The Walrus Talks: Health Happens When You Fight for It with Nick Saul


Nick Saul is president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, a national organization, based in Toronto, that builds vibrant, food-focused community centres in low-income neighbourhoods. He is a recipient of the Jane Jacobs Prize and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. Nick speaks regularly on issues of justice and the Community Food Centre model of food access, health, and community building. His bestselling book, The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, written with his wife, Andrea Curtis, was nominated for the Toronto Book Award.

On February 10th, 2016, The Walrus hosted seven thought leaders at an event at McMaster University in Hamilton — The Walrus Talks Healthy Cities — to explore how we can build smart, healthy, and creative cities.  Nick spoke to the lasting consequences of inequality and how Community Food Centres are building healthier communities.  "Overlay health indicators on low-income neighbourhoods and watch life expectancy shrink and illness skyrocket. We should be outraged." In his presentation, Nick Saul declared, “Health happens when we fight for it.”

“We need to remind ourselves that people power matters. In fact, it’s the only way change happens.  So let’s make them do it. We are all responsible for reclaiming our cities as places where everyone can contribute and thrive.”

In an interview with Nick Saul for the Toronto Star in June, 2014, Ken Dryden mentioned that Nick and his family have been involved in public work most of your lives, and asked why that is important to him.  He replied, “I guess it’s the way we care. For my parents, life was going to be about something bigger than what was going on in our home. They believed you have to be in the world or else you live a pretty small and isolating existence.”

He talked about the ongoing importance of basketball in his life,  “I was a point guard. It was up to me to create some cohesion on and off the court. To lead by doing rather than talking, and you have to listen to build cohesion. You had to work hard, your path was never linear, and how you rolled with those defeats or injuries was what made you stronger. I still play once a week.”

He spoke of his formative political experience working in the Rae government (as an assistant to the premier’s adviser) in the early 1990s where he “learned that the political system needs civil society. It gets its oxygen from what’s going on in communities,” and that you don’t have to be a politician to create change.  He identified the key components: “meet with people, figure out what the issues were, strategize about how to amplify them, then track down a politician and say, this should matter to you. There’s a freedom in not being caught up in a political party.”

He commented, “You have to have politicians driving hard, sympathetic bureaucrats, and a really strong civil society making noise and putting on heat for those structures to move. I’m most comfortable on the community side, but always being connected to the political one.”

He talked about his food security philosophy: “We have four million Canadians in this country who are food insecure, who aren’t sure where their next meal’s coming from, or are missing meals because they don’t have enough money. So our food work is both joyful — you’ve got to eat, you’ve got to break bread, you’ve got to laugh, you’ve got to be engaged in cooking that food, or gardening, or whatever it might be — and very political…. Poverty is about a low minimum wage, about unaffordable housing, about a pension that doesn’t cover the bills, about mental illness, about poor health, about having to drop out of school to help your parents pay the rent. The single biggest determinant of where you end up in life is still who you’re born to.  I want to talk about poverty in a real way, that everybody understands, that connects us. So we can’t point fingers at each other…..Through food, we are in the business or building hope and a sense of self-worth because if you don’t have hope and self-worth, as an individual or as a community, nothing will change.”

He stated, “You have to build organizations or places that reflect the future you want to see. Places that are about dignity and health and connection and pleasure and joy and sustainability. Where a middle-class volunteer and a low-income person who works at Home Depot and isn’t making enough to put food on their table can find each other; and which sparks a conversation.

You need to create those public spaces where people can imagine and converse and articulate a different reality, just as Northrop Frye said: ‘The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.’ ….This isn’t charity. As a giver, charity is altruism, it’s empathy; in the Bible, it’s a kind of love. Whereas if you’re the receiver, it’s often embarrassing and shameful, and you feel not whole for receiving it.”

Nick also described his operating methods: “I’m a political being but I’ve found myself working towards political goals through civil society, through the community sector, to create the energy around these goals so politicians can’t ignore them. .….  I’m in for the big conversation. You build ideals and values and create a majority around good ideas. It starts at ground zero, in the community, and often around a really good meal.”