Crap Dinner at the
Good Food Box
It’s cheap, it’s fresh and it benefits both buyer and seller.
Murray MacAdam checks out a special package.
It’s a dismal setting for a renaissance.
Scrapyards, boarded-up buildings and vacant lots dot this industrial wasteland in downtown Toronto. But in the back of an ancient brick warehouse there is life. A makeshift assembly line; men and women of all ages fill boxes with bananas, potatoes, oranges, carrots – all tantalizingly fresh. Homeless people work alongside students, Spanish-speakers alongside other Canadians.
These boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables will find their way that night into the kitchens of people in poor neighbourhoods across Toronto. Each customer has paid $15 for their box; less than they’d pay at a supermarket for food of lower quality.
The Good Food Box is a pioneering effort to break the reliance of thousands of Canada’s poor on food handouts. Caught between high unemployment, low wages and grossly inadequate social-assistance rates, poor Canadians often have no choice but to turn to free-food distribution centres – called ‘foodbanks’ – in order to eat. Two million people in 465 communities across Canada rely on handouts for at least some of their food each month.
Foodbanks are a sour, frustrating experience. ‘You take what they give you,’ says Dave, an unemployed young volunteer, between drags on a cigarette. ‘The attitude is: you’re getting a free meal, don’t complain.’
The Good Food Box is the latest initiative of FoodShare Metro Toronto, a community organization working against hunger. Several years ago the group focused on lobbying the Government for higher minimum-wage and social-assistance levels. When those efforts failed to pay off, demoralization set in.
‘We asked ourselves: isn’t there something we can do immediately to make a difference in people’s lives?’ says FoodShare executive director, Debbie Field.
They found that it was possible to make advances on the hunger issue that couldn’t be made on income security. Why not enable poor people to stretch their food dollars further?
Learning about self-help projects such as Peru’s vast community-kitchen movement, and about the impact of hundreds of thousands of women cooking together, inspired new strategies. Inspiration also came from bulk-purchase consumer movements in countries like India and South Korea.
Hence the Good Food Box, a way in which low-income people working together can bypass the capitalist food system, says Field, and develop alternatives they control themselves. ‘We’re asking people to boycott the dominant food industry, an industry based on food as a commodity.’
The program combines the economies of scale involved in bulk purchasing with extensive community in-volvement. Paid staff buy fruit and vegetables from wholesalers and, where possible, direct from farmers. As much Ontario produce is included as possible, to support local farmers. The food is then delivered to public-housing projects, community centres and other drop-off points.
Paying for food avoids the stigma felt when going to foodbanks. ‘The bottom line is, people are paying for what they get,’ says Errin Stone, a volunteer since the program began. ‘It’s not a charity, it’s a business.’ Stone is unemployed but hopes that his hands-on experience in ordering food, co-ordinating volunteers and pricing will pay off through a future career in the food industry. Without its wave of volunteers, most of them women, the Good Food Box simply would not happen.
The enthusiasm has already spread beyond Toronto. In the rich agricultural area of Niagara, south-west of Toronto, another group of volunteers pack food boxes one morning at a housing co-operative in the city of St Catharines. Sales have soared from 205 boxes last July to over 700 in December. The program is sponsored by a local non-profit housing agency.
‘When I get to the end of the month we’re down to Kraft Dinner – I call it Crap Dinner: hot dogs, stuff that’s not expensive,’ says Rene Fisher from Welland, who is a mother of four. ‘By the end of the month we’re out of everything. I buy a bag of oranges and they’re gone in no time. This stuff [the Food Box] is fresh, economical and it’s good for you.’
The program also creates some work for people who desperately need it. Packing the boxes in the town of Fort Eire meant a few hours of work for some people on social assistance just before Christmas. ‘You should have seen the excitement on their faces when they were paid,’ comments promoter Joan Stewart. ‘You would have thought you’d given them a million dollars.’
The Good Food Box is about much more than cheap, healthy food. For many poor people food is a cause of stress, since you worry about running out of it. The Box helps transform the whole act of eating into something fun and interesting, as the contents vary from month to month, depending on what’s in season and on customer requests. Tucked in with each box is a newsletter with a program update, recipes and information on local produce.
FoodShare works on several other fronts. Its program to help schools provide meals grew out of an awareness that hungry kids were showing up at school too tired or irritable to learn properly. It also counters the junk-food message beamed at kids by the fast-food industry. Community gardens where poor people can grow some of their own food are another initiative. FoodShare continues to lobby against Government cutbacks which threaten to increase poverty.
Many people still have no alternative to emergency food assistance. FoodShare’s Hunger Hotline directs them to their nearest foodbank or to other assistance. Volunteers handle about 2,000 calls every month, calls which reveal the scarring impact of poverty on people’s lives and self-esteem. ‘They often feel they have to give an explanation of why they’re calling,’ says Jennifer, a hotline volunteer. ‘They feel they’re being judged. “I’m not this type of person normally,” they’ll say.’
Canada’s unemployment problem has eased only slightly during what some call ‘the jobless recovery’. When Hunger Hotline workers ask callers how they can help, a common response is: ‘It sure would help if you could find me a job.’
In trying to set up an alternative to Canada’s giant food companies through initiatives like the Good Food Box, FoodShare has its work more than cut out for it. The food industry giants ‘don’t even know that we exist’, admits Debbie Field. Despite healthy sales increases the Good Food Box Program is still far from the break-even point. FoodShare subsidizes it through support from its 10,000 donors. ‘My challenge is to build this into a self-sufficient business,’ says co-ordinator Mary Lou Morgan. ‘Yet you’re dealing with people with no money. It’s a contradiction.’
Nonetheless, in the space of a few years 10,000 people, most of them poor, are benefiting from FoodShare’s various initiatives. Its work to build a consumer-run food system is slowly taking root in Ontario. The energy it has sparked may mean a future with more dignity and self-reliance – and fewer frustrating trips to the foodbank – for Canada’s poor.
Murray MacAdam is a freelance writer in Toronto specializing in community economic development.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995