As executive director of The Stop, Nick Saul has brought delicious food and dignity into the discussion about how we address hunger. Starting this fall, he will spearhead the creation of similar community food centres across the country. We caught up with the tireless social-justice junkie at The Stop’s Wychwood Barns location.
You’ve said in the past that food banks aren’t helping reduce hunger. Does that mean that donating to, say, a holiday food drive is a waste of time?
I wouldn’t say it’s a total waste of time. It’s a really complex issue. Food banks have dominated the conversation about how we help to put food on the table for low-income individuals and families for the last 30 years. From my perspective, it’s a model that divides society into the haves and the have-nots. And, of course, it’s a band-aid solution where our governments can say, “Look, hunger isn’t a problem. It’s being taken care of.”
Sort of like throwing powdered milk at the problem and thinking it will go away.
Exactly. The quality of the food is basically salt and fat and sugar, and then you wonder why low-income people are so disproportionately affected by diet-related illness. When I started at The Stop 14 years ago, my first instinct was to look at the existing system from a dignity perspective and see how we could make it better. So much of what we do here is about teaching skills, bringing people together, giving people a sense of purpose and self-worth. These people don’t want handouts—they want to become farmers and cooks and engaged citizens.
It seems like The Stop is a bit of a 10-ring circus. You have a drop-in kitchen, community gardening programs, after-school cooking programs, a weekly farmer’s market, a beer garden…
Yes, you should definitely stop by our beer garden. Every Sunday we invite a different local brewery. It’s a fundraiser and it’s also a lot of fun. That said, you don’t really know The Stop until you’ve been to our other location at Davenport and Symington, which is much grittier and where we work with a much lower-income community.
How are your own farming skills?
In my neighbourhood, they call me the sloppy farmer. I’ve got one of those side houses where the garden is very public and as soon as the triple mix [soil] hit the driveway, all of my Italian and Portuguese neighbours were offering advice. One neighbour started bringing me beans and then he taught me how to cook caldo verde, which is a traditional Portuguese soup. I took him some tomato sauce. I think that really represents the power of food and how it has a way of bringing communities together.
And now the plan is to spread the model nationally?
Yes. Leaving The Stop was a difficult decision, but I’m very excited about the next step, which is to open community food centres like The Stop across the country. I think we’ve created a model that has core principles, but it’s also quite flexible. So when we’re working, for example, in Stratford, we want to make sure that the program is suited to the landscape and community. The goal is to raise $20 million to build 15 of these centres over the next five years.
I’m wondering what you thought of Mayor Bloomberg’s recent bid to ban the sale of sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces at certain restaurants and other venues in New York City.
I say go for it! Totally. We’re not going to change anything by assuming that people can and will change their own habits. We’ve got to lead by regulating this stuff.
But aren’t there some pretty significant nanny state issues on the other side of that coin?
Nanny state! There was a great study done in the States that showed that the marketing budget for one sugar cereal was the same as the entire public health budget in the U.S. This is not an even fight. We’ve got companies out there that are scientifically engineering food that is causing a great deal of damage. We privatize profit and socialize cost. Look at diet-related illness. That’s our bill as taxpayers.
The Big Gulp is often mentioned as part of this discussion, even though the ban doesn’t apply to 7-Eleven stores.
I guess the Big Gulp is sort of symbolic. And when you look at the studies, pop in general is a major contributor to diabetes. Have you seen the size of those things?
I still feel like we’re ignoring the larger issue of individual responsibility.
Yes, but it is addictive, it is cheap, it is everywhere. So maybe the government does need to step in. I think the personal-responsibility thing is a ruse. Billions of dollars are being spent to drive us into the middle aisles of supermarkets—and those middle aisles are terrifying.
Do you have any gastronomic guilty pleasures? Would anyone ever snap you entering a KFC?
Never. I would never go in. Just the smell drives me crazy. My weakness is Swiss Chalet. I remember when I had my appendix out. I was in the hospital and they said I had to have a bowel movement before they would release me. I said, “Well you’ve got me on an IV, so that’s not going to happen. I’ll have a quarter-chicken with fries.” My mom got it and I was released shortly thereafter.
Coffee or tea?
Samora Machel (former president of Mozambique).
Beatles or Stones?
Most watched movie?
Jamie Kennedy or Jamie Oliver?