Every September, Sushi Making For The Soul offers a free class for children to raise awareness about food literacy issues, including childhood poverty and hunger. This year, in preparation for two major awareness campaigns I will be involved in, there will be two sushi making classes, one at the end of September and the other in the first week of October.
Both classes will be held at
To enroll your child in a free sushi making class, go the link below:
The town of Linares (pop. 70,000), in the landlocked north-eastern state of Nuevo León, is a two-hour drive south from Monterrey.
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. 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.
On the second day, 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.
Food Literacy: Equal to Math, Science and Languages? Um, yes!
Photo courtesy: Nicholas Jones
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.
Photo courtesy: Nicholas Jones
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.
They came to listen.
Photo courtesy: Nicholas Jones
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.
All I Want For Christmas…
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.