From food bank to community hub

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First aired on Fresh Air (31/03/13)

The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto is a vibrant and bustling place where people come to get healthy and local food. Moms come to learn about nutrition. There are community gardens. Workshops on social assistance are held for local residents.

 "I don't feel we're running a food bank. We're running a completely different species," said Nick Saul, former executive director of The Stop. "It's a community food centre, which is what we call it. It's a place you never feel a problem about walking into."

But that wasn't always the case.

When Saul first started at The Stop in 1998, it was in a decrepit state. The building had stained ceiling tiles, terrible paint, and makeshift room dividers. But an even bigger problem was the food they served; pre-packaged and canned goods full of fat, sugar, and salt.

 "It was a place where when people walked in, they had to keep their eyes on the floor. They felt embarrassed and stigmatized to be there," said Saul.

the-stop-175.jpgSaul and his writer wife Andrea Curtis chronicle the evolution of the community food hub in The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement.They spoke about their new book with Karen Gordon on Fresh Air.

Saul envisioned creating a food program that engaged the local community. He wanted to build a respectful and generous place where low-income residents would feel comfortable coming. The idea of people planning menu together, cooking it, and taking it home is a far more dignified way to support people than handing them a hamper of food.

 "It's imperative that we create spaces that reflect the future that we want to see that are inclusive, healthier, fair and sustainable."

The Stop is found in an industrial area in the west end of Toronto, where many Portuguese and Italian immigrants settled to work in the surrounding factories. After many of them shut down in the 1990s, some were forced to find their next meals at The Stop.

He said when people come to The Stop for food, they see all sorts of opportunities and possibilities. Most importantly, they feel less isolated and more connected, which is key to their sense of well-being and health.

 "People want to be engaged. They don't want to simply be passive recipients of food charity," said Saul.  

 "Food is one of those universal things that we all share. It's elemental. It's a beautiful way to express your culture. And if you share it with others you build social connection. If you grow it, sustainability, you nurture the earth. If everyone has it, you have good healthy inclusive neighbourhoods."

Saul is now President and CEO of community Food Centres Canada.


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