A crowd has gathered on Granville Street at Helmcken in front of a vacant store. There is a shopping cart there with large buckets in it. A serving cart holds paper cups, bowls and plastic spoons. There’s juice and water too. Boxes of buns and apples sit on the sidewalk. Once a month, the day before the welfare cheques are handed out, the hungry from all over Vancouver come to feast on a now famous stew lovingly made by the cooks at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel.
There’s a story behind this stew of course. And it started eight years ago with a woman named Clemencia Gomez. Clemencia worked with Neighbourhood Helpers, a non-profit group that reaches out to seniors and others living in single room occupancy hotels (SRO’s) in the downtown core. Part of her job was to make sure people were eating well. She even started a little rooftop garden so residents could grow some of their own food. While working in the downtown area hotels like the Old Continental, the Vogue and the Gresham, she noticed that there were a lot of other hungry people in the area too.
“That was the biggest shock to me,” said this native of Columbia, “that people could be going hungry in a rich country like Canada.” She decided to do something about it.
She went to see the chef at the Fairmont Waterfront to see if she could get left over produce to put in a monthly soup. Daryl Nagato, the executive chef at the time, well known for his hotel rooftop garden said, “I can do more than that, I’ll make it for you.” And so began the monthly ritual that continues today. The giant pot of stew – “ much heartier than soup – “ is so large it is hooked up to its own heating system and has to be tipped into the waiting buckets with an electronic device. And the standard set by Nagato remains high.
“It doesn’t matter who my customer is,” says Zarko Torbica, the banquet sous chef and official “taster” at the Fairmont Waterfront, “if it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t go out.”
“It tastes just like the stew my mother used to make,” says one happy recipient. “You don’t have to ask where’s the beef in this stew – there’s big chunks of meat in it,” says another. They go back for seconds and thirds. After all, they won’t taste this stew again for another month. Young, old, homeless or sheltered, the people gathered here once a month, rain or shine, have one thing in common – “ hunger.
Who knew that there were hunger problems outside of the downtown eastside? In fact the FORC Report, an assessment of Vancouver’s food system compiled by a group of researchers from the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University found that food “insecurity” or not having regular access to healthy, nutritious food is prevalent to varying degrees in neighbourhoods throughout Vancouver. Some barriers to access are income, housing costs, age, disability, ethnicity, grocery store locations, or lack of cooking facilities.
Most people are unaware of the SRO’s on the Granville Strip, including Rose Mancini who replaced Clemencia last November.
“I used to go to movies on Granville Street and I had no idea there were even single room occupancy hotels there,” says Rose.
Under Rose’s guidance, the garden program is expanding. Raised beds have been put in the parking lot behind the Old Continental. Residents grow tomatoes, lettuces, herbs and flowers for their own use.
“We have a big barbeque at the end of the summer,” says Rose. “The hotel managers are great. They put out a huge spread for the residents.” Only a few blocks away and yet worlds apart from the landlords we hear about on the downtown eastside.
Rose is concerned about providing healthy food to the hotel residents. In addition to weekly soups at the SRO’s, they host coffee hours to get to know the residents The food for these sessions comes from the food bank and is not always what she would call healthy: candy, cookies, donuts. But she’s working on that too. COBS Bread has been supplying scones for the coffee hours – “ and not left overs – they are fresh baked. Organics at Home on the North Shore also provides organic produce weekly.
“Food always brings people together,” says Rose. “That’s how we build relationships.”
Yes, feeding people does sound like the neighbourly thing to do.
Remember your neighbours in need as we move into the Olympics lock down period when it will be even more difficult for them to access fresh, healthy food. This article first appeared in Shared Vision magazine, April 2007.