CaterToronto’s latest community outreach endeavour reminds me of a common refrain heard at protests against police violence: “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe.”
In the case of the food justice non-profit’s recent care packages, the question is instead “Who takes care of us?” But the crucial element remains the same: in times of need the community provides and protects more meaningfully than government agencies.
Care is always integral to the work of Vanessa Ling Yu, director of caterToronto and her team.
“With emergency food initiatives [throughout the pandemic], you see a lot of ‘let’s take all the mislabelled cans from Heinz and then redistribute them’ without any regard for whether people want canned beans or can read that can. Our work is really about meeting groups where they are,” Yu explains in a Zoom interview.
At the beginning of April, caterToronto delivered 100 anti-Asian racism and Save Chinatown-themed care packages, working directly with organizations like Tea Base, Friends of Chinatown, Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto and Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network to get the food to community members.
As calls to “Stop Asian Hate” came to the forefront following the killings of Asian sex workers in Atlanta in March, the care packages felt extra timely. But Yu stresses she had been watching anti-Asian racism rise since the beginning of the pandemic and came up with a plan to bring comfort to people in the community.
“I was meeting a lot of young Asian artists and asking them what they needed and they felt like they were not deserving enough to take from others,” says Yu.
“It wasn’t as though they were embarrassed or didn’t want to go to a food bank. But, they thought they might not get the foods that they needed and they thought the food available should be reserved for the people who really need it. Meanwhile they were laid off and putting everything on their credit cards.”
Rather than following a “you get what you get” system for people experiencing various degrees of food insecurity, caterToronto used connections within the food industry to fill packages with culturally-appropriate, high-quality and fresh foods. Locally prepared and sourced plums, okra, green onions, bird’s eye chilies, longan, wood ear and shiitake mushrooms, fish sauce, lap cheung (Cantonese cured pork sausage), joong (sticky rice and mung beans wrapped in bamboo leaves), Soma chocolate, Pocky and White Rabbit candies and more were all included in each basket.
In late April and May, they released Ramadan and Black-Asian solidarity packages, reaching 400 people all together. Those were also painstakingly thought out and made possible through donations and grants.
Before the pandemic caterToronto had never asked for donations. They used money made from catering events to do outreach work. Without that revenue, they turned to the community for help.
“People just thought we were a great food company that catered events and provided products. We’re reestablishing as a charity, but a charity in the sense that we need a [Canada Revenue Agency] qualification to get more funding.”
In 2020, caterToronto launched Cooking for COVID and stepped in to help shelters that lost a significant number of volunteers at the onset of the pandemic, since many were seniors. They went in regularly to provide nutritious and exciting meals to people accessing the shelters, but their ethos of considering the needs and desires of people didn’t exactly gel with one shelter.
“The food for me has always been the easy part,” Yu says. “It is the politics that are so frustrating. I have homeless friends who are vegetarians who have told me they have problems getting what they need. But when I asked the coordinator if there were any vegetarians, she said: ‘Just give them the plainest starch possible and there needs to be meat there, I don’t care how it’s seasoned.’ I asked if there were any allergies but she didn’t know what they wanted and she didn’t care.”
The volunteers at that shelter told Yu they were worried people would get used to her food, which was professionally prepared with fresh ingredients. “I understand they’re not used to always getting this care, especially from somebody who’s used to providing really great customer service. B, but even for one meal, wouldn’t you rather provide comfort?”
She says the care packages became a way for Yu to do care work outside the “politics of the shelter system.”
For the Save Chinatown care package, Yu wanted to find a considerate way of getting food to people without making them feel as if they were getting handouts. “For some people, [depending] where they’re from, if you’re receiving this kind of help, you lost – you are a failure to society.”
By enlisting the help of community organizations, adding interactive elements like food-based walking tours of Chinatown and filling the packages with culturally specific food items, she hoped it would feel more like a gift than charity.
“We all want some goodness, it shouldn’t be about poverty porn. I really had to stress that. We shouldn’t try and whittle who is most deserving. We all deserve food justice and food sovereignty and food security.”
The Ramadan care packages were designed to help Muslim people break their fasts. Without communal gathering, holidays like Ramadan can feel even more isolating. To offset that, the interactive programming that accompanied the package was a digital iftar, so people could break fast together.
“Ramadan can be really tricky if you were ostracized from your ‘air quotes’ community, especially for queer Muslims. So, the digital iftars brought people together and helped them find a spot that might fit them.”
The package included iftar treats like vegetarian kebbe, lentil pakoras with mango chutney, gulab jamun handmade by Banglar Saad, a Bangladeshi women’s group, and apricot paste that could be eaten as is or whisked with rose or orange water and cardamom and drunk as a beverage. It also came with boxed meals of tandoori chicken or chickpea and potato curry and spreads, marshmallows, gummies and dessert.
The latest care package centred on Black and Asian solidarity against white supremacy. To foster connections between respective communities, caterToronto worked with local food entrepreneurs and social justice groups to create a fusion menu. One hundred went out to people living in Toronto, York and Scarborough and another 100 meals were delivered to community fridges across the city. The meal kit included ingredients to make fresh egg- white noodles, coconut jerk pork with mushroom topping and pan-fried plantain. It also came with purplish butter lettuce from Healing Hands Farm, CBD skin care products from SheaBD, a spice blend from The Abibiman Project, miso cinnamon buns and sesame flat bread from Chau and pies from Mnandi.
Each new iteration has been released with an exhaustive document outlining every single element and the back stories behind the people who cooked the meals or farmed the fresh produce as well as and the community organizations caterToronto partnered with.
Yu says people have asked how to order the packages after seeing them posted online. Because the first three iterations were gifted, that wasn’t necessarily an option but they’re next endeavour is a solidarity snacks subscription.
The intention is that hard-to-get food items that caterToronto has access to through food businesses can get to more people who want to support them.
“People have told me they want the food Banglar Saad makes, but they’re not hosting an event of 50 people. In order for their business model to work they can’t be providing one-offs, so the solidarity snack subscription works on both sides.”