“Everyone down here spends their lives in a line up”
A reflection on the importance of community kitchens in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
Christopher Puzio is a Masters of Urban Studies (M.Urb) student at Simon Fraser University. From September to December 2015, he worked with the LEDlab to help identify and support opportunities for food-related small businesses born out of community kitchens and community member organizations.
Stacey Bonenfant is a mother of two, a resident of the DTES, and part of Carnegie Community Centre’s Peer Program. For the past 10 years, Stacey has helped to organize and run community kitchens in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I was able to grab a coffee with Stacey on a rainy November afternoon to ask her a few questions about her experience with community kitchens, the Downtown Eastside (DTES), and the impact that income assistance has on the community.
Stacey had a lot of insight to share about the DTES community, but what stuck out to me most was how passionate and selfless Stacey is about her work. The first time I met Stacey, almost everyone stopped to say ‘hi’ and have a short chat with her as we walked for a few blocks to a community kitchen she was helping to organize. It was powerful to see her engaging with the community on such a personal level.
The DTES and Community Kitchens
I sat down with Stacey because I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of how she sees the role of community kitchens in the neighbourhood. “The first thing to understand,” says Stacey, “is that everyone down here spends their lives in a line up”. The demand for services in Vancouver’s DTES is immense, as evidenced by the long lineups outside organizations like the Salvation Army and the Union Gospel Mission.
Amongst DTES kitchens there is a stark difference between community kitchens and serving kitchens. In serving kitchens, Stacey points out, people often get their food, eat it quickly, and leave. Residents using serving kitchens have no choice in what they are being fed or how it is prepared – essentially it is an industrial process of feeding an individual.
The role of community kitchens is to challenge the assembly line mentality of acquiring basic staples like food in the DTES. Rather than getting you in and out as quickly as possible, community kitchens invite their members to come in, talk, cook, and share a social bond over the act of preparing and eating a meal together. There exists a role for both types of kitchens in this community, but as Stacey pointed out to me, the community she works in has demonstrated an appetite for more community kitchen programming and support.
The Diversity of Community Kitchens
Carnegie Community Outreach runs community kitchens in three Single Resident Occupancy hotels in the DTES. The mix of people in community kitchens is always interesting, and Stacey points out that the kitchens she programs and helps to operate are mainly attended by males–a reflection of the male-dominated SRO buildings. The life experiences amongst participants might surprise you as well: as Stacey says “You can always find a member of the community who used to be a Red Seal Chef in any community kitchen down here ”
In Stacey’s opinion, community kitchens not only serve a social function in the community, but they also provide better nutritional variety in their food offerings than might be found in serving kitchens. The Carnegie Outreach community kitchens I have attended offered eclectic and tasty menus ranging from traditional meat and bean chilli to a greek feast of souvlaki, salad, and greek potatoes. A First Nations community kitchen that Carnegie Outreach and Stacey help to organize also features traditional food like bannock and stews for their residents to cook. Stacey recalls a story from her work at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House where the members there were enthralled and fell in love with making and eating hummus. Sharing culinary experiences is something that brings people together, this is the social benefit that community kitchens promote and deliver to their members.
Income Assistance and Community Kitchens
Since beginning my work in the Downtown Eastside, I’ve learned about the interesting neighbourhood dynamic created by monthly income assistance payments on activities like community kitchens. Stacey notices a drastic decline in kitchen participation every 3rd week of the month, Stacey simply states: “People are too busy living life”. Alongside the low participation rates during income assistance week, the Vancouver Food Bank shuts its doors during the 3rd week of every month and consequently community members receiving income assistance must spend their own money on food and groceries for that week at places they might not be able to afford. Originally intended as a “band-aid solution”, the Food Bank is increasingly relied upon by the working poor and low income families – groups who traditionally did not utilize the Food Bank before.
The Future of Community Kitchens
Although the popularity of community kitchens is increasing, Stacey told me that there are still barriers to overcome in order to fully realize their potential for individuals and the community. For example, many kitchens are currently run by peers on a part time basis, and core staff people would help to increase the impacts that community kitchens could have. Space is another challenge: access to low-cost or free spaces would encourage more of these gatherings to take place.
As we were wrapping up our conversation, Stacey shared her belief in the potential of distributing ownership of community kitchens to rest more in the hands of residents. I came away from our conversations interested in the ways the LEDlab could help to realize a shared ownership model of community kitchens that could also be used for making food to sell.
Reflecting back on Stacey’s work and my own experiences with community kitchens, I can’t help but feel there is an opportunity for the City of Vancouver or community organizations to help support and further the development of new and existing community kitchens. Not only do community kitchens provide nutritional needs of community members they also serve as a space for sharing new ideas, developing practical and social skills and creating a sense of togetherness through a shared human bond over cooking a delicious meal together.