The town of Linares (pop. 70,000), in the landlocked north-eastern state of Nuevo León, is directly in the drug trade route from Columbia via Mexico City to the United States. Much of the cocaine into the States passes through Juarez to the north-west and Monterrey to the north-east of this state. Highway 85 cuts through Linares on its way to Monterrey and into Laredo, Texas. Up until three years ago, it was one of the ideal places in the northern states to raise a family. Recently, it was almost taken over by a powerful drug organization, which would explain the regular and ubiquitous presence of heavily-armed soldiers and paramilitary police in the streets of the town. Fear was the order of the day and there was a will to change their narrative.
Despite my frenetic schedule (I was in the process of opening my latest restaurant, Windup Bird Cafe) I went to Linares because one of my favourite poets, Colin Carberry, who lives there with his wife- the translator and educator, Veronica Flores- invited me. And I sensed from his invitation that I was not going there to merely read from my work. The event was the inaugural Congress of Language and Literature, sponsored by Universidad Technologica Linares, an innovative and socially-engaged university with a former politician and scholar at the helm, Ángel Alberto Alameda Pedraza- a leader with genuine purpose. Other invited writers included Jack Harte, the brilliant Irish short story writer and arts organizer; Claudio Gaudio, author of the acclaimed novel, Texas; Halli Villegas, poet and publisher of one of the inspired presses in Canada, Tightrope Books; the award-winning Puerto Rican photographer and poet, Luis Cotto-Vasallo; and, of course, the Poet-Laureate of Linares, Carlotta Medina Gutierrez.
I arrived on an overcast day. My hotel room at the Hotel Hacienda Real de Linares, one of only three hotels in the town, overlooked a desolate main street. From my window, one could imagine a scene out of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana: a hint of something perilous and unexpected.
The writers were soon ushered from our hotel to the town’s civic centre, where an auditorium full of students, teachers, the Mayor of Linares, and other dignitaries awaited us. It was an extraordinary embrace and, like the others, I was profoundly humbled by the experience. It became clear that the people of Linares brought with them as much anticipation as they did hospitality.
Following the elaborate ceremonies, which included the singing of the national anthem and a modern mariachi band performing Mexican classics, I wandered the streets of Linares- something that was not recommended as part of our itinerary. People came out to greet me on the sidewalks- possibly to assist that rare sighting: an Asian tourist who may be lost- and I was moved by their kindness and quiet dignity. And even though the streets emptied as the sky grew darker, there was decorum, order, and a semblance of normality in the neighbourhoods.
It was on the second day that I realized that reading from my work was not the real purpose of my being in Linares. I was brought to a high school just within the borders of the town, an industrial area, to read from a short story- in English and Spanish translation. The student population came from poor families, mostly factory workers and farmers. They had more pressing affairs in their lives than to listen to some writer from a first-world country read. I understood this.
At the end of the reading, the Principal of the school asked me to speak to the students about living “the life of the pen and the mind”, both of which rang false to me because, quite frankly, I spent most of my waking days in Canada engaging in the tedious tasks around running restaurants. Besides, it was a posture that I was neither intellectually-equipped nor actorly enough to speak from with any conviction. I scanned the room and saw in the many faces staring blankly back at me the reflection of my own as an adolescent. Had I been born and raised in Mexico, perhaps in this very town, I could have been any one of these students and not the ones from the “other side of the tracks”. I began to speak as instructed, fleshing out the illusion of some wise man seated in a leather winged chair, pen in hand, and pondering the nature of the cosmos. Then I stopped in mid-sentence. The room grew still as I decided to go off script. I talked about about growing up in a government-subsidized housing complex, poor and hungry much of the time, and about the necessity to steal food because there was so little in the house; but that the food I stole was dictated by the commercials I saw on television and therefore invariably not healthy nor nutritious. I explained that I didn’t understand the “why” of my situation at the time, that none of my schooling included classes on food literacy- anything that would shed some light on the conditions in which I (and many others) lived; that the link between poverty and food insecurity (the lack of access to healthy, sufficient food) and- in my case- theft, was never exposed because it was in the best interest of multinational food and beverage conglomerates like Con-Agra, Monsanto, Kraft, and Pepsico to keep us all in the dark. (One girl in the back row started crying. Later, I found out that as I was telling my story, she was, at that very moment, thinking of what food she would be stealing on her way home from school. Her younger brother would be hungry when she got home.) Finally, I “instructed” the students that if they had to steal- and I knew many of them did with much shame- that they should set their eyes on fresh goods (fruits and vegetables being optimal) and to avoid the stuff they saw on billboards and television commercials. I also told them that on the way home with their stolen goods to stop by a book store and steal a book. After all, isn’t nourishing the mind equal to nourishing the body?
Always bitter-sweet this kind of “guidance”.
But I had hit a nerve. The room was abuzz with conspiratorial whispers. My reading was quickly forgotten and I was soon flocked by students who felt a much deeper connection with me and my being there. So did I . And although I felt morally ambivalent about telling these kids to steal (it smells like rotten self-justification), I knew that, in the end, commanding them not to do so, or skirting the issue, given their circumstances, was equally immoral. Hence the importance of food literacy programming in schools- from pre-school to post-secondary. Knowledge in and of itself lacks utility and does not create less thieves in society, but it does allow those who have it to organize better, to corral the troops and give them more effective ammunition to deal with the forces trying to keep them in the dark. This has always been so.
I left that school and those students feeling, if not vindicated, then that at the very least my story was not a mere exercise in narcissism (which it often can be). Here is a truth: our most powerful stories- the ones that can positively affect people- are those that are often shrouded in deep personal shame. I learned in Linares, with a group of young people who, like me during my youth, live in relative poverty, that by sharing such such stories, we can help alleviate that burden of shame others carry by giving it a name and narrative.
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LEVEL I class posted for Sunday February 23rd, 2pm-5pm. Act now, they sell out fast!
On Saturday November 16, 2013, I gave a TEDx Talk to an auditorium full of high school students at the Ontario Science Centre.
The theme of this year’s talks was: “Discover”. The speakers were each asked to fill in the blank after the theme word and give their talk around those combination of words. I filled in my own with “Yourself” and in the months leading up to the big day I meditated on the meaning of that for me.
My talk was much more personal than I had originally intended. In fact, during my first rehearsal at Stone Soup Innovation Lab, I veered away from the most uncomfortable bits of my past, speaking stiffly in generalities about food literacy, but the great intuitive speaking coach, Kate Hodgson, founder of IKommunications, gently guided me back to the path. She had convinced me that the best way to get my message across was to speak from the bowels of my experience: and this has always been about growing up ass poor and hungry in one of the poorest urban neighbourhoods of our country: the Jane & Finch housing projects. So, when the time came to give my talk (and in precisely seventeen minutes) I told the story of how I came to discover my self and my defining passions, through poverty and hunger.
I probed into some painful moments, spoke about the raw emotion I felt during those months when the social assistance cheque that my single mother of three children qualified for never materialized in the mail. The truth was that sometimes when things got really bad, I would wander over to the Jane and Finch mall with my friends to steal. They stole the latest Adidas sneakers and I stole food for me and my family.
And it was not nutritious food I stole, unless, like so many other children around the world, you were led to believe what the creators of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Chef Boyardee’s Beefaroni or Dinty Moore Chicken Pot Pies would have you believe through their commercials: that if you didn’t consume these products all the time, your happiness (not to speak of your health) would spiral irretrievably into some heaving bottomless pit.
My family felt the pinch during the holiday seasons, especially around Christmas. From where we sat, in a drafty and (unintended) minimalist concrete tenement living room, and skewed through the rose-tinted lenses of our television set, Christmas was a time of bounty and excess for other people: of golden brown Franken-turkeys and mountains of perfectly-wrapped gifts under a well-lit tree, as an over-extended family of impossibly good-looking white folk lingered about in their wool turtlenecks, ready to burst into rounds of The Little Drummer Boy. No such Christmases for us. SPAM pizza if we were lucky, and we were not always so lucky.
There was the one Christmas when I was sixteen years old. My mother had taken my younger sister and brother to a Bible retreat north of Toronto. For reasons I can no longer recall, I found myself alone at home that Christmas eve. It may have been a fight I had had with my mother, a common rite of passage at the time, but I cannot be certain. As per usual, not a creature was stirring and not a crumb in the house, so I put on my coat and ventured out to the local convenience store. The shop owner and I eyed each other warily (although he must have been a bit confused as to why I was looking at him as though he was the thief. I have, over the years, routinely laughed to myself as I imagined him interrogating himself at the end of the night for stealing something from his own shop, like some crazed character out of Kafka, unrelenting until he got to the bottom of a crime he did not commit). I hung around the back part of the shop, where the drink fridge and ice cream freezers were located. When he was distracted by a couple who came to purchase cigarettes, I slipped a Swanson’s frozen turkey dinner under my coat, fitting snugly (if a bit icily) between my arm and ribs. I went home and put my Christmas turkey into the microwave. It was no It’s A Wonderful Life, but I must have felt some stirring of the holiday spirit.
The self-probing that led me to my TED talk affected me more than I thought it would. I came to have a multifaceted understanding about the nature of food literacy; this by living through it, I realized, and not gleaned from some book. I had developed, surprisingly, a nuanced approach to my relationship with food and came to the following conclusions: food literacy is not merely about how to balance a healthy diet by following Canada’s Food Guide. Or about describing the difference between broccoli and pizza. At its core, it’s also about understanding how industrialization and commercial greed undermines and exploits our visceral connection to earth’s bounty. Why many genetically modified products are created and subsidized to be more affordable than what is grown and raised naturally. It’s also about food insecurity and injustice and why people are made to suffer needlessly when they could so easily be given the tools to understand the conditions around what they are told to eat.
People are starving to death in developing countries because they have no access to all our “waste”, this I am told repeatedly and with too much well-intentioned, but misguided passion. There is nothing I can do about it. Except this: arm myself with better tools of understanding my situation and pass what I have learned onto others. Then repeat. The tragic issues around food shortage in some exotic place (read: the Other’s problem), thousands of miles away, cannot ever, EVER, be overcome until we keep the diseases of waste and hunger and poverty close to home, let our children be infected by it; unless we decide for ourselves, once and for all, that a child who starves over there is no different than the child who is kept ignorant of why it is happening in a country like our own.
Food literacy. Make it mandatory. Teach it in every grade. Like Math and Science and Language. Like Compassion. Costs almost nothing.
The journey to discover- and overcome- food illiteracy wasn’t easy for me. And it’s not easy for anyone else when there is no test they have to pass because there is no class they ever have to attend to learn about it. And therefore, without education to arm us, the journey to help others overcome it is all the more daunting. But it has to be done; like homework or the Herculean effort required to truly love another (especially the “stranger” on the other side of the pond)- it just simply has to be done. I have chosen to do this, but I know I am not alone. In this tiny blog at the corner of this place and that, somewhere in the increasingly expanding blogosphere, real people are standing by me, shouting their support (I heard it at the Science Centre), some of them now speaking to their teachers and Principals and parents. They are doing this to usher us closer to a time that they- and their future children- deserve; a time when people like me will no longer be required to stand on some virtual corner talking about this easily-remedied problem.
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My TEDx Talk is here.
Those who have taken my classes know how important the issue of food literacy for children is to me. I start every session talking about it before we get down to the nuts and bolts of making sushi itself. It all stems from my experience of growing up in the Jane-Finch housing projects, where welfare cheques were meager and nutritious food even more so. As a pimply kid helping to raise two younger siblings while our single mother worked three part-time jobs, learning about food literacy wasn’t exactly on my list of priorities; and even if it was, food literacy programs just weren’t readily available. The schools didn’t teach it (except for one year in junior high school, when we were taught to make classic WASP dishes like mac ‘n cheese and beef stroganoff by the eternally optimistic Miss Harriet — she never told us her last name– in her “Home Economics” class); libraries didn’t have books on it (at least what would have been intelligible to a pre-teen); and television was too busy turning our gaze to the kind of food that, even as children, we just knew was low on the nutrition scale because it was so high on the ‘craving’ one. Finally, local supermarkets, developed in board rooms far removed from the hub of immigrant life were not responsive to communities desperately needing to re-connect with their culinary roots (try buying napa cabbage to make kimchi, a Korean staple, at Price Choppers in the ’80s). Food illiteracy was the norm and everyone suffered for it.
This is why food literacy for children became my singular focus outside of making a living. In my own small way, I wanted to get out there and let children discover what schools/libraries and television and the limited options in supermarkets did not let me discover during my own adolescence. But I felt limited in how I could achieve this. For years, I was “the guy who did sushi”, and for reasons that perplex me today, I didn’t give much thought to how my expertise in sushi could help my cause. In 2006, when I first launched my classes (it was called “Sushi 101″ then), I lacked the imagination to find a link between sushi and food literacy. But within two years, with the help of some wonderful teachers and parents who shared my belief that the ABCs of literacy (reading, writing, math) must include food, I was in classrooms, teaching the basics of nutrition by rolling sushi.
This was soon followed by overwhelming buy-in by decision-making adults who could help me make a difference. I was allowed into the boardrooms of multinational companies to teach their senior managers and executives how to roll a California Roll; but these people, many of whom had children of their own, seemed more interested in my food literacy quest than the difference between two grades of sushi rice or how nori is processed. They wanted to know the WHY of what I did and wondered how they could help me mobilize my ideas to far greater numbers of people.
And, of course, that answer to the question “why” always comes easily off my tongue: it’s about the kids, about giving them free reign to deepen what they already know: that the preparation of nutritious food in a safe environment is a basic human right no matter your age and that a child should be taught how to engage his/her rights from the moment their parents register them in their very first institution. So in 2009, I set myself a goal: to conduct the world’s largest connected sushi-making class by 2015. The idea is a simple one: connect thousands of children from all seven continents, including Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, with hundreds of children here in downtown Toronto and teach them how to make sushi. This would be accomplished over a twelve-hour cycle via the internet. The ultimate objective is to get one clear message out to the grown-up world: that institutional food policies and food literacy programs should be adopted within our school systems with the goal of a healthy child at the center of it. The nourishment of the mind and body must have equal emphasis in the classroom.
This spring, I did a pilot project with children in Kampala, Uganda. Through an organization, called Kids Canada, Ugandan children were connected with children in my Toronto restaurant via Skype. Other great organizations on the ground in Uganda also played a key role in ensuring the success of the project, including Kyoto Japanese Restaurant, whose owner, Ahmed Rende, and his chef procured all the ingredients; Insieme Si Puo, who was kind enough to offer the space for the class; Sosolya Undugu Dance Academy; and Pellitier Teenage Mothers’ Foundation, a powerful womens’ organization run by the indomitable spirit-warrior, Solome Nanvule. But, of course, none of this would have been possible without photographer and activist, Maylynn Quan, who does life-altering under-the-radar work in Uganda through her cultural exchanges, photography workshops, clean water projects, and micro businesses. Her astonishing generosity of spirit, as well as her experiences while she was in Uganda at the time of the pilot project, are documented in a blog called How To Change The World In 30 Days. It is moving stuff.
On Sunday April 14th, 11am local time and 5pm Kampala time, we linked up over a patchy internet connection. Children came to my restaurant, Yakitori Bar, and met with children over there gathered in the Insieme Si Puo office space. After a glorious showcase of traditional Ugandan music and dance by Sosolya to inaugurate the festivities, I taught the kids the basics of sushi-making through a webcam. They picked it up quickly and rolled with it.
Children on a continent where sushi is an alien concept (read: exotic, oriental, Other) tried something new. They discovered, as children do (in spite of cultural, religious, racial, gender and continental differences), yet another way to explore the infinite possibilities of the world and their relationship to it. They went from ME to WE within a span of two hours, connecting with others in ways that was impossible for me at their age. Through a simple sushi-making exercise, they learned that food, like any of the other forms of love, unites. The experience transformed everyone involved.
All of this was a prelude to a goal I set out for myself years ago: to conduct the Guinness Book Of World Records’ “Largest connected sushi-making class”. I want to do this by spring of 2014, but I cannot do it alone. I need help from people up and down the food chain and across all the partitions set up to divide people, especially children, in our society. Perhaps, dear reader, in a moment of revelry, as you look back at a time in your own life when you wondered why Reading, Writing and Math was so important to the adults around you but Food Literacy never got an honorable mention– perhaps you might find yourself afterwards considering ways to make this dream of mine (ours) happen?
“Yes, the springtimes need you.
Often a star was waiting for you to notice it
A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past
Or, as you walked under an open window,
A violin yielded itself to your hearing.
All this was mission
But could you accomplish it?”
-Rainer Maria Rilke-