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Keeping our Community Kitchens Thriving During COVID

As The Stop’s Community Cooking Coordinator over a decade, Hussein Silva has prepared thousands of delicious meals alongside people from all over the world. His kitchen sessions are a sensory explosion—filled with the sounds of upbeat music and echoing laughter, the smells of rich and fragrant spices, and the taste of dozens of unique dishes.  

COVID forced The Stop’s Community Kitchen program to go online, but Hussein Silva is still finding unique ways to connect people around nutritious, culturally-diverse, and inexpensive meals.  

We spoke to Hussein about how we express our cultural food traditions, overcoming social isolation during COVID,  and why cooking is an art, not a science.  

Why do you think people come to community kitchens? 

Hussein: People come to learn methods of cooking, to find out about herbs, spices, ingredients, and techniques that enrich the way they cook. But we believe that cooking is an artlike music or painting. Everyone can produce their own signature, and our recipes are just a starting point.

People often bring their own traditional ideas in the way they approach the recipe. It shows different aspects of their culture. Sometimes they come thinking that they have no knowledge, but when they get started, they find skills within themselves they didn’t know they had. It builds so much confidence, then they come home and can share that expression with their families. They are growing their own self-esteem, and so they keep returning.

 

A group cooks together in our Community Kitchen, with a smiling woman in the foreground
Community Kitchen participants, 2015


Many people who attend the kitchens are newcomers to Canada. Why do you think this program is especially attractive to them?
 

The community supports each other—especially if people are newcomers to Canada. If someone is missing from a session, they will call that person to check in. They look out for each other. It’s a true community.

I believe there is nothing more important than for people to show their roots, their culture, or their folklore. It can be very lonely for people when they arrive in a new country and don’t have a place to express that part of themselves, or connect with others. We try to be a space for that. 

Sometimes our sessions are very loud! For example, we had a Peruvian group, and during the session we listened to Peruvian music, heard stories about their culture, and even started dancing in the space. It was a celebration! It was a moment of intimacy, and of pride.  

What kinds of relationships have bloomed from the kitchens over the years? 

I’m thinking of a woman who has been with us for a long time. She was a psychologist who spoke five languages, and she was very successful in her profession. But life turned around for her. She lost a lot of her income, she was struggling to find food, and she came to The Stop to eat in our Drop-in. We invited her to join the kitchen, but she wasn’t sure. She wasn’t confident in herself. She told me, “I’m the last person to help the program, I can barely hold a knife!” I said, “Give me a chance to work with you, and you might find you know a lot!”  

I started by showing her how to use a knife. She was very short, and kept laughing. “How will I hold such a big knife?” But of course, she remembered things quickly. She’s now been a volunteer for five years now, and was in the kitchens on a weekly basis. She told me she learned to combine nutritious, delicious food. Before those days, the doctor gave her a big alarm about her health. But she made a huge change in her nutrition, and it really helped her. She tells me it has saved her life.

 

A senior woman and young man laugh together in a Community Kitchen
Community Kitchen participants, 2016

There’s another story that I love, of two older people who came to the kitchens. They had mature children, and they were quite lonely in the city. They started to get to know each other in our kitchen. One was Argentinian and one was from Ecuador. Together, they would dance, chat, and eat. After a year of this, they decide to go as a couple, and they are together still. We were the space that provided that.  

What have you heard from participants during COVID? What have their experiences been like?  

Many people felt lost. They didn’t understand the regulations, didn’t know where to go. For people with no English language skills, it was very tough. I’m thinking of a single mother with a young girl. The Stop was their place to socialize. They couldn’t get into any social spaces anymore—she didn’t have sufficient internet, so she couldn’t access Zoom. In the winter, transportation is a challenge, as it was very hard to pick up a food hamper with a stroller.  

We call them often, and the first question they usually ask is when they can come back. They miss the programs. They feel frustrated, because they don’t know when this will be over. But we have the opportunity to talk over the phone, to share emails, and to know that we are here for them. I know that they are smiling, over the phone. 

Christmas time was especially hard. We usually do a very large celebration, with food and music. People look forward to it, and for some, it’s their only Christmas gathering. This year, we invited 71 households to come to The Stop to receive special Christmas hampers and gift cards. We welcomed them outside (at a distance) and took the time to reconnect. Many told me that this moment—despite it being quick and in cold weather—was a very special moment and the thing they value most about coming to The Stop. 

 Knowing that we can show up for people with these small details, especially during a year when the holidays do not feel the same, it truly makes us happy to be a part of this community. 

What was it like to temporarily re-open the kitchen in September?  

That was very challenging. We wanted to invite everyone, all our old participants. But there were so many new folks who came to The Stop after COVID, and who were feeling isolated. So we chose 10 new people, to be paired with people who had come before. It was a 6-week program, with international cuisine to provide new ideas for them to try at home. That was exciting for them, to try new things, especially since the recipes were affordable and they could find the ingredients anywhere.  

We spent a lot of time on safety, creating different scenarios to ensure people kept distance when they came in. We created a long table to make the required distance while they were eating. That was the sharing time—where they could express their frustration, their sadness, and also their gratitude for seeing people they had never met before. They were very close to each other by the end of the six weeks. They swapped phone numbers to stay in touch, and I think that proves the program was successful.  

What are you most proud of in 2020?  

The Stop is “water in the desert” for a lot of people. We are in a desert situation, no doubt, but I can still hear the smile people have when I am on the phone with them. I can feel their happiness, knowing that one day we will get together again. The Stop still keeps a place for them. The Stop is not something that happened to them, but part of them.  

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