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Sugar free: inside food banks controversial no junk food policies

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Controversy erupted in August after Ottawa’s Parkdale Food Centre announced it would stop accepting junk food, such as Kraft Dinner and hot dogs, effective immediately. Some wholeheartedly agreed with the centre’s stand; others virulently opposed the new restriction. Those in favour felt, like Karen Secord, Parkdale’s co-ordinator, that food bank users’ health is worth as much as anyone’s, and Parkdale should strive to provide healthy food. Those opposed to the move, however, asked why the food bank felt it had the authority to restrict people’s diet choices. Some former food bank users shared the opinion hotdogs were better than nothing, while others pointed out they didn’t have refrigeration to store so-called healthier food. Yet, for or against, and whether the commentary was rooted in personal experience, politics or stereotypes, the public conversation revealed something essential: our own attitudes toward those using food banks.

Parkdale isn’t the first or only food bank to restrict food donations. Founded more than 30 years ago, Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre, has made it the centre’s policy to only accept healthy food—a policy created after the community members it serves told the organization they wanted it that way. “We started as a food bank in the traditional sense, and over time our community members told us the food that we were providing was not enough,” says Kathe Rogers, The Stop’s communications manager. “It was not healthy enough, it was not meeting their dietary needs. And so over time, we became a healthy food bank. Because that is what people really need when they’re struggling. When they’re out there on low incomes, or they’re living in poverty, these are the items that are beyond their means.”

“I often joke that the folks at the food bank in The Stop have, without question,  more organic food than my kids do,” adds executive director Rachel Gray. “And that’s one of the things we think is really important.” Her philosophy is people can’t get or be healthy without healthy food. Heavily processed food loaded with sugar, salt or fat is unhealthy no matter how you slice it, she adds. Gray says people can debate whether it’s nice to have a box of macaroni and cheese, but if that’s all a person has to eat it becomes problematic: there’s no choice; it may be culturally inappropriate or irrelevant; and it’s not a balanced diet. “It’s not the way to good health,” she adds. “And if we’re not supporting people to get healthy, what are we achieving?”

Ideas such as “any type of food helps”—which goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that low-income people should be grateful for whatever they get—can belie fundamental assumptions about people’s worth. Stigma that blames the economically disadvantaged for their situation is often included in conversations about food banks, as are the stereotypes “poor people don’t like to cook” and only like junk food. A report from Washington, DC-based organization Cooking Matters, found that while assumptions about the eating habits of low-income Americans were rampant, the reality is poor families most often cook dinner at home, mostly from scratch, and are highly interested in making healthy meals. The stumbling block for many families is the price. An article by Jesse Bauman entitled “Poor People Can’t Cook and Other Myths,” published on Food Secure Canada’s website, reflects similar data for Canadians. In a small survey that asked low-income people about their food skills, Bauman found those who have to carefully budget a meal plan simply can’t afford to eat out. Instead, he writes, people “have developed many of the skills necessary to make the best of their situation.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the food bank discussion will go away anytime soon. Every month, more than 830,000 Canadians access a food bank, according to HungerCount 2013, a report created by Food Banks Canada. Of these 37 percent are children. And, despite being once envisioned as a short-term solution to economic crisis in the ’80s, food bank usage is on the rise. “Within the food bank network,” HungerCount 2013 reports, “crisis has become the norm. Canadians continue to give generously, and food banks continue to stock, give, and re-stock.” While Gray would like to see food banks become obsolete—The Stop advocates for increases to social assistance and minimum wage that would put solid safety nets in place—she agrees they’re double-edged swords. “Food banks are still around because people are still hungry,” says Gray. “Our food bank is busy and thriving because food banks don’t work as a means of addressing poverty and hunger.”

First published in This Magazine, Nov/Dec 2014

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Writing trans-genres

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-april-2014/writing-trans-genres/

Because transgender arts and literature are not often understood on their own terms, and because when trans work is reviewed, it’s often viewed through stereotypical lenses, poet and University of Winnipeg assistant professor Trish Salah decided to organize Writing Trans Genres. Part academic conference and part performance cabaret, the three-day event at the University of Winnipeg will include panels, workshops, keynote speakers and presentations of papers on May 22 to 24.

“What I’m interested in doing is creating a space for trans people to talk about how we understand our work,” said Salah, author of two books. “Interest in trans figures frequently translates to an interest in trans figures produced by non-trans people, and those representations – you know, I can think of exceptions that are quite good, but the majority tend to be quite stereotypical and quite either condescending or fetishizing, or just simplistic.”

Although the conference is not trans-exclusive, it centres on trans authors, performers and artists as the people who are the most knowledgeable about their own work. That sounds straightforward, but self-representation flies in the face of a long history of misrepresentation. 

“I figured the best way to start that conversation was to get large numbers of trans writers together.”

Salah hopes the conference will build an understanding of how to read trans writing in ways that are attentive to the specifics of different people’s experiences. She also hopes some active networks of trans, two-spirit and genderqueer writers and critics will emerge.

And non-academics are welcome. The keynotes and daytime readings will be free and open to the public, and parts of the conference will be streamed online and digitally archived for later public use. To attend the entire conference, fees range from $10 for unwaged attendees, to $120 for those employed full-time. Registration is open until April 15.

Keynote speaker Rachel Pollack will talk about what it means for trans people to make literature for one another, rather than to explain the trans experience to non-trans people. Another keynote will address ways of thinking about indigenous approaches to gender and sexuality.

“We will be having conversations specifically around intersectionality and the ways in which racialized linguistic and cultural identities interact with sex and gender identities in shaping people’s literary production,” said Salah.

And the ways the queer and trans communities relate will also be a topic of conversation. “Certainly there are trans folks and trans artists who participate within queer contexts, but there’s actually a much broader segment of the trans community that probably doesn’t, so that will also be reflected in the kind of art we make, the kind of writing we do,” Salah said.

The conference’s call for papers asks, “Are there unknown histories of trans literary production?” and “What genres and figures have been important for two-spirit, genderqueer, trans-identified writers and writers with transsexual histories?”

“It’s often assumed trans literature is just an expression of identity, or a simplistic response to oppression,” said Salah. “And certainly we do respond to oppression and we do talk about our experience and the difference of trans lives from cis lives, but there’s a lot more complexity to what’s being produced than that.”

Inspired by trans film and arts festivals in Toronto in the late ‘90s, and by historic conferences like Women and Words, which brought women writers together to debate and define women’s literature, Writing Trans Genres aims to build a public cultural space for trans people.

“I’m hoping that we can bring a similar spirit to imagining what trans folks’ literature looks like,” Salah said. 

Check out the details at www.writingtransgenres.com.

Published in OutWords Magazine, April 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice, especially where it involves other trans folks.

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