Nick Saul, Toronto-based co-author of The Stop: How the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement, is coming to Vancouver to explore possibilities for a community food centre in the Vancouver area. He’ll be at the Roundhouse Community Centre for World Food Day celebrations on Oct. 16, along with the Vancouver Food Policy Council.
Here’s my review of his book, originally published in the Literary Review of Canada.
If you google “food” and “revolution” in Chapters.Indigo, eight titles will pop up—not including diet books. Include the search words “movement” and “food” and another 10 show titles up. The world is alive with eagerness to change our imperiled food systems. Joining these new books is Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis’ inspirational saga of growing The Stop, the Toronto “community food centre”, into international prominence over the last 14 years. The authors chronicle pivotal moments in the against-all-odds growth of a small anti-poverty organization into something that is rare, if not unparalleled, in all these “revolutions” and “movements”.
(Although the book is co-written by award-winning writer Andrea Curtis and her husband Nick Saul, they note that “it is written in Nick’s voice, as the story … charts his 14 years at The Stop Community Food Centre.” For simplicity, I’ll often refer to Saul as the author in this review.)
The opening pages of the book put The Stop in perspective. They describe a scene where superstar chef and good food advocate Jamie Oliver (also author of Jamie’s Food Revolution) jumps out of his black SUV and takes a tour of the Green Barn. Saul describes that building as the “pretty face” of the organization, in contrast to the “sprawling community centre in the bottom floor of Symington Place, a public housing development in one of the city’s poorest and most underserviced neighbourhoods.” The latter is “the gritty heart of The Stop’s operations” (p. xiii). At the end of the tour, Oliver rests a hand on Saul’s shoulder and says, “You know what, brother? I’ve been all around the world and I’ve never seen anything like this place.” (p. xiii)
Toronto food activist and author Wayne Roberts (The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food) has been rightfully critical of the premature celebration of a food “revolution”. The current good food zeitgeist is still more about planting seeds of change than reaping large harvests. That isn’t to say that cities around the world aren’t sprouting “good food” initiatives too numerous to count, as the benefits of more people eating more local, fresh plant-based food take root: tastier food, more prosperous local farmers, fewer hungry people, fewer fat kids, less diabetes, lower health care costs, more inner-city jobs, safer neighbourhoods, more beautiful streets, lower GHGs, more resilience to climate change, safer food, less soil erosion, happier animals, less pollution and rutabagas forever.
Where Saul and Curtis’ book—and the organization it describes– stands out is in its unequivocal focus on relieving hunger and poverty, with better food as just one means to achieve that goal. When Saul was hired by The Stop in 1998 he came from community organizing, working with homeless men and as a staffer in the Ontario premier’s office. He arrived at a struggling faith-based non-profit whose main function was running a food bank. He immediately started on a path of political change.
One theme that permeates the book is Saul’s stubborn insistence that food banks are basically evil. His tone is too considerate and accommodating to use that word, but its meaning is there. Built on the deepest, most genuine charitable impulses, they have unintentionally embedded permanent institutions of demeaning handouts in our culture.
As Saul sees it, they deny choice, skirt the UN-endorsed right to food, and build a handout dependency that bypasses the root cause of hunger and illness: poverty, exacerbated by inhuman welfare rates and inequality. While malnutrition, obesity and inequality grow hand in hand, “temporary” food banks mute the pressure on government to live up to its responsibility to face poverty head-on.
So Saul determined from his first day on the job that The Stop would stop being just a food bank. It would go upstream with cooking lessons, community kitchens, drop-in meals, counseling, community gardens, bike repairs, civic engagement initiatives and anti-poverty marches. By bonding with the distressed community it served, The Stop moved “from charity toward solidarity.” (p. 48). It takes a village to raze a food bank, a process described by The Stop storyteller-in-residence Dan Yahsinsky as “‘revillaging the city’, creating pockets of care, mutual assistance and connection, as one might see in a village, within the urban setting.” (p. 272-273)
In one chapter Saul visits a city that gets it: Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He sees that city as a model for what The Stop model could achieve in Canadian cities: “falling infant mortality and malnutrition rates, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables (while other Brazilian cities report a decrease), money in the pockets of local small farmers, and more equitable access to healthy food.” (p. 106)
Many have noted the stealth function of heightened food consciousness as a gateway to so many of the big issues of our day: inequality, hunger, pollution, corporate concentration, diet-related disease, water shortages, soaring health care costs, personal isolation and more. Add to that consciousness the fact that we all “vote with our fork” every day. Everyone alive is making food choices that change the world, bite by bite, for better or worse. Are we there yet? Saul says no. The new foodie can easily end up in the cul de sac of purring over purple carrots at a farmer’s market or proudly ordering expensive local fish on Friday nights at a restaurant. The rich get organic food, but the poor still get diabetes.
Awakening to the realities of our food systems is all good. The beauty of today’s food movement is that you can’t go wrong. But you can stop short. For Saul and Curtis, relieving the suffering of the thousands of their neighbours who wake up hungry every morning is what it’s all about. They are firmly focused on the anti-poverty and right-to-food side of the community food security equation, happily working with others more dedicated to environmentally-sustainable agriculture and all the other “good food” initiatives. They refuse to accept that individual action, without political action, will bring about any real change for low-income people. Political pressure to ensure everyone has food access, food skills and food literacy is always on their front burner
Yet for all his advocacy and policy recommendations, Saul never lets up on personal story-telling. There’s his own story of turning a hand-to-mouth parish hall food bank into a $4.5-million-a-year anti-poverty hybrid gathering place with 300 volunteers and 40 staff serving 16,000 people a year. Characters include political villains, angel benefactors, and Toronto’s leading food movement pioneers.
The book is also laced with personal turnaround dramas, a steady stream of heart-warming stories putting faces, smiles and names on the people whose lives have been changed at The Stop. To cite just one example: “Gordon Bowes grew up near The Stop but left home for good at 15, fleeing a father who beat him up when he was drinking, something he did every day. Gord lived on the street for nearly 15 years.. When he first turned up at The Stop’s food bank in one of our old locations, Gord was embarrassed… he hated to ask for a handout. [Eventually]… The Stop became Gord’s second home… [Now] I think of him as one of our community elders.”) (p. 168-169).
By the end of the book, Saul has left The Stop (in Dec. 2011) with an infusion of foundation startup money to set up 17 similar organizations around the country, as CEO of Community Food Centres Canada. It’s another noble, improbable challenge, with $20 million still to be raised and uncertain quirks in every location. The sequel is already in the making.
The Stop is part community development primer, part policy guide, part cry for justice, but mostly it’s an endearing story of people who came together to build something this country hasn’t seen before—and, if the story continues on its current trajectory, will soon be changing cities across Canada, one neighbourhood at a time.