Rev. Trisha Elliott shares her dream for a world where there isn’t just abundant food, but also abundant safety and dignity.

Thanksgiving meal
Credit: Gabriel Garcia Marengo, Unsplash

It was Thanksgiving dinner at the homeless shelter where I worked. The round, white tables were draped with tablecloths; well wishes from generous donors were written on the placemats scalloping the table edges. Cheerful fall leaves had been gathered by volunteers to form centerpieces. The smell of turkey and pumpkin pie wafted from the kitchen.

Working in development communications, my job was to gather soundbites about the dining experience that I could round up in a newsletter to thank donors for their gifts that made the event possible.

I struck up a conversation with one of our guests waiting in line for dinner and asked what her favourite part of the feast was. I expected to hear about the food. But the food, as it turns out, wasn’t her favourite aspect.

Instead, she responded: “The tablecloths and that I get to sit down and be served.”

I paused and inwardly registered a deep learning: Food isn’t just about the food – it’s so very often connected to dignity.

Tablecloths aren’t unique to my experience. Nor is dining out. Sure, I appreciate a well-dressed table and going out for dinner from time to time. But I don’t consider either of these things a great treat unless I’m enjoying a five-star dinner conjured up by the best chef in the city. My daily experience certainly doesn’t involve standing in line for every single meal with a tray in hand.

I am privileged. Not only do I expect there will be food on my table each day, but I expect the ritualistic, dignified gestures that go along with it.

Another day at the shelter, a number of guests were coming in with cuts on their hands. I asked a front line worker what was up with that. “Our guests are getting canned goods from the Food Bank but don’t have can openers. So they are trying to open the cans by jamming a knife in the top and missing,” she said.

Shortly thereafter, I published “can openers” on our Christmas wishlist and fielded a few calls from donors asking why. Toiletries and boots were understandable – but can openers?

When we think about food accessibility, we often assume that providing food is enough. But other barriers often lurk in the background. Things that many of us wouldn’t give a whiff of thought to.

As we contemplate World Food Sunday, I share these two experiences as a reminder that our conversation this week should be about more than the food itself. Dialogue about safety and dignity are desperately needed.

I dream of a world where the table of abundance flows for everyone. A world where there isn’t just abundant food, but also abundant safety and dignity around food. A world where everyone has their daily bread and are able to experience it with equal pleasure.

— Trisha Elliott

Rev. Trisha Elliott works in The United Church of Canada’s Philanthropy Unit. Find out more about World Food Sunday.