They didn’t need a recipe for lentil shepherd’s pie. What I learned about fighting poverty at cooking class

This column is an opinion by advocate and educator Miriam Bankey. For more information about CBC’s Opinion sectionplease see the FAQ.

When I think back to the beginning of my nutrition career, I was certain that by teaching people the proper internal temperature to cook a chicken or how to read a nutrition label, they would somehow be lifted out of their state of food insecurity.

Looking back, I can see how wrong I was. We are fed a myth that people with low incomes must lack skills or resilience, but I quickly learned that the people who I was “teaching” were anything but lacking.

I think back to one of the early food skill classes I taught. It was a typical frosty February Calgary morning. The lesson that day was on healthy recipe modification — how to cut out the meat and use a more affordable protein. We were making lentil shepherd’s pie with a potato and cauliflower topping.

Participants began arriving as the oven was preheating and starting to frost up the windows. They tossed giant parkas and mittens on the old leather couch, unbundled their children and the quiet room quickly turned into a space filled with laughter and hellos.

Having taken public transit, a dozen classmates chatted about their frosty commutes and discussed the family recipes they were planning to teach the following week. Besrat told the group about injera (a delicious Ethiopian bread), and Ade piped up about her groundnut (peanut) stew recipe that would be so nice on a cold day like today.

The group oohed and aahed and shared in their excitement.

I looked around the room in awe, amazed by these inspiring humans who crossed the city in a deep freeze to build friendships and share skills. Did they really need my shepherd’s foot?

Miriam Bankey started her career in food-related assistance by offering cooking classes. (Submitted by Miriam Bankey)

These women already had amazing food skills and were experts in budgeting. What they didn’t have was money or fair economic opportunities.

In the emergency food assistance sector, we talk at length about different approaches to addressing food insecurity. We struggle with the tension between addressing immediate needs versus tackling root causes. But these are not either/or issues. We need to do both.

I think a lot about the wise words and call-to-action of Nick Saul, head of Community Food Centers Canada: “If you frame the problem as hunger, you gravitate quite quickly to a response based on food, which gets you quite quickly If you frame the issue as poverty, you start to talk about public policy, and then you start to talk about the basic human right to food, so that’s a very important distinction to make between hunger and poverty.”

According to Statistics Canada, more than one in seven Canadians are experiencing difficulty putting food on the table, and that is a conservative estimate.

This is a grim statistic. And if you look around, you can see how motivated people are to help when we see our neighbors in need. We react to this by addressing the immediate need of hunger with hot meals, bagged lunches, hampers, accessible community fridges and food drives.

Thank goodness for the recent announcement of $10 a day child care.-Miriam Bankey

But this support must be done with dignity. They are the true experts in their own lives. We need to ask our neighbors what it is that they want and if they want us to come along with them.

As a community, we must advocate for change, make noise about poverty and food insecurity issues and then link those stories back to public discourse.

Now, over a decade since I first started working in Calgary’s not-for-profit food sector, I am continually reminded that my misconceptions about what people needed weren’t my ideas so much as a story I had been told about poverty.

People are not experiencing food insecurity because they need help budgeting or because they have made poor lifestyle choices. People are struggling because of low wages, inadequate social assistance rates and unaffordable housing and child care. Thank goodness for the recent announcement of $10 a day child care as we know single parents and low-income women are disproportionately experiencing food insecurity.

This is not a “them” issue, it is an “us” problem. Together, we can work toward our collective end goal: a city, a world where everyone has equitable access to nutritious, safe and culturally-appropriate food, and where we work to build communities that are strong, vibrant and not reliant on charitable offerings.

I started my career thinking food skills classes could solve hunger. Food skill classes may bring us together, but only income-based policy solutions will solve food insecurity.

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