Community & Current Events

Collective kitchens: The power of cooking

By: Robin Stevenson

Photography by Zoe Alexopoulos Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Zoe Alexopoulos

Community & Current Events

Collective kitchens: The power of cooking

By: Robin Stevenson
The kitchen isn't just where meals are made—it's the heart of a home, a place for family and friends to come together. So, too, with community and collective kitchens in neighbourhoods across Canada.

The mission of a community kitchen is simple, says Nick Saul, president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada: "It is to develop a public space where individuals can come together to cook healthy meals, connect with neighbours, learn new skills and share recipes."

Two kinds of kitchens
There are two distinct models for these nonprofit communal spaces: community kitchens and collective kitchens. But the goal of both—promoting self-sufficiency—is the same.

Collective kitchens: This model started in 1982 in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve area of Montreal, where three neighbourhood women came together to save on grocery bills and plan and prepare meals. In a collective kitchen, a small group of people pools time, money and skills. Together, they determine the recipes and quantities, compile grocery lists, and shop for ingredients, all with an eye to value. After preparing the meals together, they divide them into multiple portions to enjoy at home. In most cases, each portion rings in at about $1 per serving.

Community kitchens:
The focus of these kitchens is on education. Participants cook meals while learning about access to healthful food, food preparation and community resources. Many operate out of community centres, churches or schools. In contrast to the collective model, the food here is provided. Participants wash and chop vegetables, while others help prepare meat or other main ingredients. Once the meal is ready, everybody sits down together to enjoy the delicious fruits of their labour.

The people who take part are diverse: families, single parents, seniors, teenagers, and all ethnic backgrounds. These kitchens are for anyone interested in enjoying a better quality of life through good food. At the same time, many kitchens have groups tailored to the specific needs of the community, from men's and widowers' cooking groups to ones for vegetarians, seniors, moms and people living with diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension.

Everyone come to the table

Feeling welcome to join in the ritual of meal preparation is a key philosophy, says Michel Raymond, a participant and volunteer at the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve kitchen. "Cooking used to be a way to bring people together. This gives us the potential to bring it back," says the single dad, who started at the kitchen as part of a fathers' group and is now looking for full-time employment in the culinary field. "Here, you share your lives. It's a place to provide respect and be respected. It is neutral ground."

Paulet Slyfield-Bannister, who participates in a cooking program at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, also enjoys the camaraderie of cooking. "I feel comfortable here. I felt that the first time I came here four years ago," she says. At first, she attended the "Food, Family, Fun" class—for parents and caregivers of young children—just "to talk to adults" while her children received on-site care. But with each visit, her cooking skills, which had been decent, increased, as did her knowledge of healthful food choices. "My family now eats roasted chickpeas and kale chips thanks to the recipes I learned here," she says.
    
The power of good food

As Saul notes, our society is under a lot of pressure: We are short on time and often money, too. "Food costs are on the rise, and this can lead people to eat foods that may be inexpensive and convenient, but not particularly healthy," he says.

According to Statistics Canada, food costs in Canada have risen five percent in the past three years. Rates of heart disease and other diet-related illnesses are at historic highs. More than nine million Canadians have diabetes or pre-diabetes, some of which can be linked to unhealthy eating. The kitchens are working to change all this. In a recent survey conducted at three food centres in Ontario, 85 percent of participants reported cooking more healthful meals at home than before, and 91 percent said they are now more confident in the kitchen.

Collective kitchens across Canada
From east to west, the number of community and collective kitchens is growing. In Quebec, where the collective kitchen tradition is strongest, there are more than 1,300, while British Columbia has at least 300 community kitchens. It's a positive trend, says Saul, not only for the participants, but for the larger communities they serve. "The kitchens are places where people can feel less isolated and make new friendships," he says. "The hope is that these same feelings extend out into the neighbourhood and beyond."

This building stronger communities series is brought to you in partnership with IOGO.

Learn more about collective or community kitchens in your area.
                                               
This story was originally titled "More Hands" in the May 2014 issue.
           
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Collective kitchens: The power of cooking

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