Food is the fuel we need to stay alive; we need it multiple times a day, every day. When you’re not always sure how you’re going to feed yourself or the people you live with, the prospect of having to keep figuring this out over and over again can be stymieing. That’s why it’s essential to have food security: the ability of a person or a community to have reliable access to wholesome, culturally appropriate and delicious food.
I first learned about food security when I worked as a chef at The Stop, a community food centre in Toronto with programs that serve breakfasts and lunches multiple times a week for up to 150 people at a time. My job involved sourcing and preparing all of the food to support The Stop’s programs. Our food budget was small, and the majority of our supply came from donations. The day-to-day process of procuring food, planning menus, doing prep, serving and cleaning up afterwards taught me a lot about what it means to actually have food security, and what it takes to build it.
Our tight budget forced me to focus on making the best of what we had available. I learned about the magic of soups, and how they’re a great vehicle for using up little bits of leftovers. Another of our signature meals was a roast-up of all of the vegetables we had on hand with a bit of cheese—and, if we could swing it, sometimes a lean béchamel drizzled overtop. We made whole-grain muffins with zucchini from our garden and discovered that mashed squash—which is sometimes what we had on hand instead of potatoes—is also quite delicious on a shepherd’s pie. Unused kitchen scraps got saved for garden compost, and seed pods for planting the next season. We had a system, and it worked. It was easily one of the most creative periods of my career as a chef.
Since my time at The Stop, I have watched food insecurity steadily rise, yet it’s rarely mentioned in our news or political conversations. Pandemic-related supply chain issues, increasing economic disparity and a swelling climate crisis have all contributed to weakening our connection to food and our access to it, at both a national and a personal level.
I’d like to focus on that personal connection, the one happening in your kitchen and at your table. Let’s talk about methods for building food security in your home, starting with the way you cook.
So, how do you write food security into a recipe? What I’ve learned is that most recipes that do this don’t explicitly spell it out: They simply make the dish more inclusive by eliminating as many barriers as possible, inviting home cooks of every ability and circumstance to cook and enjoy it. There are three main ways recipe writers can do this: providing different options for seasonality, talking about accessibility and considering waste reduction.
Including options for seasonal ingredients ensures that recipes can be repeated year-round. A simple vegetable tart can be lined with cheese and topped with summer tomatoes or, in the winter, thinly sliced potatoes.
This approach also allows us to maximize consumption of local food, which in turn strengthens local agriculture, reduces carbon emissions and boosts affordability. And the often overlooked advantage? Repeating the same recipes throughout the year builds skill, intuition and confidence in the kitchen.
Accessibility in recipes, meanwhile, can mean many things. There’s financial accessibility: offering ingredient options at a range of prices to suit various budgets. There’s dietary accessibility, through providing options for vegetarians, Halal and Kosher eaters, people with celiac disease and more. Offering food-prep options that don’t require highly specialized tools makes it more likely a dish can be cooked in any kitchen, whatever its equipment.
And finally—importantly—there’s waste reduction. Hands down, the best way to deal with waste is not to create it in the first place; no-waste recipes that use all parts of an ingredient do this well. They also can teach home cooks to put vegetable scraps in the freezer to make stock later and to
remove the leaves of greens from their stems, then chop up those stems finely and sauté them with onions and garlic.
For me, soup is a great way to incorporate these goals into a recipe. Liquid foods are easier to digest, and soups are highly adaptable. You can make a really delicious, hearty soup with inexpensive, affordable ingredients.
I’ve developed four soup recipes to share with you. Each has its own cultural story, a simple list of ingredients with lots of options, and a ton of great flavour, serving at least four portions for under $15. I hope they fill your kitchen and your belly with the warmth of a good, nourishing meal.
This soup is an adaptation of bun cha, a Vietnamese noodle salad with meatballs. Adding a fragrant, flavourful broth—thanks to lemongrass, spices and umami-rich soy and fish sauces—warms up this dish, making it perfect for cold weather. While the ginger meatballs are traditionally made with pork, you can substitute with chicken, beef or a plant-based protein as needed. Get the recipe for Ginger-Sesame Meatballs with Lemongrass Broth.
This classic Portuguese soup is hearty and satisfying. You can experiment with the type of sausage you use, and you can substitute other greens, such as collards or Swiss chard. Get the recipe for Caldo Verde.
This soup is believed to have originated in Mali and spread across western Africa with the proliferation of peanut farming by colonizers in the 16th century. There are many names for it—mafé, sauce d’arachide, tigadegena and groundnut stew—and ways to cook it. It is traditionally spicy, made with local vegetables, sometimes with meat and always with ground peanuts. Peanut butter speeds up the process here. Serve over warm rice or couscous, or with fufu, a dough-like side dish made from cassava. Get the recipe for Peanut Stew.
I came across Ash-e Mash, a staple Persian soup with legumes and turnips, while looking for soups that used inexpensive, readily available ingredients. Each Persian home has its own version of this dish, which is usually served in the spring. It’s so hearty, warming and nutritious that I often find myself cooking my own version of it in colder seasons, too. I like to serve it with some flaky sea salt and additional fresh herbs overtop. Get the recipe for Persian-Style Mung Bean Soup.