Nicole and Sam were new to town, had been around for just five months or so, when they decided to give a wild kick at the can and try to make a living in the Sault by doing good things for their neighbourhood. Good things like increasing food security, celebrating arts and culture, supporting local agriculture and creating an inclusive gathering place for all sorts of folks. They gave their business a simple name and named it for where it was -Gore Street Café.
“I’ve always enjoyed working in restaurants but there has always been a piece missing where I have to check my ethics. It’s nice to be able to come into a place that we run and do that restaurant hospitality work and also have a clear conscience,” remarked Nicole.
A search of the term social enterprise turns up numerous definitions. But the Social Entrepreneurship Evolution initiative in Northern Ontario has simplified the definition. “A social enterprise uses business strategies and innovative principles to address today’s most pressing social, economic and environmental issues and can include profit, non-profit and co-operative models.”
The concept of a for-profit social enterprise isn’t an easy grasp for people but the community is starting to wrap their heads around the idea.
Just entering their seventh month of operation the young couple has developed a dynamic enterprise. Their décor supports the works of local artists – a new one each month, their menu utilizes all local agricultural and edible goods when possible, and these owners have conjured unique ways to use the space to bring people together. Once a month they host a Supper Club in the adjoining laundromat attached to the restaurant and the expanded venue also supports Open Mic nights every Tuesday and hosts bands from near and far. Yeah- it’s that kind of awesome place.
But Nicole and Sam are also addressing the very challenging issue of food security through their business. Every Tuesday, Gore Street Café serves Pay-What-You-Want meals and one night a month the Café host an evening market where patrons can purchase fresh, local produce for whatever price they can manage.
“We’re trying to make a living and support ourselves and support other local businesses while also trying to help people. We’re expecting reciprocity. If people support the idea and can pay more, then they can support us so that other people can access food,” commented Nicole with great earnest.
According to the 2011 National Household Survey 22,730 individuals in Sault Ste. Marie are drawing annual earnings at the low-income cut off level. The number of people living in low-income households is 10,685. This discrepancy can be attributed to individuals drawing low-income earnings but living in a household where additional income is generated either by a partner or otherwise.
As of June 2015 Ontario Works reported a caseload in Sault Ste. Marie at 2,159. When expanded to include all person in those households it is found that 3,418 people are living in homes reliant upon support from Ontario Works.
The Ontario Disability Support Program reports that 3,743 caseloads are carried in Sault Ste. Marie. The number refers to single individuals and family units. The total number of individuals living in homes reliant upon support from ODSP is not reflected in this number.
Information gathered by the Algoma Workforce Investment Corporation shows an 8.7% unemployment rate in Sault Ste. Marie during the month of May 2015. That’s approximately 3,000 folks unemployed in a labor force consisting of 34,500 individuals.
These numbers raise concern regarding food security- having enough to eat, and hopefully access to enough healthy food. Research conducted by NORDIK Research Institute through the Downtown Dialogue in Action project exposed that folks living in Ward 2- where the Gore Street Café is nestled, struggle with access to food. Affordability, hours of operation, transportation issues and service restrictions were all variables affecting food security. As well, services that do provide food were often “stretched to their limits”.
Algoma Public Health reports that 200 pregnant women per year access their Canada Pre-Natal Nutrition program for free milk and a small bag of food every week. That number reflects 25% of births in Sault Ste. Marie every year.
St. Vincent Place provides two meals a week and a food bank to individuals living in Sault Ste. Marie. Between the months of January to June their soup kitchen served 5,238 hot meals and the food bank served 1,177 families, 1,999 individuals and 477 children.
*The Salvation Army Food Bank was contacted but did not provide information prior to publication.
The Sault Ste. Marie Soup Kitchen sends out 200 Good Food Boxes consisting of fresh produce every month. On average the Soup Kitchen serves up to 2,100 lunches each month. Ron Sim, General Manager, noted the annual Christmas Food drive may have to be expedited.
“Our food drive at Christmas usually gets us through to about this time of the year and then we rely on the generosity of the community,” explained Sim. “But this year, because we have been so busy, we’re going to have to move up our food drive to September. We’ll be badly in need of everything by that point.”
As of October 1st 2014, basic needs amount allotted by Ontario Works for a couple with two children under 17 is $463 per month. Given that the basic needs amount is also meant to provide for clothing, transportation and other monthly expenses it is obvious that it is impossible to protect the $463 monthly allotment for food expenses only.
Tracey Perri is a dietician with Algoma Public Health. “Our annual Nutritious Food Basket results in our “Cost of Eating Well in Algoma” handout shows an increase of 21.6% in cost averages over 5 years to feed a family of four well.”
Information from the Nutritious Food Basket shows that in order for a couple with two children under 17 years of age to eat well, in other words- healthy and nutritious foods, a weekly amount of $211.07 is required. That’s $844.28 per month required for food only.
The disparate figures are troubling and begs the question, “What the heck are people who struggle on Ontario Works -and for that matter ODSP or who are stuck working in minimum or low wage positions, eating?”
Of folks relying on government support to make it month to month Perri acknowledged, “Overall the likelihood is that there isn’t going to be a lot of money left over for food because there’s usually a lot of other expenses that come up that will be taken from the food budget because it’s the expendable part of the budget. We have a sense that it is a challenge for families so we want to advocate that people have adequate income so that they can feed their families. Also, quite often when people are able to access food it’s not healthy food.”
Serving food that is healthy, local and delicious and offering a monthly market at pay-what-you-want prices is not just what Nicole and Sam do at their Gore Street business- it is part of their much larger belief that all people are of equal value.
“We’d prefer to accept whatever people can pay us and serve really good food rather than give away free hot dogs. I find it really patronizing and it makes me angry, especially coming from a background of cooking at a youth shelter where the mentality was like- ‘oh these kids are homeless so we can just feed them garbage. That’s easy- they can eat frozen pizza, and chicken fingers and mac and cheese every day’ because ‘who cares’,” remarked an exasperated Nicole. “I don’t think people deserve to be treated like that.”
Nicole and Sam’s suppliers are all local growers or businesses. Occasionally, there is a need to supplement the pantry with goods purchased from a grocery store. All of their meat, eggs, coffee and teas are supplied through local producers and while the produce is plentiful during the growing season all vegetables and fruits are picked up from farmer’s markets.
Supporting local farmers is hugely important but for those struggling to make ends meet every month buying local produce at fair prices for the farmer can be challenge. Local organizations, like the Rural-Agri Innovation Network, have been working with farmers and business owners, as well as farmer’s markets, to develop a sustainable food strategy in Northern Ontario.
“Part of what we are trying to do here is to make local food more accessible for people that may be on a fixed income. I think when you look at food security, the local food economy is an important piece of that. Supporting local helps increase access to healthy food for people as well,” reflected Nicole.
Nicole is undaunted by the justified costs associated with the purchase of local goods. The Gore St. Café offers a daily menu that is reflective of what is in season which means the best produce for the best price and less food waste. More so- the girl has some mad cooking-from-scratch skills.
“Nicole reinvents the menu. She’s in a very creative cooking moment in her life. It’s a wonderful thing to see,” shared Sam with tremendous pride and affection.
Laughing he added, “Nicole taught me a lot of things about cooking and saved me from a bachelor diet. She pushed me to learn how to make delicious snacks and raised my standards quite a lot. And she did it in a way that a lot of chefs that I worked for haven’t been able to do with their alternating pain and motivation strategies.”
When the newcomers came to town they thought the downtown was a perfect place to begin their adventure in Sault Ste. Marie. They loved the neighbourhood and found a place to call home around the corner from what would eventually become their Gore Street Café.
Over the past two years various efforts such as the Downtown Dialogue project -which brought together numerous residents, businesses and agencies, have led active efforts to revitalize Gore Street and the Ward 2 district. Nicole and Sam are delighted to accidentally be a part of the effort.
“People are always telling us that we need to move,” chuckled Nicole of the alarm expressed when folks find out their living in the most impoverished and crime ridden area of the community. “There’s a lot of nice people that live in this neighbourhood and there have always been businesses here. We think it’s a great place to be!”
While supportive services that are set up to help people struggling with poverty or food security issues are very important to the community infrastructure, businesses like the Gore Street Café are so incredibly significant in that they universally contribute to the quality of life, dignity and autonomy of all people.
As mentioned by Tracey Perri –APH dietician, “not all people feel comfortable accessing food banks or soup kitchens”. Her comment is indicative of what is not only easy to observe but what is also supported by copious amounts of research -social inclusion of the poor continues to be a widespread problem. The Canadian Council on Social Development defines social exclusion as a “lack of belonging, acceptance and recognition. People who are socially excluded are more economically and socially vulnerable, and hence they tend to have diminished life experiences.”
The need of gathering places that are genuinely inclusive and non-contrived couldn’t be greater than in downtown Sault Ste. Marie.
“We’re trying to run an independent business that we feel good about every day and that we’re passionate about. We want to connect to culture and arts, and music and storytelling and food culture. This is the heart of the neighbourhood where people come together and business happens,” shared Sam.
“And this is where community happens,” chimed Nicole. “This is part of why we have pay-what-you-want and why we make this space accessible to people of all incomes, to people that come from all walks of life. We’re not running a charity for the poor people of Gore St. because we feel sorry for them. They’re our neighbours, they’re our friends and they come from all income backgrounds. And I think bringing people together over food is a really great and important thing. It’s something that everyone can relate to.”
You can visit the Gore Street Café at 164 Gore St. For more information or if you would like to look at pictures of delicious food be sure to check out their Facebook page!
(feature image, Nicole Dyble (left) and Sam Decter (right) taking a load off in their Café)