the answer to anything as serious as the food that we you know, like and for newcomers coming to, to Canada in particular. I mean, our food system is built, I mean, its DNA is stolen land and exploited labor. It's a tool of racism and white supremacy. It's, it's, you know, it's, it takes control over people instead of building relationships and solidarity with the people it serves. So it's no wonder, right, that that that's a problem for people who are low income and who are new to the country.
And people who work in the food system are some of the lowest paid workers, so migrant workers, people who work in restaurants, people who work in grocery stores. And just look at COVID, it was really exposed that that those were the people who are the frontline workers, those were the people who lost their jobs. And those are the jobs that we give to newcomers. Those were those really terrible kind of jobs. That migrant worker, that person working in the grocery store that that person working, serving your food at a restaurant, they should be able to feed their family.
This brings me back to the question then about, like what do you think, for people here in Canada, then what does food sovereignty look like in practice?
It really looks like when communities and individuals have control over the systems and the mechanisms of food production, you know, the way food is produced. You know, who benefits from food, how, how food is consumed, you know? Who benefits from food banking? It's the corporations that benefit from it. It's the rich people that are patting themselves on the back saying "I did a good deed". The people receiving that food are not feeling great. So how you know how food sovereignty looks like in practice is, people having enough income to make the choices of the food they want, and also having the land to be able to grow food, if that's what they if that's what they choose to do, and having a place to be able to cook the food that they that they want to cook their food.
And I think too, like communities need to create their own food systems. I think this gradualist approach to, like, tweaking and reforming the current system will just lead us nowhere, I think to to really truly achieve food sovereignty, that communities like a smaller community based approach to developing their own food system is the way to go.
Yeah, and so you know, we have a space and and people can use that as an incubator kitchen, and we can use our knowledge to help them start and grow businesses, but if only it was easier to be able to produce food and make a living at that. Just in the last few weeks, we have rented a new space for our food bank, we don't have a new name yet, we have asked an Indigenous Elder in our in our neighborhood who has gone back to her Elders, and they're selecting a food name for us. And then we will never say Food Bank again. And it's going to be a totally separate place where food will be distributed. And we're creating a board of peers. And then we will be, in the next year or so changing, into a food Co-Op run by our our lower income neighbors. And so they'll be the ones choosing the food that's there, there's a 2700 square foot courtyard in the back. So we're hoping that we'll be able to grow food there. And we have a relationship with an organization that has a root cellar. So we're hoping all those things can go together, and we can make sort of a sustainable system of our own.
Oh, lovely. And you spoke about like, social enterprise, like, how would that address food sovereignty?
Yeah, and so social enterprise are very interesting for charity, it's difficult, because, you know, for us, the government is always making us run around like hamsters on a wheel, applying for money to do their work, and then reporting to them, or philanthropists, you know, are doing the same thing. And so, for social enterprises, it's hard to become sustainable. And so our social enterprise still has a business and a charity component.
Yeah, I mean, they're, it's like, it's also a good place of like, it's a place where, hopefully, you know, the people that that are coming through the program leave with like, maybe a better, a little better equipped to enter the real world, find employment understands, you know, finance, understand the buying and selling of goods. I mean, this is stuff that's sorely lacking from the school system. Right. So I mean, I hope that if they take anything away from it, they just feel a little better equipped to sort of move on, you know, move on and find work in their field of interest.
You know, we are starting to call, you know, what, what Simon does now culinary activism!
We hosted a series of virtual cooking workshops for youth coming through the Children's Aid Society, who are exiting care, so sort of moving out on their own for the first time, and basically just trying to try to help them develop the basic skills and knowledge, and they're just sort of support themselves with food. When Children's Aid Society came to me with, you know, with the idea, I think what they were most concerned about, and they should be, is that the youth were relying primarily on takeout food, or low nutrient, sort of, easy to make stuff. And again, you know, I've just mentioned, our education system, where it's lacking, they also don't talk about food anymore. So we talk about things about, you know, like takeout takeout meal versus a home cooked meal and the cost. So just sort of things like that, and, and hopefully, you know, hopefully just empowering them a bit more, helping them feel like they, you know, they have the skills and abilities to not have to rely so heavily on things like that.
And I mean, that's so related to their health, when people are using food banks and eating this terrible food, it affects their health, and that is cyclical, right? A mother doesn't have the good food to feed her children, she'll often go without food, and the children, then they don't do well at school. And when you don't do well, at school, you don't feel good, then you're seen back again at a food bank. And that kind of poverty cycle happens. And it doesn't have to happen in Canada, there is food available. It's just that people don't have the income. And so it is shameful that, that people don't have enough food to eat. And we should not be relying on donations to meet the basic needs of human beings of, and of Canadians.
I think that's I think that's a really hard thing about what we do. You know, despite all the good work we're doing, I think we both feel like we really wish like we didn't have to, you know, I think there'll always be room for educating people and there'll always be room for building stronger communities. But when you're coming like, you know, as Karen mentioned, when it's an access to food issue, we're talking about an income issue, ultimately, and you know, a lot of this food banking stuff we do and philanthropy shouldn't have to exist, you know, we shouldn't have to be doing it.
There is this unequalness, which is why we've changed language, why language means so much to us. We never call anyone a client We call people neighbors, we are only ever a neighbor to each other. So we're in a neighborhood that is gentrified, and all of the people that lived in our neighborhood have been pushed out. And they all come back to us. And it's why we're so interested in creating this Co Op, we want to take the power away from us. And we want to put it in the hands of our neighbors who are Indigenous, who are African, so that they are making the decisions. I mean, I could shop there too, but I would have a membership card that I paid membership for, and my friends who use the food bank, they would have points on their card, but it would be the very same and they could use it whenever they wanted. And they would purchase food too, but their card would be coded so that they would pay a wholesale price. And so this is my dream. And we'll see if it can work as I know, food is is difficult. When we talk about climate change and the land. I mean, food is just, it's intricately related with climate change and, and the environment. Right, like where do people think food comes from? And, and food is something that touches people, right? It's very personal. It's very personal to people. You have to be brave. You have to be brave and, and to make big change, you have to be bold. And I would say that, Parkdale food center, we're bold.
Yeah we're bold. We're bold.
Okay, I like that! Yeah! Thank you for listening to this month's episode of Righting Our Relations with Food. We would like to thank our wonderful guests for sharing their knowledge and their insights with us, and from everyone here at Righting Relations Canada, we would like to thank our partner, the John Humphrey center for Peace and Human Rights, and of course, our funders, the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, and Employment and Social Development Canada, for making this project possible. We hope you'll join us again next month!