Sarah Brittain chops, serves, smells what’s simmering on the stove. With a little taste from a spoon, she makes sure that the quinoa salad is well seasoned for the 150 people coming in for lunch at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House.
“I’m kind of anxious because I’ve never been in charge of anything before except for my own life and hey! But I think I can do this,” said Brittain, a volunteer who runs the community kitchen.
Community kitchens like this have been around for years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It used to be that they operated strictly with staff members teaching people how to cook, prepare and plan meals and overseeing their work.
But now residents are being trained to run their own programs in three of the neighbourhood’s numerous community kitchens, as agencies are pressed to provide more services and as they look for ways to give their residents more autonomy.
- 15 organizations run community kitchens
- 45,000 meals are prepared within DECK’s community kitchens
- 53 per cent of Downtown Eastside hotel residents have taken part in community kitchens
- 8 in 10 people consume healthier food after joining a community kitchen
- 24 organizations offer free meals
- 5 organizations offer low-cost meals
- 3 stores offer low-cost food.
The power of nutrition
At the Neighbourhood House, Sarah and two of her friends decide what to cook, for Wednesdays’ drop-in lunch.
They have several hundred pounds of veggies and fruits donated every week and it’s up to them to decide how to prepare them. They cook together with other members of the community and they also take some food home.
Sarah used to live in a shelter and was dependent on alcohol. Now she runs the kitchen at least twice a week.
“This helps me to build my confidence. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here, about myself and about appreciating food,” she said.
“I didn’t even know that a lot of food that I’ve been eating wasn’t good for me and that just stopped.”
Peer support works
That idea of peer-run kitchens, already in operation at the neighbourhood house, is about to launch in another organization.
For more than 10 years, the Downtown Eastside Community Kitchens Project has visited single-room-occupancy hotels to prepare and serve healthy meals.
The weekly sessions are a success, but the organizers wanted to do more. So, with a small staff, they started to get creative. The idea for a peer-run program was born.
The first step has been training SRO staff. Those people have then been training residents throughout the fall, with more to come.
“No later than January we are going to hold seminars for the life skills workers on food safe, community kitchen leadership, cooking skills, etc. Once they do that, they have to run at least two more kitchens a week. We’ll give them the ingredients,” said Leo Ramírez, the program’s coordinator. They’ll cook the meals.
The training is flexible and ongoing in order to accommodate residents who have challenges. The most motivated residents can complete courses to formalize their leadership roles.
“We have the kitchen running by four or five people and we feed like 20 people. Every week we sit and plan what will be done the next week,” said Karl Wester, a resident at Woodward’s social housing.
Wester is in charge of organizing breakfast and he also coordinated Thanksgiving dinner. “We had two turkeys and I carved them up, served them up and I was so happy. There are advantages working in the kitchen but this is about responsibility. Coming to it every day, whether I feel like it or not, because people are counting on it,” he said.
A few blocks away from Woodward’s, Watari Counselling and Support Services Society hosts a peer-run community kitchen as well. Pupusas, guacamole and stewed beans are on the menu all prepared by Latin-American residents in the DTES.
“We start from the principle of not giving them the fish but teaching them how to fish,” said Byron Cruz, one of the organizers.
Watari staff believe learning to cook and working together in a community kitchen is about gaining independence. The participants still rely on food donations, but they are able to take that food and make it their own.
“This is different from standing in a food line,” said Cruz. “This gives you a sense of ownership with what you eat and teaches you skills. You can see it now: everyone knows what they have to do, we don’t have to be looking out for them.”