May 1, 2003: The Community Economic Development equivalent
to Jesus' miracle of loaves and fishes, stone soup recalls
a fairy tale featuring two soldiers who convince some villagers
they can make soup from stone, though the soup would doubtless
benefit from any foods the villagers could add; once the villagers
start pitching in, a delicious soup is made from the stone.
Bob Spencer of the Ontario Association of Food Banks has
just launched his version of stone soup called Generous Servings,
which will see one professional cook and 19 youth, formerly
living dangerously close to the street, producing a million
bowls of nutritious soup a year for hungry people across the
"It's pretty simple," says Spencer. "You start
with lead. Then you turn it into gold."
Here's how the ingenious scheme works. About 40 per cent
of the food produced in the world is wasted, because no-one
can figure out how to make money with it in a world where
840 million people go hungry every day. There's no good reason
for most of the waste.
Across North America, for instance, lots of apples and eggs
aren't marketable simply because they're too small, lots of
carrots aren't marketable because they're crooked or stubby
or otherwise cosmetically-challenged. Lots of garlic gets
dumped because a clove fell off the bulb. Lots of chicken
feet and beaks get tossed into landfill because few people
know they're the best base for chicken soups.
Spencer figured there was a way to take all thus unused but
perfectly tasty and nutritious food, save it from the dumpster,
where it rots and churns out global warming gases, hand it
to some unused youth who are perfectly fine people in need
of a second chance in life, and make some stone soup that
creates wins for the economy, environment, community and health.
Dennis Metcalfe of the feds' Human Resources Development Canada
put up $650,000 to start the industrial kitchen, and the rest
just took Spencer's stirring.
The whole world's a potluck soup, as far as Spencer is concerned.
He got building trades unions to donate paint, painters, blocks,
cement and masons. He got Korsuh Clothing, producers of Roots'
famous lines, to donate uniforms for the cooks-in-training.
He got pig farmers to donate stewing pork, poultry farmers
to donate chicken legs and feet, and dairies to donate milk
that would go off if it weren't used immediately. "We
can use that milk right away in a cream soup, refrigerate
it, and it stays good for at least a month," he says.
Spencer's concocting a souped up recipe for fundraising.
"In a soup, when you add one thing to another, you make
both of them more valuable than they were on their own,"
he says. "People know they can make a real difference
if the project is bigger than them, but at the same time can't
go ahead without their contribution."
In terms of food history, this is what soup is all about.
Unlike bread, steak and wine, which are iconic foods of the
civilized classes, soup is classic folk or soul food. It's
a one-pot meal, crucial for pre-20th Century cooks who had
to heat everything in one pot over a fire or wood stove.
It makes use of pretty well any ingredients that are at hand,
including scraps that can be used for stock, and tough cuts
of meat that get tenderized over a boil. Nobody's the wiser
that the carrot was bent before it was sliced. Anyone can
pitch in, whence pot luck, and there's always enough so that
anyone can take out, whence soup kitchen. Soups are ladled
out in servings, not portions, another reminder that food
was once more about servings and helpings shared in community
than about commodities eaten in private.
Despite the lowly origin of the ingredients, both the taste
and the nutrition of the soup are greater than the sum of
the parts. Chicken soup -- Russian or Jewish penicillin, as
it's sometimes known -- even qualifies as medicine, still
cherished as a comfort food long after its lowly beginnings
as Chicken Soup For The Dole.
Ugly carrots and chicken feet aren't the only ingredients
given a second life at the Ontario Association of Food Banks
kitchen. The youth trainees will take 40 weeks of job readiness
training as they learn about food preparation and warehouse
skills, under the supervision of a professional industrial
cook and a former school principal, Kemp Rickert. If the trainees
hang in for the full 40 weeks, they've been guaranteed employment
interviews with a number of major employers in the area of
the food bank warehouse, part of south-west Toronto's food
warehouse and processing district.
The soups will be freeze-packed in five-litre bags and trucked
across the province for free by Erb Transportation.
And whatever ingredients can't be used in the soups - the
OAFB and Daily Bread Food Bank throw out about two million
pounds of unsalvageable food a year - will be composted and
sold to the public as a fundraiser, or used in the community
gardens taking shape on the property.
Spencer and his colleagues hope the food banks can serve
as a model of a "zero waste" facility.
And it's amazing to think how easily we could make a dint
into the hunger problem if we stopped thinking of waste as
a noun, and started recognizing it as a verb, something lost
by lack of caring that's just waiting to be turned into a
Wayne Roberts, Ph.D, is Project Coordinator of the Toronto
Food Policy Council