By Karen Secord
Earlier this month a mother of four told me that she had been feeding her children boiled potatoes because that’s all the food she had. Her income had gone to rent and utilities. Her youngest child was ill and she received a bill from CHEO for services and medication. Her anxiety level was high yet she spoke proudly about how wonderful and understanding her children are.
I wish I could say that these conversations are unusual or that the number of them were decreasing.
When I volunteered in Central America I learned to identify the signs of malnutrition in children; bloated bellies, listless bodies, blank stares, stunted growth. The government doled out a fortified powder produced by Nestle a mega giant in the food industry whose unethical behaviours are well documented. I could argue that it was a corrupt government and greedy industry’s way of doing the minimum to keep people alive without any consideration for the human spirit, their land, and their culture.
Back home in Ottawa I’ve often agonized over the malnutrition that is lurking in our schools, woven into neighbourhoods, in haphazardly appointed “family shelters” that offer inadequate cooking and food storage facilities, in rental housing that is unaffordable for families or unlivable, and the insidious effects it’s having on growing young brains and bodies.
Last week we dropped off boxes and garbage bags to a young couple, both with serious health issues, who report an extreme infestation of cockroaches in their studio apartment. Even an everyday task such as making a cup of tea has become an ordeal when they must first check the kettle, the cup, and the cupboard for bugs.
My first reaction (and maybe yours too) was to advise them to move. The eternal optimist, I scoured online ads for apartment rentals and they diligently followed up. Sadly, when you are disabled and young there aren’t many landlords who are willing to rent a well maintained place to you.
Our grocery program isn’t open on Friday’s because we offer a free produce market on that day every week instead. However, last Friday I had offered to bring some food to a mother of three from the south end of the city who was housebound with Covid. We’ve stopped asking the question about why people need food. It’s an irrelevant question. If a parent is asking for food to feed their children, why would we need them to prove they qualify for it or prove that they are deserving?
I have listened, over and over again, to Charlotte Smith speak about this in our video Sitting At The Table – A Human Right To Food. Truthfully, I’ve felt ashamed by how long it is taking to dismantle the dysfunctional food banking system and to create something that is built around love and care, love and care for the environment and for each other. I have no doubt that powerful forces are pushing the system towards the unhealthy impacts we are all experiencing in one way or another. But I also know that together, as a community of Neighbours who care for each other, we can be the change we want to see.
So on June 1, Parkdale Food Centre began what will be a series of neighbourhood experiments. With the help of the Ottawa Mosque, Merry Dairy and a few very adventurous friends, we held a community dinner party in the parking lot at 30 Rosemount. It was the launch of a “neighbouring campaign”, designed to see whether if we set the table and invited people to dine with people they didn’t know we could help build a bridge to understanding. We plated and served 150 meals.
Diners clapped to welcome a brother and sister from the Ukraine who were celebrating their first week in Canada. Neighbours from Salus sat with retirees who accepted our invitation while they were on an evening walk. Seniors from an Ottawa Community Housing building were served their meals by children who took great pride in delivering the plates with no (or little) spillage! An impressive number of PFC staff arrived on a Sunday evening to enjoy good food among new friends.
On Monday, June 2, we were tired but hopeful.
On Wednesday, July 20, from 5-7pm in conjunction with the Parkdale Night Market we will be hosting our second “Welcome to Dinner, Neighbour” event. This time we are closing Hamilton Avenue, North between Spencer Street and Armstrong Avenue, in front of the Mino’weesini Grocery Program location. Yasmine’s Syrian Kitchen, A Cooking for a Cause partner is catering the meal, Merry Dairy will be there and the PFC kitchen has promised a sweet treat and Dannielle Allard will be entertaining us with her beautiful music. This event is for everyone!
There is no rain date. We will eat rain or shine! The important thing is that we will be together, getting to know each other, sharing with each other, caring about each other. If we want to live in a city where everyone has the means and opportunity to thrive and no mother has to agonize over feeding her children only boiled potatoes, then events like this one are surely on the path to hope.
I don’t know about you, but I could use a little hope these days.
What makes you hopeful?