For our five-question series on food and education at The Common Table, we ask experts about their strategies and practices for fostering a healthier relationship with food. Here: chef, activist and author of “Take Back the Tray” Joshna Maharaj, who is changing the way institutions understand the importance of food.
The Common Table: How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline to someone who might think that that means just cookery lessons?
Joshna Maharaj: Wonderful, I love this question because right from the start, it helps sort of reimagine the playing field. Some of the best advice that I received years ago from the Toronto Food Policy Council, which we’ve had here for almost 30 years, was that good food policy automatically means good health policy, good agricultural policy and good labour policy. If you do food well, in a way that respects the earth and pays people well to do this work, and we’re all eating this food, it will all come together.
This is not just wishful thinking, it is actually how our societies were built in the first place. Carolyn Steel talks a lot about this; about how food is the most interdisciplinary area. It’s why things like Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard are so effective and impactful. The lens is food, but all subject areas get dealt with through the process of growing, harvesting, cooking and sharing food.
In my experience as a campus food service director and a university instructor, education system administrators and boards don’t understand what it means to emphasise the priority of food because they don’t understand the full role that it plays in nurturing a person’s life. Or even just the role that a food service could play on campus. Capitalism and everything else has whittled down the average college campus engagement with food to the notion that the only purpose of campus food service is to sell food to students. That’s it.
The Common Table: What are you doing/have you done to change understanding related to food?
As a food service director at Toronto Metropolitan University from 2013 to 2015, I really tried to see if we could crack that open and shift my staff’s understanding of their role on that campus. I asked them: “What would change about the way you do your job, if you knew from me, your boss, that your job was now to support academic excellence?” And it was beautiful to hear from them so many things they would change with that shift in perspective.
I also needed to ask students what incentives would get them to come to the campus cafeterias instead of going to a chain in town like the Big Slice, McDonald’s or whatever. In places like that, they would arguably get a cheaper meal, but also arguably from a place not paying a living wage, nor with any integrity around sourcing or production.
The other piece of the equation is that we have completely missed the mark on understanding the importance of food education. I teach first-year students at the University of Toronto and first-year culinary students at George Brown College in Toronto. So many of them are at this moment in their lives when they are moving away from home and taking perhaps the most responsibility they have ever had for themselves. And what do they have? What skills do they have? What do they know about how to do that? When it comes to food, many students are like: “Miss, I don’t have time to think about this. Just give me some cheap food, I just need to fill the tank.”
My argument to both students and the administration is that there’s an educational learning process that can be part of food provision on campus. Food services can contribute to academic success in ways other than just making good food for people. Once I had built food services up at the college in a manner that opened up this idea, it was great to watch how the professors and staff then found ways to engage with food services. Together with students, they began looking into growing food on the roof, managing waste from the cafeterias, reducing energy outputs and all kinds of really fascinating things once we had a nimble open kitchen that was ready to play.
The layers in which food can be part of life on the campus were greatly enriched, even just simply the fact that professors would tell us that it was so nice to be able to bring visitors or guests to one of our cafes and offer them something nice to eat. It was all about how the food on campus can actually contribute and create a culture of an experience on that campus and nurture it.
I know some people roll their eyes when I speak, because they’re, like, “For God’s sake, this woman, and her high-level ideas”, but if we don’t understand that that’s what food is supposed to be doing, then we’re never gonna get there. And institutions, educational and otherwise are going to be stuck with this ridiculous business model version of food production that we’re all dealing with now.
The Common Table: What changes need to happen in our understanding of our relationship with food and therefore education related to food?
If I can have a dream, the one thing I would change would be the institutional understanding, appreciation and prioritising of food here in Canada. We do not take food seriously enough. If you think about it, food, water and air are the three essential basics to survival. Everybody gets really serious, mostly, when water sources are a problem or air supplies are a problem, but for some reason, food has managed to shift its position into a world of luxury. When you complain about food it’s because you’re too precious to make do with whatever is available. The underlying assumption is that something is in fact always available. Its quality, its nature and its sourcing are not seen as all that important.
I’ve been working with food services in public institutions now for about 10 years. I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals and schools. When I started, money was the biggest issue for me was, “How are you going to do this? How are you going to make that money work with the few pennies that the institutions are spending?” And for sure, it’s a giant problem. It was the first thing we tackled. But! Once I got in there and started creating options and figuring out ways to make it work, I discovered that the bigger obstacle was that nobody with any real power cares enough about this to push for the change necessary. I present models and I figured out how to make the money work with their terribly low budgets, but then I realised they don’t want to change. So now my main issue is: “What do I have to do to get you to understand how important this is?”
So now I’m like: while we’re here, let’s talk about scratch cooking, let’s talk about diversity, let’s talk about respecting food and patients, using food maybe as more part of the therapy as opposed to just filling the tank because they’re here overnight and we have to. It’s the whole team that needs to get on board with such changes in attitudes to food. I emphasize this because it became clear that we need to do this as a community.
The Common Table: Who are you trying to reach and teach and why?
Both sides. administrators and students. Here’s a classic example: There is a student residence here in Toronto from the college where I teach and where I was a student myself. This building houses 500 students. But there is no dining hall, and there’s no meal programme. And they thought that that was totally okay. Also, there’s a 20-minute walk to the nearest grocery store and limited access for students to kitchens.
I do community kitchens in there with students, and we have to bring everything in with us, down to the towels and the soap, the whole bit. And I say to them, “I need you to be angrier about this than you are. They’re taking a whole bunch of your money, first of all, then they got the HVAC in here to make sure you can breathe, the plumbing has been sorted out so that you have water access… Aren’t you curious about what the intentions of the Board of Directors, or whoever greenlit this notion of building a residence this way, are for how you’re supposed to eat?” The students have to put that together because their outrage is the only thing that’s going to blow this open. Nothing else, nothing else is going to make the change. It’s only going to be them.
Students need to be more infused with their power. The only reason I got into work on a university campus was because students’ anger and outrage made its way to the front page of the Toronto Star. And the administrators were like, “Oh, now we have to deal with this.”
When I talk to students now, I say, why don’t you organise yourselves so that somebody delivers one of these shitty lunches to the president every day? And when he lifts the lid there’s a note inside about your demands. Like, tell him! Tell him what you want, tell him what’s not working. I understand money is required to purchase these things, but if you pool your resources and stand your ground a little bit, you might be able to pull this off.
The administrators, in turn, need to stop treating food like a nice-to-have. They don’t take food seriously enough. The most radical thing that an administrator can do is reclassify food services on campus. Right now, it gets lumped into ancillary services like the bookstore, the Post Office, security, and so on. Things that are more distanced from academic performance. Whereas food services should actually live wherever athletics and student health live. That’s where it should be, that’s where its governing attitudes should come from, and that’s where the budget should roll through. They need to make that shift from selling food to students to consciously supporting academic excellence.
The Common Table: Where would you like to take your work in this field; what are your goals?
Let me answer this in the context of teaching chef students. Now I’ve taught a few cohorts of Chef students, and something that I have really come to believe is that there are real problems with the culinary curriculum itself. How exactly are we raising our chefs? There is a stronghold of French supremacy on this curriculum, that is increasingly irrelevant because we don’t eat like this any longer. But because of the ubiquity of the French culinary system, it has become an instrument of a sort of colonisation.
Chefs around the world are forced into this mould before they can learn to be themselves. It’s like a cookie extruder. For those of us with non-European backgrounds, it’s even more clear. I had to prove myself with my soufflé before my biryani was taken seriously. My legitimacy as a cook was determined by my French training. And once everybody knew that I had had French training, the lights turned on. Because otherwise, it was just some sort of mother-based wisdom that came from God knows where – and all of this sort of racist nonsense that comes with that.
I really felt and saw this myself in the changing room. For those of us without European backgrounds, – BIPOC folks, or however you understand this population – in the process of putting on those chef’s jackets and aprons, tying up our hair and washing our hands, we quietly turn a part of ourselves off. Because we cannot bring that to our job. We have to perform and be a version of us. I realized then that the task in front of me, insane as it sounds, was to make myself as much of a white man as I possibly could.
Suddenly it was super clear to me. I remember riding the subway and thinking: “How am I going to do this?” Because the only way my crew took me seriously, was when I behaved like that and when I summoned that attitude, which was completely not my vibe at all for obvious and perhaps less obvious reasons. And for what? Just to remind us of who the boss is? Where the power is?
On the other side of things, the culinary curriculum as it stands has zero space for teaching students about where food came from, who grew it, how they got paid and how the land has been treated. None of that. I’m irritated by how much time has to be taken teaching students how to pass things through a fine mesh sieve to make sauces and cook food that nobody’s ever going to eat, and there’s no time to teach them about what the future might actually need from them as everything starts narrowing their choices become so much more consequential.
Our modern restaurant culture came out of a revolution. It was a revolution that literally spilled chefs out onto the streets and their restaurants were born. I really believe that we are in another one of those moments right now. The pandemic did a great job of pulling the first thread right and getting this started.
I’m actually going to start a master’s in Dublin in the fall, to dive into exactly this detangling the French supremacy, as I call it, and then reimagining a version anchored in social justice. That’s the dream. And I’m hoping that the research involves huge amounts of community consultation. My mouth is watering for the moment when I could be in a room with a bunch of French-trained chefs, not all with French heritage themselves, and we start parsing out what is important and what is not. What stays, what goes. Knife cuts.
Joshna Maharaj is a chef, speaker, author & activist who believes strongly in the power of chefs & social gastronomy to bring values of hospitality, sustainability, & social justice to the table. She works with institutions in Canada to build new models for food service. Her first book entitled Take Back the Tray (2020), captures the lessons & experience from her work in changing institutional food systems around the globe. She is an enthusiastic instructor of both culinary and academic students, constantly finding ways to make food stories come alive but right now she is taking a break to go back to University herself with a Master’s in Gastronomy at the Technological University in Dublin, Ireland.
Title photo © Kyle Marsh