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Book reviews

The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis, Random House Canada, 2013, 299 pages[Record]

  • Sandra Duric

Located in a public housing development in one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods, Davenport West, today The Stop is recognized as a Community Food Centre, celebrated for its decade-long transformation from an under resourced, depressing handout charity model into a successful, internationally respected emergency food programming model with a second location, The Green Barn, in a desirable, relatively affluent historic district. Central to The Stop’s success, The Green Barn serves as the public fundraising face for a grittier elsewhere reality. Yet, for all its celebrated success, the primary objectives – social equity and food justice – remain frustratingly elusive. At its core, The Stop Community Food Centre perpetuates the two-tier inequitable system that the author and former executive director Nick Saul resoundingly criticizes. From its inception, The Stop was an antipoverty agency and strong critic of the grim, ineffective food bank model: a solution to hunger developed by an American who envisioned a system of food “deposits” and “withdrawals.” By the time Saul arrived, The Stop had become one of Canada’s first food banks, with severely inadequate resources. Saul’s vision of a more just alternative to the food bank model builds on the antipoverty agency’s initial belief that handouts and charity institutionalize food insecurity, thereby systemically perpetuating poverty. In developing the Community Food Centre model, poised to be the exemplar for a national Canadian food justice movement, Saul did not succeed in eliminating the necessity of its food bank program. Consequently, this heartwarming first-person tale is bittersweet. Driven by Saul’s belief in quality of food as a proxy for quality of life and social attitudes, The Stop’s community does achieve better quality food and a better quality of life. Food hampers include healthier, fresher locally sourced organic food instead of packaged, processed empty calories. Members of The Stop gain dignity and empowering food and life skills. What they do not effectively achieve, however, is a seat at the political and economic power luncheons and dinners where policy, the blueprint for our society, is served for dessert. Underlying the Community Food Service model is a troublesome, perhaps unavoidable trade-off that Saul makes to meet his vision of food justice. Moving toward a private-sector, entrepreneurial set of initiatives, such as partnerships with farmers and philanthropic organizations, The Stop is subsidized by lucrative food-related events, relying on profit from its catering services and big-ticket fundraising dinners, dished up by celebrated chefs who work with deliciously fresh, organic ingredients sourced for their flavourful, environmental, and social impact. Government monies, as Saul explains, are at the mercy of political whims and come with strings. What is equally true, and goes unexamined in The Stop, is the very real risk of tying a Community Food Centre to the vagaries of a fickle market economy, especially one dominated by much better funded, politically strategic food corporations that make it their business to partner with government and secure probusiness policies and substantial subsidies. It is easy to lose oneself in the narrative, finessed by the award-winning writer and co-author Andrea Curtis, and to bask in the warm glow of the against-all-odds strides The Stop and its members make to improve their food and lives. It is also preferable for readers to celebrate how a hole-in-the-wall desperate food bank transformed into a well-funded, entrepreneurially savvy mix of gardens, farmers’ markets, and social services that cultivate the health and well-being of its members, than to point out what might be wrong with this self-congratulatory picture. Consider what the authors don’t delve into: global food prices have doubled since 2005; food is a globally traded commodity; aquifers and arable land are …