Sunday-Cooking at the Shelter
What working in Toronto’s Out in the Cold taught me about the challenges of serving healthy food to those who need it most
Serving healthy food to those who need it most.
What I like about cooking in a shelter is the demand for improvisation. I’ve cooked in restaurants, a spa, a dinner theatre, and in my home for my wife, my friends and my family. I have cooked, as well, for newspaper readers, rigorously testing recipes with a stopwatch to make sure the results can be duplicated.
At home, you plan meals, go grocery shopping and then cook. The process is a privilege—an experience to be savoured if you’re fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury of time and money.
When cooking in a restaurant, at the end of a shift you make a list of any ingredients you’re short on. You call in orders and everything shows up the next morning neatly packed in boxes. If something doesn’t look good or isn’t what you ordered, you send it back. Then you spend five hours furiously prepping for dinner service.
The production demands of a shelter kitchen are similar in some ways— high volume, short deadlines. But the supply side of things is different, which changes everything. You never know what you’ll have to work with.
THE OUT OF THE COLD kitchen at Toronto’s University Settlement recreation centre, where I cook on Sundays, is run by Monique McBean. In addition to preparing food at the shelter, the 43-year-old is also the chef at her sister’s restaurant, Nice n Easy. If she’s in a good mood, she greets me as “honey” or “sweetheart.” She asks how my wife is and hugs me enthusiastically. If she just waves or calls me “boss,” I know she worked past 2 a.m. last night, maybe as late as 4 a.m.
For a few hours every Sunday, I stop checking my phone. I catch up with McBean. I show her pictures of the kittens we’re fostering, and she shows me pictures of her grandchild. The basement kitchen is small, with a lot of space taken up by a six-burner stove. As we cook, we listen to a local call-in show that tends to showcase Caribbean-Canadian voices. McBean shares Jamaican cooking tips: how to use browning sauce (caramelized and burnt brown sugar) or how to make rice and peas (I didn’t know how essential coconut milk is). While we prep, elderly Chinese men play ping-pong in an adjacent room, cheering after each point. Later in the day, the space is transformed into a dining hall.
When I began volunteering here in January 2017, McBean would give me a breakdown of what she had cooking and what she wanted me to make. These days, she just tells me to make whatever I want from what we have, and enough to feed 85 people.
Until I show up, I don’t know what’s going to be in the fridge. But whatever it is, we need to make at least two dishes containing protein, starch and vegetables. Our goal is not just to fill
stomachs, but to treat clients with dignity. And that can mean the dignity of having a choice, or of seeing that someone cares enough to cook food that both looks and tastes appetizing.
For me, having no control over the ingredients is refreshing. For a few hours on Sundays, it’s therapeutic to relinquish my need to control things, particularly food. The problem is that for the people who eat here, unpredictability is not a pleasure.
WE UNDERSTAND THAT FOOD INSECURITY MAKES IT MORE DIFFICULT FOR PEOPLE TO MANAGE CHRONIC HEALTH PROBLEMS.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Nick Saul, CEO of Community Food Centres Canada. “When you’re shooting in the dark like that, it’s liberating for you. But there’s also something that’s fundamentally wrong that you’re not able to plan and think about who is walking through the door and curate a meal that reflects their cultural backgrounds or their health needs.”
Saul operates upstream in the food insecurity ecosystem, where the focus is on teaching people to cook and garden, while advocating for access to good food. At University Settlement, we are serving people at the emergency level. Clients tend to be over 50 years old and are dealing with mobility problems, joint pain and arthritis. They also face homelessness, addiction and all the related health issues of food insecurity—like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, back pain, bowel disorders and asthma.
I just cook here. I don’t serve dinner. But we often get someone knocking at the kitchen door, asking for food. They’re usually polite. And McBean knows they likely haven’t eaten all day. She makes sure everyone has something to eat. We’ll fix up a plate of whatever is ready, but it’s usually insufficient to address their larger dietary needs.
Food insecurity makes it more difficult for people to manage chronic health problems. In turn, health care costs for food insecure households in Ontario are more than double those of households that have enough to eat, according to 2015 statistics from Food Insecurity Policy Research. That’s why it’s so vital that we serve guests a balanced meal with fresh ingredients and diversity, and avoid the pitfall of too much rice and pasta, which are inexpensive but lacking in nutrients.
ON FRIDAYS, Saturdays and Sundays, the centre offers a bed, dinner and breakfast to 85 people (with Friday service pausing between June and
September). The annual food budget is $50,000, provided by the City of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration. We’re pretty frugal with ingredients. The small jug of cooking oil does not get splashed around. Cleaning supplies come out of the food budget, so we dilute soap with water and use a sponge until it disintegrates in order to make sure that every dollar ends up on the plate.
SOME WEEKS WE’LL GET MOULDING CARROTS. OTHER WEEKS IT’S HEIRLOOM TOMATOES IN NEARPRISTINE SHAPE.
Roughly 75 per cent of the staples we need to have on hand (milk, eggs, chicken, fish, apples, bread, etc.) are purchased. The protein we work with is likely to be a tube of ground beef or a frozen brick of chicken legs. McBean likes to turn the chicken into a Jamaican curry. When she’s sick, different chefs lend their own cultural influences to the food. Bernie, who is Filipino, makes adobo chicken, simmering the legs in vinegar, soy sauce and sugar. Ritsuko falls back on Japanese staples like nikujaga, a meat and potato stew.
This is supplemented with food donated by two local organizations: dry goods from Daily Bread Food Bank and fresh produce from Second Harvest Food Rescue. Some weeks we get random meats—cellophane-wrapped packages of beef, pork or lamb in various stages of colour and smell, stickered with labels proclaiming “40% Off.” With the rescued meat, I smell every piece before stripping them from the bone to make a stew. Most of it is still good. It just needs to be cooked and eaten right away.
There’s even less predictability to the produce, which comes from the same two organizations. But that’s the most important part of the meal, as it’s likely the food group our clients have the least access to. Some weeks we’ll get a case of half-rotted Swiss chard or moulding carrots. Other weeks it’s ripe heirloom tomatoes or small bags of Persian cucumbers, in near-pristine shape—a lucky haul from some upscale supermarket, where less than perfect produce is unsellable.
There are always technical difficulties, which sometimes threaten the goal of getting dinner on the table. We are cooking out of a tiny, unventilated kitchen in an old building. Half of the stove’s elements don’t work. One week the basement flooded. Our sinks are insufficient for large batch cooking, and there’s no room or equipment to save food through freezing, pickling or curing. When we get meat bones, we
should be making stock for soup, but we have no freezer space.
That’s the biggest challenge, says manager Toby Druce, who has been looking into leasing a chest freezer because the annual budget has no room for a purchase. “The Second Harvest food, we end up throwing a lot of it out,” he says. “Partly because it’s already started to rot. But if we had the ability to process the food as it came in and freeze it, that would be really helpful.”
ONE WEEK McBEAN asked me to make something with frozen haddock. There were onions, carrots and peppers, too, and a handful of pork sausages. So I cooked a roux and built it into what we called “shelter gumbo.” McBean is my Yelp, convening reviews of last week’s meal. The gumbo was a hit and has gone into regular rotation.
Three years ago, on a trip to New Orleans, someone gave me a gallon jar of crawfish boil seasoning. It’s incredibly salty and spicy—so much so that I’ve only used half of it. I bring it with me to University Settlement and use some to finish the dish that has become a staple of the kitchen. Some weeks we have potatoes, and I boil those down until they thicken the broth. Some weeks it gets bumped up with lamb or pork sausages. Our “shelter gumbo” may lack shrimp and okra, but I think it’s a delicious and economical use of frozen fish and whatever vegetables I can manage to sneak into the dish.
Nobody should have to depend on a shelter for food. But in our current system, it makes me happy to know that at least people look forward to the cooking from our kitchen.