Democratizing Our Food in Pandemic Times: A Proposal for Community Kitchens and Food Distribution
Updated: Aug 4
Themes: Food Security, Economy, Solidarity, Education and Learning, Enterprise
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused as many as 1 in 10 restaurants in Canada to close their businesses permanently. Restaurant closures have left more than 800,000 employees out of work across Canada. They have also left unused spaces and equipment in many prime areas, and resulted in massive amounts of food surplus and waste. Particularly in Toronto, permanently closed restaurants are concentrated in downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, as can be seen in the following map. We believe closed down restaurant sites could be transformed into Community Kitchens and Food Distribution Centers throughout Toronto to help support and meet the communities’ needs, reduce unemployment rates in the restaurant industry and to repurpose excess food from suppliers. To do so, we propose that restaurants reopen with governmental support using a work share program to promote and foster a more democratic workplace where employees and community members are empowered to participate and shape decision making to meet their needs. We explore this proposal through a video podcast (Appendix A) where we will discuss the reopening of restaurants as Community Kitchens and Distribution Centres, as well as reclaimed spaces focusing on food redistribution. Our video podcast also features videos, infographics, and other resources to support our proposal.
Re-thinking the Restaurant Industry and Why This is Important
In this section, we explore food insecurity during COVID-19, considering the demographics of poverty, food-related assistance and the wasted food in local farms. We believe that Community Kitchens and Food Distribution Centers can foster an increased sense of community and establish an idea of common needs, allowing for more democratic forms of social organization and solidarity to be practiced, becoming educational experiences. We see this as the first step towards recovering the city as a common space and the neighborhood as communities of solidarity.
COVID-19 has increased the demand of food banks by at least 53%. However, due to social distancing measures and other policies that help prevent the spread of the virus, 40% of the food banks have closed and are unavailable to meet this increasing demand. In other words, food insecurity is dramatically increasing in Toronto, while services to mitigate it are being forced to close. At the same time, it is important to consider the existing inequality in food access within Toronto. Groups more prone to food insecurity are Black and Indigenous households, recent immigrants and people with disabilities (Daily Bread, 2019). Another important consideration are the barriers to accessing food banks, including fear of stigma, lack of knowledge of the services and identity concerns (Daily Bread, 2019).
At the same time, and due to the preventive measures for COVID-19, restaurants have closed their doors to customers. While some restaurants have relied on delivery services to retain some revenue, many of them risk permanent closures, however, as overall revenues in a sector with already tight profit-margins have fallen dramatically. According to Restaurants Canada (2020), the food industry has lost 800,000 jobs since March 1, 2020 and approximately 1 in 10 restaurants have already closed permanently nationwide.
To add more concern for the food industry, farmers and suppliers are destroying lost crops and euthanizing animals across the country because of the decrease in demand (Akin, 2020). Milk, potatoes and meat are some of the products being wasted due to the reduced number of purchasers for their products, primarily restaurants and large institutions (Akin, 2020). With the uncertainty of the market, farmers are planning a reduction of the crops for the next year, threatening the food sovereignty of the country (Akin, 2020). As McGregor (2020) explains, the agroindustry is facing a shortage of workers to harvest crops, since COVID-19 measures prevented some seasonal agricultural workers from entering Canada and this could equal up to 50% loss of production.
Understanding Community Kitchens
During the pandemic, empty and unused spaces have been converted to meet community needs. For instance, The Scotiabank Arena has converted into a massive kitchen to serve people in need and public libraries across Toronto have been functioning as food banks (Davidson, 2020). Similar to these initiatives, we propose converting restaurants that are closed into Community Kitchens and Food Distribution Centres to meet immediate needs of food shortages and financial difficulties during the pandemic.
Community kitchens not only have economic benefits preventing the loss of jobs and hunger, but they also enable individuals and communities to exercise solidarity and build community. As Phillips et al. (2020) point out, the actions emerging in response to the pandemic can bring out the best of humanity and bring communities together to organize resources and meet common needs. Community kitchens have a long history in Latin America, where they have been a space of organization and survival for marginalized communities since the 1980s (Hardy, 1986). Ollas comunes (communal pots) revitalizes the idea that everyone has something to contribute to the community, even if it is not a directly monetary contribution. These ollas comunes are the starting point for bigger organizations, empowering community members through encounters with one another who have the same needs. Hardy (1986) points out that coming together over food also meets other vital needs such as participation, connection and a sense of belonging. For Hardy, community kitchens also imply a shift from passively accepting poverty to an active disposition to re shape reality, not as individuals but as communities. Hardy explored community kitchens as places where people can overcome the fear of feeling isolated, realizing that poverty and hunger is a shared experience produced by a systemic problem and not a result of a lack of abilities of the individual. Part of the efficiency and richness of community kitchens comes from the emotional experience of participating within the initiatives. Additionally, they enable individuals to understand the context of inequality in society. From the perspective of De Sousa Santos (2014), the experience is transformative as it brings hope in the compassionate encounter with equal others. Using community kitchens as a way to face hunger in Toronto means giving tools to the dispossessed to redefine themselves as empowered.
In the context of the city of Toronto, we think that community kitchens can be the first step to encourage grass root organizations in recognizing that we live interconnected lives and have similar needs. Community kitchens can be a space of recognition of the other and a small-scale practice of living together. According to Mychajluk (2017), living together is a concept we need to learn to develop a cooperative culture. In Mychailuk’s (2017) terms, community kitchens can become educational spaces where social relationships and the connection with the city are experienced in a new form.
To further enable our proposal of Community Kitchens and Food Distribution Centres, we encourage restaurants to also rethink the concept of space. To adhere to physical distancing measures, restaurants can repurpose their seating spaces and patios for various activities. In addition, as we’ve learnt from the Toronto King Street pilot, public spaces such as sidewalks and parking lots can also be repurposed innovatively (City of Toronto, nd). Restaurants can use these spaces to provide activities such as:
· Physically distanced spaces for food sharing
· Additional space for food packaging resulting in increased productivity
· Additional cooking stations resulting in increased productivity
· Selling of in-house products
· Community networking and training opportunities
We hope these spaces would foster a sense of community and enable people to cooperate with one another and across sectors.
Operationalizing Community Kitchens and Food Distribution Centres
To operationalize the Community Kitchens and Food Distribution Centres, we propose re-hiring restaurant employees through a work-share program. Through the program, employers would provide a lower compensation rate to their workers and the government would provide partial employment insurance, in proportion to workers reduced salaries (Abraham & Houseman, 2020). The work-share program would allow for restaurant employees to maintain their jobs during the pandemic, and use their skill sets to serve the immediate and growing needs of the community. It also enables employers and owners to maintain their businesses during these difficult times without incurring the additional costs of employing new talent. The program would also reduce unemployment rates during a crisis, which has myriad negative short and long term effects on individuals’ physical and mental well being and for the economy as a whole (Abraham & Houseman, 2020).
In a time where there is vital need for food and nutrition in the face of a massive shortage in the provision of this basic human need, it is absolutely irrational for suppliers and farmers to be throwing away or destroying their excess products due to a decrease in demand. We believe our proposal can target this misalignment between supply and demand in the city. Community Kitchens and Distribution Centres can work directly with suppliers to redirect their surplus products, such as dairy, potatoes and meat. In a recent article, Akin (2020) states that “the problem for potato growers is too many potatoes have been grown that were destined to be served as French fries in restaurants that are now closed.” and “now those who harvest fish and shellfish are worried they will not be able to maintain production because of COVID-19 safety requirements as well as the drop in demand from the food service industry”. As restaurant employees already possess the skills and restaurants the equipment, they would collectively be able to create innovative menus that can use surplus agricultural products. With a healthier level of demand from community kitchens, suppliers will be able to at least break even, working in alternating shifts to allow for physical distancing measures.
The Work-Share Program
As Wire (2020) explores, the 2007-2008 recession work-share programs saved more than half a million jobs in the US. In California alone, 356,571 employees were on a work-share program in 2009 and 2010. Wire describes that during our current pandemic, work-share programs have been used across various sectors in California, such as in manufacturing, retail and the restaurant sector, to name a few. Even though work-share programs are not a new concept and were in fact first introduced in California in 1978, many employers are still not aware of this alternative to layoffs (Wire, 2020).
During the pandemic, restaurants will have to alter their standard operations to better support immediate community needs which will result in an increase of old and new tasks. This restructuring will open opportunities for members of the community to participate in the Community Kitchens and Distribution Centres operations. Emergent tasks could include: distribution of foods to those unable to leave their homes, sanitization of products, packaging, as well as support with restaurant functions allowing employees to work reduced hours or on alternating days or weeks to allow social distancing and avoid the spread of the virus. By empowering members of the community and letting them be receivers and givers of help, this participatory model can break some of the barriers of accessing food banks (Daily Bread, 2020).
As demonstrated in recent months during the COVID-19 pandemic in Montreal, restaurant employees and chefs have stepped into various roles to support food banks and community kitchens (Campbell & Kovac, 2020). However, with the increase in demand, these organizations have not been able to meet all of the community needs and some were forced to close down due to physical distancing requirements and reduced number of volunteers. But the work they have been able to carry out is very promising. Chefs and restaurant employees already have the skill sets to quickly be able to come to the support of food banks and similar services (Campbell & Kovac, 2020). The Montreal initiatives illustrate the participation and community cooperation we hope to promote in the Community Kitchens and Food Distribution Centres in Toronto. Times of crisis naturally bring people together, however by fostering a cooperative and learning environment, we hope those revamped restaurants will become a starting point for new and increased cooperation across communities in Toronto.
Education needs to play a crucial role when creating a more equitable and sustainable workplace model. Specifically, in this section we look at educational practices needed in relation to the model we are proposing for the transformation of current unused restaurant space. It is important that the workers and communities around these recuperated restaurant spaces are provided with education on why more democratic workplaces are needed. Furthermore, we suggest that introducing and practicing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) techniques within this newly formed Community Kitchens and Distribution Centres will help to enhance and sustain effective communication.
In a 1982 essay entitled “Necessary Elements for Effective Worker Participation in Decision-Making”, Paul Bernstein already suggested that it had been the assumption for several decades already that physical work and “brainwork” should be separated. This is a foundational way of organizing capitalist workplaces. Bernstein critiques the widespread practice of managers assigning specific duties to workers, and that the most efficient way to get work done is for each person to specialize in one small aspect of the work. As Bernstein underscored:
Weberian views of rational administrative systems…held that the most efficient performance of subordinates would be obtained by the increasing the organization’s degree of standardization, impersonality, specialization, routine, formal regulations, and promotion through levels of hierarchy to create a career. (Bernstein, 1982, p. 49)
Unfortunately, this is still the way many organizations are run, especially in sectors with recurring tasks, such as in restaurants. In the restaurant industry, jobs are often broken down into specific, production-line tasks – for example, dish washer, chef, waiter, manager, and so on – and organizational decisions are made only by the managers and/or owners. Why must the employees be disengaged from the decision-making process? We believe kitchens, too, could be run in more democratic ways, as worker-recuperated cooperative restaurants in Argentina have shown in recent years (Vieta, 2020).
As we live through this pandemic crisis, it is important that we learn from previous crises. The 2007-2008 recession that impacted the economy on a global scale, proved that cooperatives could withstand economic instability and crisis better than the private sector (Webb & Cheney, 2014). This could be due to the underlying principles of cooperatives not being centered around profit and production. Co-operative businesses value community and employee needs, member participation and democratic member control, to name a few (Webb & Cheney, 2014). Perhaps the starting point to a more democratic society is building Community Kitchens and Distribution Centres that are run through cooperation and that focus on meeting community needs rather than maximizing profit.
As we look at ways to repurpose unused restaurant spaces, it is important that we also address ways that reopening these spaces as a more democratic organization will be beneficial for the workers. One of the first steps will include workers understanding that they deserve and should be included in decision-making! Bernie Sanders in a podcast interview with Michael Moore (2020), spoke about the need for the general public to realize that they deserve better inclusivity in the workplace. Sanders and Moore (2020) discussed how today’s neoliberal capitalism relies on people not fighting back against the inequity and inequality of the current workplace hierarchy. They also highlighted how we have all been taught to believe that we do not deserve to participate in organizational decisions and that workers must just do their job and leave important decision-making to organizational leaders. We believe the first step is to help rehired restaurant workers who will staff these communal kitchen spaces understand that they deserve and should be involved in decision making. Education and training for working in these communal kitchen spaces will thus focus on the more equal system of “one-person one-vote” that is employed by cooperatives for broader decisions that impact the entire workplace, while relegating smaller jobs and taks to the responsibility of specialist workteams (Webb & Cheney, 2014). The hope is that through the realization of their worth and their right to be involved in decision-making, restaurant workers will be more invested in creating and maintaining a democratized workplace now and in the future.
Additionally, we envision using many of the communication techniques involved in Non-Violent Communication teachings to build workplace solidarity and to conduct training. Our hope is to provide training sessions in how to appropriately use these techniques within the workplace, and beyond. We have seen through the ecovillage examples of Dancing Rabbit, Twin Oaks, and Whole Village, that on-going personal and community development programing is very important for maintaining a healthy organization (Mychajluk, 2017).
Furthermore, we would like these newly formed Community Kitchens and Distribution Centres to serve as examples of how other organizations and businesses can have more democratized workplaces. Therefore, the Community Kitchens and Distribution Centres initiative itself will serve as an educational space for its workers and the broader community to facilitate and further nurture future democratic workplaces. Thus, a high-level goal of ours is have these organizations become inspirational leaders and a place of training for other organizations that have had to shut down due to COVID-19 or due to other crises and are looking to revitalize their workplaces, convert them to cooperatives, or to start new democratic organizations.
We end with a quote by sociologist Boaventura De Sousa Santos from his book Epistemologies of the South: “... it is possible to fight aircraft-carrier-ideas with kite-ideas, even though an aircraft carrier is an aircraft carrier and a kite is a kite” (2014, p. 4). There is hope for these small and radical seeming ideas to flourish and triumph over the aircraft carrier ideologies of neoliberal capitalism. We aim to start with the transformation of unused restaurant spaces into Community Kitchens and Distribution Centres, with the goal of demonstrating how communities can work together to create a more democratic society, and what De Sousa Santos, borrowing from Indigenous Quechua teachings, so aptly describes as buen vivir, or good living.
Multimedia contribution: a podcast on Democratizing our Food
YouTube Public Access: https://youtu.be/Kks9YJmLftI
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