Ontario “stone soup” project creates food
by redeeming wasted people, ingredients

By Wayne Roberts

Toronto, ONTARIO, 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 province.

"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 resource.

Wayne Roberts, Ph.D, is Project Coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council