Where caring comes from and where it can take us

Published in the Kitchissippi Times – December 2020

Karen Secord, Executive Director, Parkdale Food Centre, reminisces about poverty and how an individual’s innate kindness and compassion can create a ripple effect throughout a community.

There are some memories that are more than reels of movie footage haphazardly assembled in your minds eye; the way my Nanny built her life around the tiny northern New Brunswick community of Atholville is like that for me.

It was a working man’s town, where the goings-ons at the pulp and paper mill decided whether or not people had a job and what their children ate the following week. I remember the air smelled and snow banks were so high we couldn’t open the front door.

My Pops was a Hennessey, Irish through and through, with rough hands a devilish grin and musicality that exploded into many a jig and lively song during their infamous kitchen parties. My Nanny was a Boudreau and her fingers wore the sheen off her rosary, her kindness for her community was unmatched.

Even though my parents had moved away from the maritimes after my birth, we visited often during the first decade or so of my life. I didn’t know Nanny and Pops were “poor” until much later. I don’t think I would have believed it had someone told me, or maybe I just didn’t know or care about being poor. After all, I never saw them want for anything. Their big house and even bigger hearts were all I needed at the time.

My Nanny spent her days standing by the stove kneading bread or making dumplings to go on top of the bubbling sticky potatoes, cabbage and carrots that she called stew. We would devour the bread crusts soaked in hot milk with brown sugar for lunch or before bed. I thought it was so yummy and wondered why my parents didn’t provide that for my meals at home. It was the love and kindness in sharing food that filled my belly, I know that now.

Nanny didn’t make small batches of anything. Everything she made was large and meant to share. Extra bread and biscuits with preserves or pickles might be sent with Pops to the family a few doors down. Or, maybe half the pot of stew was headed to the lady with a newborn and a husband out of work. She made molasses cookies, too. My mouth waters just imagining them, even after fifty years. Many neighbours received a parcel of Nan’s special molasses cookies for no reason other than they were neighbours.

I wonder sometimes how these early lessons have shaped my approach to life; how much of my Nan’s simple, uncomplicated kindness and my Pop’s zest for socializing have been grafted onto my soul.

As the Executive Director at the Parkdale Food Centre (PFC), our mission is just this. Creating community and ensuring we are all part of it. Neighbour to Neighbour. As we head into December,I find it difficult to ignore that hundreds of families in Ottawa are homeless and will spend the holidays in motel rooms or other impractical spaces; that many were there in 2019 and some even in 2018.

At PFC, we are reminded almost daily that it is impossible to prepare and serve a nutritious family meal, let alone a festive meal, when a microwave is your primary cooking appliance. I cried in disbelief when a woman told me that her family of six had rice for their Christmas meal in 2019, while only a short distance away there was a community holiday celebration where they would have been welcome. But no one thought to invite them.

Covid-19 has complicated everything. Enjoying a holiday meal on Christmas day in the company of others likely won’t be safe. Since this began, the winter season, the holiday season has been looming. The Parkdale Food Centre has grappled with the seemingly impossible predicament of how to serve delicious meals in the winter, while respecting Ottawa Public Health guidelines. Many of the people we serve have health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable and their disability income ($1,169) or Ontario Works ($733) doesn’t offer them the luxury to purchase much after rent is paid. Food, let alone healthy food is often not an option.

I won’t lie and tell you everything is going to be alright because I don’t know that it will. The number of people requiring help is increasing weekly. The cost of food is expected to rise this winter. The Parkdale Food Centre gives each person a robust order of good food once a month and we offer take-home meals, and cooking classes several times a week. Although we rescue food, buy wholesale and in bulk, our grocery bill is enormous.

We need your help. Sixty percent of our funding comes from you, our neighbours.

I can tell you that, like my grandparents did all those years ago, our team at the Parkdale Food Centre will do everything we can to ensure that anyone who needs food assistance is also given kindness, compassion and, often, really amazing bread.

Visit us at parkdalefoodcentre.ca or call 613-722-8019 to donate.

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