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

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - COREY MINTZ FROM THE LO­CAL

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.


“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.


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.

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