GRADUATE STUDENT PROFILE
Collective kitchen study perfect fit for nutrition grad student
By David Hutton
Researching the impacts of collective kitchens – where groups meet to plan, shop for and cook meals together – was the perfect fit for socially minded nutrition graduate student Rachel Engler-Stringer.
“The reality is that I’m almost as much a sociologist as a nutritionist,” says Engler-Stringer.
“As far as topics go it made perfect sense for me. Issues surrounding poverty, women, food, health and nutrition have always been extremely important to me and really fell together in Saskatoon. I could only do the socially oriented research that I’m doing.”
Hearing about the community kitchen project after receiving one of its cookbooks from her mother in 1999, Engler-Stringer came to Saskatoon and happened to mention the idea to her supervisor, Shawna Berenbaum.
“Sometimes I think everything comes back to your parents,” joked Engler-Stringer, “when my mother picked up the cookbook it was the first I’d ever heard of community kitchens. I thought it was really interesting and a really awesome idea. So in Saskatoon I said to Shawna, my supervisor, ‘Hey I’ve got this cookbook; does Saskatoon have something like this? And she said ‘Hey that’s funny, a month ago I received a letter from the Collective Kitchens partnership in Saskatoon asking if someone wanted to do a research project with them.’”
Engler-Stringer immediately took to the project: “I’ve always believed that most of the overarching problems that exist in society can be related back to human beings being alienated from each other and a strongly promoted individualism in our society. I really saw collective kitchens as a helpful alternative to this.”
The research was initially intended to find life in a small-scale master’s project, but after she started to collect data it became clear to Engler-Stringer that a larger, more comprehensive study was going to be necessary. The researcher decided that a cross-Canada study looking at the impact of collective kitchens on the lives of participants through in depth interviews, data collection, and participant observation would be the most sufficient research method for her work.
Engler-Stringer fast-tracked the master’s project and started collecting data for her PhD in 1999, moving between groups in Montreal, Toronto and Saskatoon.
Five years later that decision to explore the impacts of the collective kitchen project in-depth is paying off for Engler-Stringer as she has recently completed the most comprehensive study of its kind in Canada. The results of the research suggest that collective kitchens are beneficial in all aspects.
Participants reported significant increases in self-esteem and confidence as a result of being involved in the group aspect of the project, says Engler-Stringer.
As well, lower-income participants were able to acquire their food in dignity and increase their food diversity as a result of not having to rely on food-bank donations. Buying in bulk also helped a lot of the participants eat food that they would not normally have a chance to on a tight budget.
However, according to Engler-Stringer, social benefits were the most commonly reported by participants, as the collective kitchen experience helped participants build friendships, break social isolation, and feel more included in the community.
“It’s important to realize that the solution to a lot of the problems in this world can be found with people connecting with each other and working together,” says Engler-Stringer.
“Food is community. Most people out there would say that some of their best memories in their lives are around large groups of people cooking and eating together and we need to capitalize on that ... people feel good when they do things for themselves but also when they create something that is appreciated by many.”
Moving forward, Engler-Stringer is off to Montreal, where the collective kitchen project has become a growing social movement. She will develop a social theory within her research and she hopes her work will lead to increased awareness of and government support for these groups.
David Hutton writes graduate student profiles for the U of S College of Graduate Studies and Research