Fringe Food

Everything Is Nourishment, Pt. 2

Photo Stephen Cutler

Tacked on a wall inside the NDG Food Depot’s bustling front office is a massive drawing on a white sheet of bristol board. Large, bubbly coloured-marker digits illuminate the wall with a stark calculation: the average 1 1/2 apartment rental price in Montreal, subtracted from the average monthly welfare check.

What remains is—almost exactly—zero dollars.

Though I had arrived at the Depot in order to talk about their community film series on food issues, what I learned was that at the Depot, food, skills, politics and philosophies can never be separated so neatly.

Rather than dwell on the specifics, the Depot’s workshop coordinator Mark Culligan instead offered me a sampling of practical and philosophical reasons as to why this organization continues to matter, well into its 25th year.

“There’s a myth that poor people must make unhealthy food choices,” he said, adding that part of his role at the Depot was to counter these misconceptions.

Though Culligan had a knack for theoretical acuity, he insists that everything he advocates is grounded in what he’s learned on the ground with clients and volunteers. Most notably, perhaps, is his series of Friday-afternoon cooking workshops for Depot clients, which started this past year.

Understanding that this misconception was partly due to the “carb-heavy” food boxes often given out at food banks, Culligan worked with the Depot’s volunteers to help their customers make the most of the ingredients offered in the weekly food boxes. Some of these ingredients—such as dried lentils and brown rice—were cost-efficient, healthy and had a wide range of uses that Culligan hoped to help promote.

But he soon realized that the workshop participants themselves were the ones with the real expertise when it came to these ingredients.

“We regularly have highly skilled people come to see us to feed themselves and their families. For instance, we have doctors in the cooking classes: their qualifications are simply not recognized here. We get professionals of all kinds who cannot find work here, or cannot afford to attain expensive Canadian credentials,” he explained.

In an alternative approach to capitalist ‘charity’ models, the Depot’s cooking classes strive for high levels of both accessibility and knowledge exchange, aiming not to ‘feed the poor’ of the community, but to empower those marginalized by a capitalist system that is leaving them out in the cold.

I met Angeline, a regular participant in the workshops, who told me that she’ll be teaching the next cooking class. Her challenge, she said, will be to teach fellow participants to cook a wholesome dish using almost exclusively the ingredients found in the Depot’s food boxes.

“I’m going to cook a Créole dish,” she said with a bright smile, telling me that she has learned a great deal as a participant in cooking classes—which run the gamut of global cuisine, from Pakistani (chicken pulao, alu chana chaat and halva) to Colombian (arepas). Patting Mr. Culligan on the hand with a laugh, she commended him: “He’s a great cook.”

Though simple enough on the surface, Culligan says that the cooking classes—like the film screenings—speak, essentially, to the Food Depot’s raison d’être.

“[The classes] are about connecting, through enacting oneself on the world. In this case, it’s through enacting one’s own recipe.”

I can’t think of a more concise testament to the connective power of food.