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Our Conversation with Doris Chow from the DTES Kitchen Tables Project

“If you’re thinking of serving food or donating food to anyone in need, don’t serve it if you wouldn’t feed it to your child or grandparent.”

Can you tell us the story of the DTES Kitchen Tables Project? A program of Potluck Café Society, the DTES Kitchen Tables Project aims to improve the health of Downtown Eastside residents by increasing the nutritional value, availability and choice of food neighbourhood-wide. The Project started in 2009 in partnership with the DTES Neighbourhood House after seeing many resources being invested in the DTES, yet, quality and nutritious food provision continues to be fractured and ineffective for meeting the nutritional needs of DTES residents. DTES Kitchen Tables takes a comprehensive approach by addressing the DTES Food System by addressing both food neighbourhood-wide and from seed through compost. The success of our Project to date has been made possible by collaborating with all relevant stakeholders including DTES residents first and foremost, health care professionals, food growers/suppliers, food providing organizations, researchers, and policymakers.

What drove you to work on this project? I had been following the development of the DTES Kitchen Tables Project since 2009, and while there were many exciting things happening around food in Vancouver, I was always drawn to this project. The project takes both a human centered and systems approach while operating from a Right To Food philosophy. When I fully became immersed in the project and really came to understand the Right To Food philosophy at its core, it highlighted all the simple things I take for granted on a daily basis that not everyone has especially when one is relying on the charitable food system – knowing what is in my food, the ability to choose and cook what I want to eat and when, the ability sit in a warm place with others to enjoy my meals, even the ability to avoid foods that I’m allergic to or don’t like – in some contexts, these are all luxuries.

Can you tell us about the Food Map initiative? How did this project start and how has it changed since its inception? DTES Kitchen Tables first launched the DTES Food Map in February 2013, distributing 3000 paper copies across the neighbourhood to help DTES residents better navigate the DTES Food System in a neighbourhood specific and user friendly way. There are other food lists that exist in the neighbourhood, but we recognized that they were all being done off the side of people’s desk and there are no resources to update them regularly or to improve the lists overall. At the same time, we were hearing time and time again from DTES residents that food provision is often concentrated during certain times of the day/week/year, resulting in major gaps in food access when one’s day does not go by 9 to 5, Monday to Friday – often problematic for night time binners and people taking medications that require food. This led to us designing the DTES Food Map by 24hr time, 7 days a week. By designing it this way, we can visually see when food is available, but more importantly where the gaps in food provision exist early in the morning and during the night.

Due to the overwhelmingly positive responses from community members from our initial launch, we have to date distributed 12,000 paper copies of the DTES Food Map and created a DTES Holiday Meal List to prevent overlapping holiday meals during the Christmas season. With the DTES Food Map now being used neighbourhood-wide by both DTES residents and organization staff, the long term goal is to move towards having a more coordinated DTES Food System so that food is accessible 24 hours a day throughout the year. In addition to the printed paper copies, in January 2015 we evolved to include 2 digital versions of the DTES Food Map, accessible 24/7 at Potluck Café and the Drug Users Resource Centre. The digital versions help to bridge the digital divide by enabling real-time updates along with time sensitive notifications such as toxic drug alerts and missing persons. We are hoping to sustain the digital versions by providing offering community specific advertising space that groups like the SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement can purchase to inform residents of their programming in an effective way.

What is the importance of the Food Map initiative in the neighbourhood and what are some of the challenges that this initiative has faced? When we first started working on the DTES Food Map, we were spinning in circles trying to figure out how to design it in an innovative and user friendly way. First, we plotted the meals geographically on a map, then we tried to separate the meals based on type and of course, the alphabetically listed organizations – all of which proved to be messy and doing the same thing as all the other resources out there. It wasn’t until we took a human centred approach and started asking DTES residents about their experience with the DTES Food System, that we began plotting the DTES Food Map by time, because hunger doesn’t discern the name of who is feeding you. At the moment, our biggest challenge with the DTES Food Map initiative is the long term financial sustainability of the digital Food Map

What are the future plans for this project? In the next year, DTES Kitchen Tables will work on seeking more potential advertisers on the digital display to ensure its long-term sustainability. This summer, we will focus on growing our DTES Food Procurement Group –a buying group consisting of DTES Food Providers to access fresh and nutritious local food – to include more organizations and more purchasing from local farms as well as develop a model where smaller organizations can also benefit from the collective purchasing power. We will also be expanding our DTES Fresh Produce Market to 2 locations this year – Potluck Café and DTES Neighbourhood House – bringing affordable fresh local fruits and vegetables to DTES residents.

What other projects are you working on? To date, DTES Kitchen Tables has primarily been collaborating with stakeholders one-on-one. With the Project well established now, we are now starting to bring groups together to better share, learn and collaborate with each other and build a stronger network and community voice.


Join us on Tuesday, May 26th, for Everything Will Be | Film screening and discussion!

This feature documentary by Sundance award-winning director Julia Kwan captures the subtle nuances of a culturally diverse neighbourhood – Vancouver’s once-thriving Chinatown – in the midst of a transformation that plays out across many ethnic enclaves in North America. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion including Nathan Edelson, Melissa Fong, Anita Lau, Claudia Li and Doris Chow; moderated by Jackie Wong. You can find the event information here.


BIOS

Doris Chow has been the manager of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) Kitchen Tables Project with Potluck Café Society for over 2 years, advancing the Right To Food to the low income community. During this time she successfully launched the innovative DTES Food Map and the DTES Food Procurement Group – the first non-profit food buying group in Canada.

After finishing her Bachelors degree in Sociology and a certificate in Community Economic Development, she began working in the Downtown Eastside at United We Can and hasn’t left the neighbourhood or the world of social enterprise since. Seeing the under representation of Chinese Canadians in the DTES organizations, Doris is also trying to address the needs of a growing population of low-income Chinese seniors. In her spare time, she volunteers in different capacities in the Chinatown neighbourhood.

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