Last February, we featured a photo essay and short article from murray bush about the ongoing fight against gentrification in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. One of the major issues brought up was the influx of cafés and restaurants that are clearly out of range for the area's many low-income residents. Instead, these establishments catered more to the gowing condo-dwelling popoluation moving into the area.
The result? Both a lack of access to fresh, healthy nutritious food, but also a shift in the neighbourhood that alienates long-time residents (if you can no longer to afford to grab a coffee on your corner, you're not only losing access to that coffee, but to any community that formed around that spot).
This doesn't negate the need for economic development - in fact, that was the whole point of the public meeting. To focus on developing the area so that it improved the livelihood of the current residents, and didn't simply price the out of the area in favor of new, wealthier residents.
Enter Mark Brand and Save on Meats. Brand was at the public meeting last February, and got an earful from residents who reported they'd been mistreated by the staff and could not afford the fare at his new restaurant. All this despite Brand claiming on his Oprah Network reality TV show that Save on Meats is "a business that encompasses real social values," and that "Maybe we`re fuckin`nuts, but we want Save On to be the place where everyone can eat, work and shop together."
Fast forward to nearly a year later, and it appears that Brand and Save On haven't learned much about working to eliminate poverty. Ivan Drury lays it out for the Carnegie Community Action Project in his piece, Is Save On Meats’ token gesture to the poor still a money maker for gentrifier Mark Brand? In his latest attempt to help the folks of the DTES, Brans has issued a rebate coupon for breakfast sandwiches for $2.25 a pop. I'm not against sales on sandwiches, but to pretend this is a way to better integrate into the area and create accessibility to food is almost laughable. As Drury points out, gift certificates of any kind are a big money maker for copanies, since the vast majority are never redeemed. And there are restrictions placed on how and when the coupons can be redeemed.
The kicker, though? That these coupons are supposed to solve a dilemma not for the people struggling against hunger and poverty, but rather for those doing the giving. As they write on their website, "The reality is that people are hesitant to give money rather than food to people who they see on the street. With the Meal Tokens, donors can rest assured that what they give will be going towards providing much needed sustenance and at the same time, supporting Save on Meats’ social enterprise."
Now, in some respects this is true. There is a huge stigma around giving money directly to panhandlers, homeless, and street-involved people. But instead of making any attempt to break down this stigma, Save On professes to offer an easy way out. And maybe it isn't the role of a restaurant to do popular education, but if you have the guts to say you have a "social enterprise," you can maybe take the effort to debunk myths while selling gift certificates.
Save On Meats may be making more of an effort than other companies moving into the Downtown Eastside to offset their gentrifying impact. But there are times when simply "doing more" isn't enough. Instead, there seems to be a clear need to ask, "What kind of food providers do residents of the DTES need?" and build from there, and not vise-versa.
UPDATE: A friend in Vancouver just brought this article to my attention, from Business in Vancouver. It seems Brand is indeed doing more than offering the discount sandwiches, including looking to provide more discount meals and continue hiring people facing barriers to employment. In particular, the attempt to establish a not-for-profit charity to run the meals program is interesting, since it will take the looming issues of profits out of some of this work.
But I think the question of whether or not there should have been more of an attempt to save Save on Foods through a community-backed enterprise remains a valid one, and the fact is, the main goal of Brand's Save on Foods is to run a restaurant the primarily caters to people outside the income bracket of most DTES residents. Why not open up an eatery that primarily serves residents of the neighbourhood in the first place?