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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nick Saul and Chris Brown feeding future Working Class Heros

Photo: Nick Saul by a wall; Carlos Osorio

Music-centric activists like I and I may focus on a Bob Marley, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bono or Perry Farrell, but every community in North America and throughout the world have rock star visionaries whose ideas and actions transform local lives and send ripples out through the spheres. Finding these people anywhere is a joy, so to find one (now two!) here in the Big Smoke is inspiring exaltation and transformation.

Rock On Nick and Chris!!!

Nick Saul: The man who built the foodie bank

A visionary uses taste buds – and a top chef – in the fight against poverty

The sun streams through the massive greenhouse windows onto rows and rows of sprouting sage, beets, lettuce and asparagus. Miniature orange and lemon trees already bear fruit.

A pile of bricks is destined to become a bake oven, to be located next to a garden where children will pick herbs and tomatoes for pizza. On the Market Walk, some 40 farmers and vendors sell homemade bread, fresh dairy goods and local produce on Saturday mornings.

In the state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, acclaimed chef Chris Brown will prepare monthly feasts, served under the stars as fundraisers. Eager foodies pay a bit more to join the kitchen crew. A taste of the first menu, slated for July 16: grilled bison over celery root purée, with a tomato compote, baco noir balsamic gel and crispy shallots.

Sound like any food bank you've ever heard of? "If someone called us a food bank, I'd feel like flipping this table," says Nick Saul, feigning anger as he sits in the Green Barn's light-filled classroom. "We are so much more than that."

Saul, 42, is the executive director of The Stop Community Food Centre. Its satellite operation, the Green Barn, a 10,000-square-foot food production and education centre, opened in April, part of the redevelopment of the old Wychwood TTC Car Barns east of Christie St. Over the past decade, community organizer Saul and his staff transformed The Stop on Davenport Rd. from a traditional food bank to what Saul calls "a nourishing hub."

Their new recipe meant adding client programs – cooking and growing food as well as civic engagement and advocacy – and they started an organic garden, sowing the seeds of the good food revolution among the less fortunate.

"We shouldn't have a two-tier food system, only the educated with money accessing healthy, clean food," insists Saul.

For extra punch, The Stop last month hired Brown from the recently closed haute cuisine restaurant Perigee, a casualty of the recession, to oversee catering, cooking classes and the new dinner series.

"I knew in every fibre of my body that food banks were not the answer," says Saul. "We've created a different model." He often speaks of the "social capital" of food, "the beautiful glue that binds us."

He is the son of academics whom he describes as "extraordinarily progressive." Next to his computer, Saul keeps a mid-1970s Toronto newspaper photo of his bearded father lying face down in a field, a policeman cuffing him, during an anti-apartheid protest.

Saul, winner of last year's Jane Jacobs Award for his community activism, comes across less as a radical and more as a social innovator.

"He's not a shake-a-fist-at-the-establishment type," says Michael Shapcott, housing activist and senior fellow at the Wellesley Institute, a policy think-tank. "He's an engaging, smiling person, fiercely committed, very smart and very strategic."

A lean, angular six-footer with close-cropped greying hair, Saul seems vaguely familiar. "I'm told I look like Lance Armstrong," he laughs. "And I get a bit of Anderson Cooper."

With traces of the new millennial man: He courted his wife with artichokes, not flowers, then cooked them himself.

He declines night meetings to be home with his two young boys, coaches one son's basketball team, and scoots around town on an electric bike. He gave up his regular bicycle because he arrived too sweaty for meetings with donors.

Any warts? "I like ice cream," he laughs.

Personal details aside, Saul is at heart an anti-poverty activist, currently part of the push for government to introduce a $100 healthy food supplement for the needy. That's just the first step, he explains. The current rates do not reflect the costs of living.

He cut his teeth in gritty front-line work, organizing tenants in Alexandra Park and helping men, many homeless in the Don Valley, make the transition to supportive housing at Dixon Hall.

Social idealism is embedded in his DNA.

Born in 1966, he spent his first six years in Tanzania, where his father, John, taught political and social science at the University of East Africa. Originally from Toronto, his parents moved back with the kids – he has a younger sister, Joanne – and settled in the Annex. John taught at York University. His mother, Pat, was a high school teacher in marginalized communities and eventually joined York's faculty of education.

"We didn't have the usual table talk," says Saul. "At our house it was about the wars of liberation in Africa and anti-apartheid."

"I'd like to say that from the cradle Nick was a militant against social inequality," says his father, John, with a laugh. "But he wasn't. He was a normal child, a sensitive kid."

In 1981, when Saul was 15, they moved for a year to Mozambique, where John taught at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo and Pat developed school curricula. Recently independent, the country was under siege from South Africa, and shortages abounded.

"I'd turn on the tap and no water would come out," remembers Saul. "I'd go to the market but there wouldn't be food."

His chore was to line up for hours for rationed milk and bread. "It drove me crazy when foreigners would stomp to the front of the line demanding service."

Shortly before they left, South African anti-apartheid activist Ruth First, a family friend and host of their farewell party, was killed by a letter bomb.

John, running late, was just entering the building when it went off.

"That year politicized me in ways I'm still working out."

After graduating in history from the University of Toronto, where he was captain of the basketball team, Saul landed a job in Bob Rae's new NDP government, as assistant to David Reville, the premier's adviser. "I had an inside perch on the way decisions are made and government works," he recalls. "It was another defining year."

Ever consider going into politics?

Saul smiles. "The thought has crossed my mind, but politics is hard on your ... life with young kids. You never know in the future, though. I'm a political animal."

Saul, who holds a sociology master's from England's University of Warwick, which he attended on a Commonwealth scholarship, is married to writer Andrea Curtis. They were introduced by his sister, Joanne, now co-owner of Type Books, a trio of Toronto stores.

"It sounds kind of crazy," says Curtis, "but what attracted me was his passion for equity, his powerful values."

Their first son, Ben, now 10, was born two months premature. "I was terrified the child would die or suffer brain injury," remembers Curtis. "Nick was calm and positive. He has an innate optimism that pulled us through ... "

It might have been that optimism that prompted Saul, eager for a more senior position, to answer a Now ad in 1998 for the head spot at The Stop.

"I knew I didn't want to run a food bank," admits Saul. "But somehow it seemed a good opportunity."

When a parks employee suggested turning a nearby abandoned bocce court into a garden, Saul jumped at the chance.

Today the 8,000-square-foot garden in Earlscourt Park, tended by volunteers, yields 3,000 pounds of vegetables for The Stop yearly.

At The Stop's Davenport Rd. centre, breakfast is served four days a week and lunches two days, all for free. On other days, healthy small lunches – salads, sandwiches – are available at the drop-in.

Meals are served at the table. "It's my antipathy to lineups," says Saul.

Today the chalk menu reads: savoury beef strudel with brown rice, kale and mushrooms, or a vegetarian mushroom and kale strudel. The salad is Kawartha lettuce with radishes, strawberries and blueberries.

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