The things people say when they’re eating

Photo courtesy of the Parkdale Food Centre.

*Article is sponsored.

By Karen Secord, Parkdale Food Centre Executive Director

I think I spend far too much time worrying about offending people, especially when they are eating. It’s a hazard of my job; a kind of quicksand I can find myself drowning in when the conversation doesn’t go the way the person across from me feels it should. 

“You must really feel so pleased to be helping those people eat good food.”  

I wonder when I hear this, or any number of variations of it, whether the speaker sees my chest heave deeply while I hold in a growl and try not to choke.

Am I one of those people? Who are those people?

I am not disabled. I am not trying to raise my children in a motel room where a microwave is the kitchen and the beds are the dining room table. And I have certainly never had to flee my homeland, sacrificing my career, culture and family. I don’t work for minimum wage serving others only to stand in line at a food bank to get the rations to feed myself. I don’t have only coins left in my pocket after paying for rent, medication and a bus pass.

For me, purchasing delicious food and sharing it with others is one of the great joys of life. Of course, throughout my life, I have been afforded the means and opportunity to thrive. 

My dinner companion pushes forward: “It’s great that you are teaching people how to cook.”

I can’t help wondering about those long held myths that perpetuate the narrative of, “if only they learned to cook better they would save money.” After a decade of cooking, sharing meals and telling stories, we decided to survey our Parkdale Food Centre Neighbours with the hope that they would be gracious enough to offer their insights.  

“Thank you for asking,” said one respondent. “No one has ever asked me before.”

Just over 270 households completed the 94 question survey, administered in three languages. What we heard is that the vast majority of households who participate in our programs are living in poverty: Of the households in the survey, 69% had an annual income before taxes of less than $20,000; just less than 53% had an income of $15,000 per year or less; and almost 20% had an income of $10,000 or less. Noteworthy here is that 61% of the households had at least one adult who had completed some college or university.

Basic social assistance rates for a single person with a disability or receiving Ontario Works (because they don’t qualify for Employment Insurance) are $14,028 and $8,796, respectively. This compares with Statistics Canada’s Market-based Measure (MBM) of the cost of a modest, basic standard of living in Ottawa/Gatineau of $20,053.  

What I knew was confirmed: you can’t save money when you don’t have money. Having a grocery store in your neighbourhood is truly irrelevant when you couldn’t afford anything in the store anyway. 60% of respondents said they shop at the dollar store. I suppose “access” means different things to different people.

At Parkdale Food Centre, a no-cost produce market every Friday means that good quality fruits and vegetables are free. And so are the over 200 meals our kitchen lovingly produces for volunteers to distribute. 

Good food is not a luxury. Yet, we heard over and over how parents go without food so their children can eat, that seniors steal food for their pets, and how hunger affects a person’s mental health. At our weekly “Coffee and Conversation,” I asked folks what they needed from the government. The mostly older group, drinking coffee with muffins, with egg salad sandwiches and apples to take home, agreed that they want to have enough income to be able to purchase the food they enjoy just like everyone else. At the same time, they want the social programming Parkdale Food Centre offers—in fact, they want more of it!

The right to food is enshrined in various international human rights instruments which have been signed and ratified by Canada, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Article 24(2) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Preamble of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

I think when I sit around the table with friends and family this December, my gift to them will be a gentle reminder that “building back better” is going to require a shift in the questions we ask, the narrative we perpetuate and the myths we pass on.

Maybe this holiday season you will join me in starting a conversation about the human right to food.

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