Toronto chef and activist Joshna Maharaj has spent much of her career battling the injustice of the industrialized food system in hospitals and schools. From her start at the Stop Community Food Centre 14 years ago, emboldened by thinkers like Michael Pollan and members of the Slow Food Movement, the author began striving to “be a living example of how things could be done differently.” Take Back the Tray is her treatise on why and how poor quality, cheap, and nutritionally void food served in institutional environments creates inequity and does not allow for ongoing well-being or increased quality of life.
Maharaj challenges “hospital food [that] is famously ridiculed, chronic student hunger [that] is deemed a right of passage, and prison meals [that] are considered part of the punishment.” She advocates replacing these substandard meals with wholesome and affordable, deeply nourishing alternatives made from scratch by skilled workers with good, secure jobs. She further argues for using local and organic ingredients; cooking meals that reflect the cultural diversity of the community each institution serves; ensuring full accessibility to these meals; and demanding transparency and fairness in purchasing.
Maharaj writes with passion and purpose about her time at the Scarborough Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), and, most recently, Ryerson University. Each chapter focuses on the challenges and hard-won successes in each of Maharaj’s workplaces, from retrofitting appliances to actually cook something fresh to building relationships with local organic and sustainable producers.
The bureaucrats’ concerns in these institutions rarely differ (ultimately, it really is just about money and the reluctance to change), so the book feels, at times, a little repetitive in its pleas to add fresh produce or butter at very little cost to a menu. But the author is an engaging and dedicated advocate for those she’s feeding. This is tremendous food for thought for a new decade.