Present at an informal dinner in Jane's dining room, prior to the Jane Jacobs Prize Celebration: Max Allen (producer, CBC radio Ideas program), Jane Jacobs, Mary Lou Morgan (Jane Jacobs Prize winner), Mary W Rowe (Ideas That Matter editor & Jane Jacobs Prize coordinator), Dan Yashinsky (Jane Jacobs Prize winner)
MWR: I had the great honour of advising Mary Lou, who is the founder of Field to Table, and Dan, who is the founder of 1001 Friday Nights of Storytelling, that they were the first recipients of the Jane Jacobs Prize. And when I phoned Dan, it was 10:30 at night. He answered the phone quite groggily. I asked if the voice was Dan Yashinsky, and he responded, "barely." He seemed to wake up fairly quickly when I told him about the prize.
DY: Mary, you did give me quite a turn that night. I'm still trying to make room in my soul for the news. I keep thinking of an envelope I have taped up in my study with "this is not a rejection" written on it. I'd been back and forth with an American magazine about an article I had written for them which they were hesitating over publishing. Finally when the editor sent me her acceptance she felt obliged to write this note on the outside of the envelope so I didn't just throw it away. I could paper my study wall with rejection slips. To receive a public notice - especially such a generous one as this - for my work is beyond anything I - despite all the wonder tales I read, hear, and tell - could have imagined. After all, isn't Toronto the city that features this astonishing road sign on Scarlett Road: Excessive Hornblowing Prohibited.
MWR: Mary Lou, you and Jane already know of each other.
JJ: I know about Mary Lou Morgan through Allan Littlewood.
MLM: That's right. Allan is the person who believes in the architecture of vegetables. And the idea of commensality - sitting down at a table together and sharing food. That's something we try to incorporate into our work at Field to Table.
Right now we have 14 youth in our community service program. Their job with us is to go out and investigate feeding street kids. How would street kids like to be fed? Where would they like to eat? What would they like to eat? What's missing? And it turns out that 6 of the youth in our program are street kids. We actually didn't know this when we started but of course they were attracted to the program. These are kids who are fed up with living on the street. They now come to work at Field to Table every day, and they're making soups which they take out to shelters and serve to the homeless. We make sure these kids eat because we know that some of them have been on the street for years and this has hurt their health.
JJ: How do they like taking time to sit together and eat?
MLM: Well at the beginning it was a foreign concept for them. They wanted just to dive in. We try to make them remember that this food is for 30 of us. How can we make sure that the 30th person has enough? Should we take turns serving each other? And we eat together with proper utensils - knives and forks. It's really an interesting process. They've been going out to the homeless at these shelters and after, in my classes, I ask them what it feels like to be on the other side. It's very confusing to be serving the soup instead of getting it. They see men who are probably 35 but look 50 or 60, and the kids are trying to puzzle out their own lives. Two or three of them were heavily into cocaine, but one day they woke up and said, "That's enough, I'm not doing this anymore." They had a big argument with our staff who said that they should remove themselves from the people still doing drugs. Their response was to say, "No, the true test of whether we can manage is whether we can stay in that environment and not do it."
MA: How did they find their way to you?
MLM: Well, we just put an ad out saying we have these positions for a new program to feed street kids. We got 60 applications and we chose 14. This is through FoodShare, which is really the umbrella organization. FoodShare does policy and advocacy work as well as peer training. I consider my work in Field to Table more practical. I am experimenting with the policy - trying to figure out what works and why and what kinds of things transcend. The Good Food Box program, for instance, is universal. We don't screen who gets them. We target low-income neighborhoods but we don't know exactly who our customers are. We've done evaluations and found out that 33% of our customers make less than $15,000 a year. We know that 7% make more than $70,000. So we feel that the Good Food Box doesn't stigmatize and that's very important. All the food programs we now offer such as baby food making and school nutrition emphasize that universality.
MA: Do people pay for the food?
MLM: Yes they do. Their fee covers the cost of the food, the boxes and washing the boxes etc but it doesn't cover my salary or the infrastructure of the warehouse.
MA: How does the food differ from what we buy?
MLM: It doesn't, but there's a little trick involved here. We get people to pay ahead, so there's an enforced budgeting mechanism for those who might run out of money in the middle of the month. It's beautiful food. It's not touched a hundred times. In January we had our first farmers meeting. We have about 8 farmers who grow for Field to Table including two Old Order Mennonite families who had to be driven in because they don't have cars. For them it was months of planning to come to this meeting and they were nervous. Only one of them had been in the city before, for cancer treatment. So this time they brought their two teenagers who came with their bonnets and aprons and black clothes and they stayed for lunch, a meeting and a tour of the warehouse. We tried to plan what they could eat that wouldn't be too strange and different and we decided on spanakopita with goat cheese, spinach and pastry. They all sat around the table with the volunteers and the street kids. And they bowed their heads. During the farmers' meeting afterwards, the youth came up to me and asked, "Why do they dress like that?" "What are they saying?" "We want to go in." I said, "You can come in to the meeting but you have to just listen today." So these kids with their shaved mohawks and coloured hair are sitting there beside the Old Order Mennonite kids. It was just mind boggling. Everyone was very shy at first, but by the end everyone was talking.
DY: I had thought I was the only person completely 100% in love with Toronto except for Jane, but I can see you're part of the secret club too, Mary Lou. I'm totally passionate about this town and the things I like about it are the same things I've noticed Jane seems to like about it. Although Toronto is a city that can hide its charms very effectively.
We had some friends visit who are into graffiti painting. I asked them to paint something nice on the back of my garage. So these two kids design something - they wanted to paint the word "vision" - and within one minute of them starting to spray paint one of the neighbors calls the police. So I think, alright, this is a neighborhood. I love my alley. I am between a zen temple and a black gospel church. On some Sundays you can hear "Ohmm" coming from one side of the alley and "Amen" from the other.
JJ: I love alleys. I love walking in alleys. You see the most interesting things. Dan, how did you get into storytelling?
DY: I moved here from Santa Barbara a long time ago. I dropped out of high school and then I went to university in Santa Barbara. I read all about the Greeks and Homer's, "who smote this?" I just loved it. The fact that people used to know those epics in their heads was so romantic. And then I came to Toronto and I did a year of English at U of T. I had just come from a campus where surfers walked by as you read Chaucer, and I found the University of Toronto proper, very proper.
JJ: No surfers here.
DY: You're right. So I decided I didn't want to be an academic. I wound up working at a summer camp - Bolton Camp. All of a sudden all these things I'd read about with the Greeks and Homer were right before me at the campfire. Not the epics, but horror stories. I decided I had to learn how to terrify these little kids with stories. It's part of a tradition. The kids who went to this camp were from really rough backgrounds and when they heard these horror stories about the guy with the ax who's still there just beyond the last cabin in the woods, they were scared but also awestruck. As I tucked them into their bunk beds I could see they were proud that they had heard the story. It was the sense that they'd met the wild man of the woods and they had survived. It occurred to me years later that that old guy in the forest was one of the oldest gods in the world. He goes by many names. Up north they call him Windigo. And he's alive through the campfire tradition. So to make a long story short and a short story happy, I started looking for books that I could read aloud to the kids. The guy in the cabin next to me used to read The Joy of Sex to his 8-year-old campers. "You should try that," he said, but I decided to stick with fairy tales. And one night I finally got the courage to put the book down and tell a story around the campfire. This was quite traumatic for me because I was very shy. It was very hard to stand up even in front of the campers.
At the end of the summer I started hanging around Boys and Girls House at the Toronto Public Library, and finally I asked, "Are there any storytellers nowadays?" Remember, this was 20 years ago. And they said, "Oh you must talk to Alice." I remember when I first called her I said, "Miss Kane I am interested in storytelling." And she responded, "You're not an actor, are you?" I said, "No, no of course not. Why?" and she told me, "Actors can't tell stories. Actors put themselves between the story and the listener, and the storyteller has to let the story through directly." And that was the first thing I learned from Alice Kane. She was the first person I had ever met who knew the art of storytelling. The camp counsellors were good, mind you, but she was a great artist. She was like Pablo Cassells. She was at that level of her art. Alice had spent her whole life practicing in front of kids in the library.
MLM: Can you be taught storytelling?
DY: Well, you can practice it. We're all born storytellers. I've finally done a list after twenty years of the stories I know; a lot of them are about the art of storytelling itself. There's a great Jewish story about a very famous rabbi. One day a student came to him and said, "Rabbi I've observed you for years and I marvel at how you are able to always tell the right story on the right occasion. How did you learn to do that?" And the rabbi said, "That reminds me of a story about a young man. He learned, he trained, he studied for years and he became an Olympic level sharpshooter. As he was riding home to show his parents what he had learned, he passed through this village where he noticed on the barn wall there 100 targets and in the dead centre of each someone had shot a perfect bullseye. And the sharpshooter, at his level of skill, couldn't even begin to dream of doing this. So he called out, "Who did this amazing thing?" And a little kid came from across the street dressed in rags and said, "That was me." And the sharpshooter said, "How did you learn to do such a thing?" And the little boy said, "Let me explain. I don't draw the target first. First I shoot then afterwards I draw the target." And the rabbi said, "The same with me. I listen to people. I go through life with a head full of stories and then it's never hard to find a moment to put the story on."
JJ: Here's to our two winners.
DY: Another toast to Jane for being a host not only at this gathering but also at the ideas of the gathering.
JJ: I can think of a good reason to have a toast for everyone here.
MWR: One of the things that's interesting about the two of you being the first recipients of the Jane Jacobs Prize is hearing both of you tell stories. So much of Jane's communication style is that of a storyteller too. Jane, you've always used stories to ground learning in practical things. You don't think in the abstract.
JJ: But I don't think I have an artistry of telling stories. I admire that so much.
DY: Look at cities. There's the dull grey parts and the alive parts. What makes the difference? To me, it's conversations. Parts of cities where people converse - and tell stories - are the lively parts of the city. And the parts that don't seem to lend themselves to conversation are silent. They're dull. Ours is not a culture that encourages storytelling a whole lot. We're not set up for it.
MLM: I think there's something about telling a story that authenticates your own self. I got a call Friday from a woman who gets our Seniors Good Food Box, and she said, "I got a potato I haven't seen for a long time. Where did it come from?" And I told her about the young German farmer who grew it. He's new to Canada and brought seed potatoes with him. She had the memory of that potato.
We use telling stories about food as a way to start talking about the history of the food, where it came from, and what it meant in their family. You have to be in the kitchen with a knife in your hand for the stories to start coming out. Last year we had a woman from St Lucia with stories about salt cod and akee. And she prepared it for us. On the day she had to make a presentation (it wasn't only her) the food started going around. Someone put their hand up and said the Jamaican dish had salt cod from Newfoundland; another woman talked about the akee coming from Africa. Someone remembered a song about it but she said she didn't sing. A man put up his hand and said, "I'll sing." It was very moving.
JJ: Mary Lou, with Field to Table, you've thought of something yourself and you thought out how to do it. And you made this new niche. You do that with so many other people.
MLM: I think it's that I've been allowed to experiment in my work. But the ideas come from third world countries, from Japan, you know, from meetings. I get these ideas and see what pieces fit.
JJ: So many of the ideas come from the people who are attracted to you and to what you're doing. And you're open to those things.
MLM: But I'm learning so much from them too.
JJ: But you couldn't show us how yourself, because if you said, "What we are going to do is learn to be hospitable," it wouldn't work.
MLM: Yes, our warehouse is like a big incubator. At the beginning I thought people would know what they want from the space but they don't. I thought they'd want the loading dock or the frig or a name and address, or...
JJ: Or maybe they want to dig in the ground for awhile.
MLM: That's right.
DY: Did you start this Field to Table?
MLM: Yes, I started the Field to Table piece of FoodShare in 1994 although FoodShare has been around since 1985. The motto at the beginning was "an end to hunger" and when I came we changed the motto to "working with communities to improve access to affordable nutritious food." Isn't it arrogant to think that a charity could end hunger? What a mistake. The only people who can end hunger are the people who are hungry. And they know how to do it. They have the intelligence; they need the resources. And the resources might not be money. It might be not having a stove. Or not knowing how to cook. Or language.
JJ: It might be not having anybody to eat with. That's the worst hunger.
MLM: Yes it's not just hunger of food, it's spiritual hunger too.
MLM: Another mistake I made - I am allowed to make mistakes - is this. We have ten businesses who share the kitchen and I decided, wouldn't it be nice if those businesses had a place where they could sell their things? So we opened a store at the St Lawrence Market, but we just couldn't get it going. We tried to figure out who shops at this market and what would they like to eat and make it for them, instead of thinking, "Well my food should be sold in a pub for working class men" or something. I finally realized it was wrong thinking because I was saying to the the cooks, "We'll look after your marketing for you." The only people who will be successful are the ones who take the marketing on their own shoulders and say, "It's my thing and I'll figure this out." Even though we thought opening a store would help those ten businesses, it was actually a hindrance.
MWR: Mary Lou, it sounds like you let things happen organically. You get things started up and then get out of the way.
JJ: People talk about that theoretically, but it's very hard to do. You rarely run across examples of it especially as large as Field to Table and FoodShare. I don't mean to say it's a behemoth or an international conglomerate but it's not a little tiny thing.
MLM: I know. In a way it's come from nothing to sales of $800,000 in four years. But it's only because of FoodShare's support without that mindset of subsidy. When you're experimenting or trying to grow something out of nothing, you have to have staff and you may not have the business to support the staff. You're always juggling. FoodShare covers any and all shortfalls in the marketplace. Field to Table is not a business. FoodShare is not a charity. We're something new - a totally new entity that works outside the marketplace. We sell stuff to people but the selling price has nothing to do with anything except what people can afford to pay. I decide that $15 is the amount of money that people can afford to put aside and they expect something in return. And I know what that is now, after all this time because of the customers. If they're not happy they phone me. Some of FoodShare's money comes from private donors - largely women who send $15 or $20 cheques - and some is from foundations. FoodShare is a registered charity. But we don't believe in giving something and having other people receive it. We believe in a different kind of relationship, in which people have the power to complain, for instance.
JJ: You pay the farmers a fair price, so you're in the market that way.
MLM: What's happening now, in the last six months, is I'm getting all these calls from farmers who are transitioning from conventional to organic agriculture. They have nowhere to sell their stuff because it's not officially "organic" yet. And I thought, that would be a good place for me because no one else is supporting it.
MA: What do I get in my $15 box?
MLM: Potatoes, carrots, onions, it's different every time. We know what the customers are comfortable with and we try and stretch them. We put recipes in. Last week we added pot barley and the week before we put collards in for the first time. That's the first time I cooked them myself. They were wonderful.
JJ: Look how happy people are about the cooking they do. It's amazing. And when men take to doing something, then we've got it made. Sorry to say that but it's true.
MWR: So FoodShare may have started as a sort of charity but it has turned into a way to provide meaning for people around food.
MLM: and self help.
JJ: Tell us your story, Dan.
DY: In 1978 I started telling stories every Friday at a little café called Gaffers in Kensington Market. It wasn't long before someone said, "I know a story." And then Alice Kane came to tell her stories. And Joan Bodger, who is a phenomenal writer and storyteller who started off telling stories in Harlem. Very quickly, within a couple of months, it became 1001 Friday Nights of Storytelling, a centre for storytelling. It's still going strong twenty years later. Now we meet at St George the Martyr church, just north of CITY tv, at 8:30 every Friday night. You can't sign up because there's no organization behind it. It's an oral culture. Anybody who wants to can tell a story. It's probably the only gathering I've been at with such a range of people, from bicycle couriers to retired bank presidents, teenagers from the art college and high school students. There was one kid last year who told a great story about Sarajevo. You might hear the Iliad one night and Anansi the next night. It's still going strong. There's also in Toronto something called the Storytellers School, which I co-founded and we have also a Storytelling Festival, which has become fairly sizable in North America. So there's a critical mass, which is needed for something like that to take off. And once it's there, you get enough leaders coming out of the community to take responsibility for it. It's not always a smooth process and every one of those events has had its share of catastrophes.
MWR: I see all sorts of commonality between these two prize winners and Jane's ideas. You're both talking about creating opportunities that bring meaning into people's lives and allow them to express themselves through experimentation. I love the bit about making mistakes. Jane is very good on mistakes.
MLM: It's also about sticking with something.
DY: That is true. People ask, what is that strange mysterious organizational alchemy that makes 1001 Friday Nights work? And I say, it's just being there, just showing up. You're on time and people know that. For ten years, I went every Friday night. And then others take ownership, and you don't have to be there every time. I think ownership is a very important part of this. Not in any cliché way, but what makes a neighborhood group is a high sense of ownership.
JJ: It's their neighborhood.
DY: Yes, and they've put a lot into it. The same with the city.
MLM: And the same with our feeling at work. With the customers and the staff. Right now I'm trying to puzzle out the rural/urban myth and how farmers who are barely 3% of the population can understand what people in the city feel. Last year we took students on a tour of farms which was fantastic. Now I'm wondering about having farmer tours of the city so they could come in and see what happens to their food. They'd be horrified. I think that's the only way food policy is going to become sane if we can listen to the two halves.
I did a cookbook with a woman I met from a farm. I wanted it to be on farming policy but Second Story [the publisher] wanted a cookbook. So we made a simple cookbook following the seasons using simple ingredients and talked about farm policy at the beginning, but it was kind of hidden.
MWR: But that cookbook is effective. When I'm using it, it makes me think about the kinds of connections that you're making.
MLM: I guess what I want to encourage is a lot more diversity. 200 kinds of apples not just 5.
JJ: It is happening. Just think when you could only get one kind of bread.
MLM: I'm thinking, in terms of policy, that everyone has the right to nutritious food, whether or not you have money. Maybe there could be a little credit card and, as things are being scanned, certain things which would be at basic cost, subsidized somehow. A guaranteed annual nutrition. Finland had a policy of encouraging their local berries, which had as much Vitamin C as imported green peppers, so they gave support to that sector. What do you think of that?
JJ: It would be okay if berries tasted as good as green peppers, but I think we should be able to have both. It sounds to me as if the local Finns were giving these local berries the complete go-by and that's why the government felt it needed to encourage them. They may have been like hospital dieticians who pay no attention to how things taste. And that's not good. I just don't know why they thought it was necessary?
MLM: I guess they were trying to employ their own farmers, and replace imports.
JJ: I'm very dubious about that berry and green pepper thing. That kind of thinking really does constrict people's choices. But there are all kinds of things happening in the economy you can encourage in various ways. How did it happen that we got all these kinds of bread very suddenly?
MA: We've now got Dempster's 12-grain bread. And it sells like crazy. Often you go to the store and its all sold out.
MLM: And the homeless men have started asking for vegetarian soup. It can't all be marketing.
MWR: How does that happen? We could never have set a policy that would have meant more choice of bread on the shelf. I think, Jane, you are a champion of choice.
JJ: Yes. I think Mary Lou is talking about people who didn't have the choice of nutritious food they could afford.
MLM: But there's another self-selecting thing: even if you have money, you wouldn't necessarily choose the Good Food Box. When you're poor you have so little choice.
JJ: That's why I don't like those Finnish berries. I think policies that stop things are very dangerous. Let's encourage good things. Let's hope that the good things crowd out the bad.
MWR: Jane, you're hopelessly consistent. Your comment about encouraging good things rather than forbidding bad things. I bet this was the way you parented.
JJ: Oh I don't know about parenting. All that I know is you go along from day to day. I remember after our first week in Toronto, I thought maybe our family wasn't suited for this city because one of us got arrested (I forget which one) for jaywalking. And, on our first morning here - around 6 o'clock - our daughter Bergen, then 13, went out to see this place where we had landed. We were living on Spadina. She was stopped by a couple of policemen who asked where she lived and she was brought home. We got a talking to and a long questionnaire from the police department asking if I knew my daughter was out. I approved of this because I like the idea that they were keeping such track of the young people. But she was an early bird, not a night owl. Then Bob got into some trouble with the car which was full of household goods blocking his rear view mirror. He explained to the police officer that he was just moving, and the officer took pity on him and didn't charge him. But with all these three things I had a very serious chat with the family. I said I don't think we're suited to this place. But of course I love it now.
I have a story I'd like to tell. It's a short story. I had an uncle in Virginia. When I was quite young he told me this story. When he was quite young he had known an old man who had lived on a farm right next door to Dolly Madison - a proper first lady who had charisma. This old man didn't like Dolly Madison, and neither did any of his family, and he told my uncle several stories about why she was really not a nice person, and this is one of them. Mr Madison had a desk drawer that was always locked and Dolly was always after him to find out what was in there. Madison teased her about it and wouldn't tell her. As soon as he died the first thing she did was get his keys and unlock that drawer. So I said to my uncle, well, what was in the drawer? And he told me, he didn't dare ask. The old man would have thought my uncle was as snoopy as Dolly.
DY: But I just have to ask. Why did Mary Lou and I get this award?
JJ: As I understand it, the prize was not given to storytelling or food, it was given to the great people who do these things.
MLM: I think it would be a good idea to build a little group of people who meet a couple of times a year to tell stories and try to puzzle out how we can use this opportunity.
MA: She's already in action.
JJ: That's Mary Lou. But she won't force anything on anyone.
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