Deconstructing the institutional food menu
I met the chef Joshna Maharaj in September 2012. It was a team-building exercise: a day-long retreat to the University of Toronto’s Hart House Farm in Caledon. We were researchers gathered for the start of a fellowship year, and we were there to think about food. Maharaj was there to help us make some. Her booming, asthmatic laugh and no-nonsense directions turned a gaggle of awkward academics into a high-efficiency team setting sourdough bread to rise, slow-cooking beef, baking sticky toffee pudding, and prepping local greens for a giant salad.
At the time, I was existing in the purgatory of lost illusion. To the room, I was engrossed in chopping carrots, but inside I traded between grief, guilt, depression, and outrage. I was two months postpartum, emotionally raw. My caregivers had failed me. Yet I too had ignored the evidence of risk. My newborn son had died in hospital after five hours of life — a home birth mismanaged — and I had learned that there is no greater corrective for complacency than bloody, untimely, and preventable loss.
Maharaj joined our group of food scholars many times over the course of that academic year. Collaboration with a local chef and activist was a tremendous luxury — one made possible by a private endowment for humanities research. It was a bubble. Since that time, Maharaj has spent significant energy working within a bubble of temporary funding. Bubbles can insulate from trauma, but they can also burst.
Maharaj wrote Take Back the Tray before a pandemic underscored our struggle to protect the most vulnerable. Before a pandemic shocked us into a new admission of our interdependence — of the vulnerability of our food system and the “sovereign” nuclear family; of our reliance on extended kin networks, public services, and local businesses. Before a pandemic exacerbated the grossly unequal distribution of bubbles across race and gender.
“Take back the night” is a declaration of women’s inherent value — a statement of agency in the face of degradation by an intimate partner. Take Back the Tray is an impassioned call for mutual respect to govern the intimate act of care when provided at scale. Maharaj takes us into institutional kitchens and walk‑in freezers; she shares tested strategies for incorporating more “scratch cooking,” more local restaurants and caterers, and more area farmers into food service. She offers an account of the delicate, plodding, and poignant work of healing institutional roles and relationships strained by the violence of scarcity and profit-based logic.
Take Back the Tray argues that institutional food service should be as sustainable, affordable, healthful, inclusive, transparent, and delicious as possible. Why? Because where food insecurity or poor food quality exists, illness and dysfunction follow. And if we must be mercenary about it, the cost of investing in health now is less than the cost of paying for ill health later.
Maharaj returns many times to the mantra of Janice Sorenson, a dietitian with the Canadian Malnutrition Task Force: food is healthy only if it’s eaten. The tractable and seemingly cost-effective wedges of freeze-dried starch so common on cafeteria trays often just end up in the garbage. They’re not good. That means we spend public funds feeding corporate contracts and landfills instead of our own bodies. Toronto hospitals, for instance, throw out as much as a ton of food every single day. This kind of waste is doubly tragic when set against the prevalence of hunger in our communities, and the particular vulnerability of the people hospitals feed.
I remember being wheeled into my room at Mount Sinai Hospital after the longest day of my life. Twelve hours of labour, eons for an ambulance, another eight and a half minutes to the emergency room, a heartbeat of blissful unconsciousness, thirty seconds to yank my son from my body, five hours to decide to take my baby off life support, and four hours more to realize that no one had any plan to bring me food.
Unable to keep anything down during labour, I was running on morphine and ice chips. I was depleted. I needed desperately to eat my feelings. When I asked about food, a nurse brought me a container of green Jell‑O. Even the most straightforward labour demands a level of physical effort comparable to running a marathon. At that moment, I needed so much more than Jell‑O. If I hadn’t had the means and support system to bring in outside food, I would have endured hunger on top of pain and grief.
My story is one of thousands. Hospitals, schools, and care facilities are full of heartache and heroism. We already know that they need better food. Take Back the Tray offers hope that we can actually answer that need.
“Hospitality” and “hospital” share an etymological root: hospes, the Latin for stranger. The first hospitals were public guest houses where people passing through (different, but not so different, from you or me) could be fortified anew. When we’re weary, or wounded, we look to community and good food as our original medicine. And that deserves far better than fickle grant funding.