By Victoria teBrake
Victoria: Remember that time when you just stepped off the plane and you knew, without a doubt, you were back in Canada because you were greeted by a Tim Hortons? Or how about that sad moment in the university term when you realize the funds on your meal plan don’t actually last forever? You start getting real familiar with the value picks menu at Wendy’s. Then, there’s always that one international friend who asks you to try one of their snacks. You, wanting to be cultured, readily agree. But you’re not quite sure what’s inside the packaging because the outside is written in a foreign language. Soon after, you realize you made a mistake because the texture is weirdly similar to the air tight packaging. So yeah, we’ve all had a little taste of what it’s like for our food choices to be compromised, and can certainly appreciate the flavours that remind us of home. But what about a refugee? When they come to Canada, they need something from back home that’s familiar to them. Sorry Tim’s, you just don’t cut it.
Intro: Welcome to a Place for Passion. A podcast where York’s University Professional Writing students explore the contributions their cities’ residents have made by making their passion projects come true.
Victoria: Hi, I’m Victoria. This is a story of how one organization’s passion smashes cultural borders to tackle one of the world’s most common insecurities, food. We’ll be joined by Luke Wilson: he’s the Ontario director of AROCHA in Hamilton. Their aim to uproot food insecurity is cultivated through the Earth to Table program. We’ll explore how their teams gets their hands dirty to help refugees access familiar food and learn the menu of a foreign country. Luke thanks for being here,
Luke: You’re welcome.
Victoria:...And helping us answer some of these questions...Now let’s rewind a little bit and lay some basic groundwork.
The words ‘immigrant’ and ‘refugee’ are often confused, but they aren’t the same thing. The main difference is between choice and force. An immigrant chooses to settle in another country. A refugee is forced to flee (Government of Canada, 2016). This sudden escape is typically caused by war or political unrest. Both reasons are foreign to us in Canada. But for refugees arriving here, everything is foreign. They feel insecure and vulnerable. This also describes the condition of many neighbourhoods refugees find themselves living in, at least at first. Take Beasley for example, which is located just northeast of downtown Hamilton. Beasley is part of a Code Red report, which is a report that highlights major inequalities in Hamilton neighbourhoods. The local newspaper published it so readers could easily understand the sources leading to poor health (DeLuca, Buist, & Johnston, 2012).
Luke: And I think that the general theme that came out that, was that this [Beasley] was a really underprivileged neighbourhood with people that had high food insecurity.
Victoria: So with reports such as the Code Red and other background research, the board at AROCHA decided that Hamilton was the perfect fit.
Luke: From the very beginning AROCHA is committed to being in a place…in a local context.
Victoria: Simply put, they meet individuals where they are at, regardless of their situation.
Almost 6 in 10 Beasley residents live on incomes below the poverty line; that’s a lot. To make matters worse, it is also considered one of Hamilton’s “arrival neighbourhoods” (Mayo, 2012, pp. 9-10). This is a neighbourhood that people don’t want to be associated with. And so Luke and his team didn’t just look at these stats and say, “This community is hopeless!” I mean instead they viewed this neighbourhood as a potential to launch their passion.
Luke: I think the passion there was the refugee crisis in Syria. We kind of had this framework already set up, and then the government announced that they were going to welcome a whole bunch of people to Canada and a lot of those people ended up in Hamilton. We felt like that was a moment where a lot of good things came together, and ya know the passion that we had was realized when that crisis happened. We can actually serve these people really well. And it was like perfect timing. So yeah, there was a lot of neat passion around that.
Victoria: I think for most of us this news brought discomfort. We were scared. Ya know, what are these people going to bring to our country? What kind of alien ideas will they introduce? For AROCHA, this crisis defined the direction of their passion. They were committed to a place. Now, these people were the purpose. But how would this passion help to overcome so many of the challenges refugees face in accessing food in an urban environment? It’s not like there’s no grocery stores in Beasley.
Luke: But when it comes to more local food and doing community gardens, there’s not that much green space [in the city]. Because many of these folks aren’t going to have transportation when they come, they need something that’s close. So walking to the grocery store is possible, but one of the things we found was when they went to the grocery store, the language barrier was a serious problem and they couldn’t find some of the things that they liked in their local dishes.
Victoria: So Luke explains here that even if refugees make it to the grocery store, some of the greatest challenges in accessing food lie within the actual store! I mean doesn’t that sound backwards? This is a task that should be so easy! But we need to understand that most refugees have dietary restrictions linked to their culture. Take Syrians: Islamic tradition requires meat to be slaughtered a certain way. I’ll spare you the details, but we know this as halal. Sometimes halal is chosen for health and taste preferences. But not only that, they also appreciate adding an array of vegetables to their dishes (Syrian Foodie). And for those who do the shopping in the family know, these two ingredients can also be the most expensive!
Luke: And so we helped to bridge that gap by going to the grocery stores with them but then also growing vegetables that they know and like and use in their local dishes. And in terms of the affordability piece, we also connected them with a couple other grocery stores that fit their culture that were more affordable than finding lamb in the Food Basics.
Victoria: So suddenly the Earth to Table program made what seemed impossible, possible once again. They broke these tasks down into bite sized pieces. But the real value of food and identity grew in the community gardens. Laura DeLind believes that gardens create a sense of place. A place that connects us to our past, present, and future (2002).
Luke: One of my favourite stories is…there’s a weed called Porcelain that grows everywhere in gardens here. And ya know we just pick it and throw it in the compost. But one of the families from Afghanistan, the mother, just loves this stuff! And she harvests it everywhere! So she’s doing weeding but she’s actually harvesting this for her soups. She says, “ya now it clears the system.” So basically it’s a laxative but they love it.
Victoria: As you hear Luke and I laughing we sure didn’t know this! It’s different from our ideas, but it’s not bad. In this case it lead to healthier intestines! This refugee took an idea from her past and made it new for us. This space gave her the chance to grow healthy food and feel valued by exchanging ideas.
Hannah: I think that’s where the equal playing field arises because we can grow things with them without necessarily even having to speak a word.
Victoria: That’s Hannah, a former employee at AROCHA. Sometimes the key here in restoring dignity is finding a simple task you can do together. So that despite language barriers or opposing opinions you are meeting in a place, together. Luke reflects on the Sunday night dinners shared together with the refugees:
Luke: And…and food and being around a table together is inherently a communal experience, right? We all need to eat. So it takes the barriers down and you actually get to know and relate people through that…that need….shared need.
Victoria: Food creates an equal playing field. And I think when we strip things simply down to their organic level, we start to view people with a fresh set of eyes. Big surprise, they’re not aliens after all! It forces us to sit at a table together and no matter what side we’re sitting on, to put down our pride, put down our prejudices, and our thoughts of one another and just identify them as a person who has needs and wants.
Luke: So getting to know people creates dignity, and I think what we do together comes out of that. But the model of charity has often been that we think there’s a need and we need to do something about it and then we get to know the people. But people are now starting to realize that, “Hey, there are some real people here that I’m excited to just get to know and not feel like I have to take care of their needs first.” But actually getting to know them is such a dignifying first step.
Victoria: Luke challenges the traditional approach to need. A good doctor doesn’t just prescribe medication for a patient’s physical need. They take different approaches to learn about the patient’s history and personal life. Because patients may have a similar need, but different reasons for ending up in the clinic. The same applies to refugees. I think DeLind says it well. She says,“This sense of belonging, of “we-ness” and community, comes far less from choice than it does from necessity. To live well in community, our individual consumption and acquisition will be reigned in and held by the bonds of inconvenience” (2002, p. 222). Uncomfortable and inconvenient: these two words make us cringe. But, they’re two adjectives that describe the moments where real community and relationship is formed. Because we realize that our views of people may have been wrong and can actually learn something from each other. The words of Mac’s Dunn reveal that, “Food…is about a lot more than calories in” (Hamilton Spectator, 2014). Food defines who you are: how you’re ranked on the social scale. But when you all have equal access to it, AROCHA has discovered that there's just something about food that brings people together. It’s belonging to a community. And once you experience it, you can’t help but ask for seconds!
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Thank you to the following Creative Commons sites: