Thursday, December 3, 2015

Changing the Food Conversation...

A day of learning, a day of connecting, a day of inspiration... I was thrilled to attend event Changing the Food Conversation with presentations and break-out workshops at FoodShare-- Toronto's largest and successful non-profit food hub that offers Good Food Programs to provide long-term food security of access, affordability and quality serving fresh produce to 155,000 children and adults across Toronto and indigenous Northern Communities. They just celebrated their 30th year anniversary. With my involvement as an ambassador for Food Revolution, I've come across some amazing things they have been doing such as with their Good Food Café, FoodShare’s alternative to the school cafeteria offering healthy, seasonal food in six schools that has proven positive enjoyed by the kids; I learned soon enough there were more incredible innovation and support going on here that extends to mobile food markets, growing food, nutrition programs for schools, cooking and community kitchens. FoodShare shares a building with the Aboriginal Education Centre and it seemed most appropriate to start the session with a smudge by one of the speakers, Patrick Nadjiwon, founder of The Three Sister's House (educating communities on how to restore Mother Earth by offering practical solutions learned from Aboriginal ancestors). Smudging is a powerful ritual cleansing by burning sacred medicines to open the ceremony with positive spirits while banishing negative ones. 

But foremost I came for Betti. Reading the impressive biography of our keynote speaker Betti Wiggins
, she is a true force of nature. As Executive Director of Detroit Public Schools Office of School Nutrition, she has transformed the school lunches in Detroit and is leading their students and schools through a food revolution with feeding and nutrition programs. Detroit is the first state in US to have a school meals menu objective-- starting with turning off the fryers, eating healthy, local whenever possible and with international diversity that is benefiting more than 50,000 students. Many students are involved in school gardens, and the programs employ 600 unionized employees over 150 sites. She showcased how a public nationally-funded student nutrition program can be successful and sustainable through 3 Ps-- establishing strong cross alliances with Public, Private and Philanthropic partners. This funding automatically puts $8 in each student's pocket in the Detroit system. One example is partnering with a small local deli business who landed a contract to produce clean label soups for Whole Foods. They didn't have the capacity to produce large quantities and Betti stepped in to offer up kitchen facility space, which in turn also produced healthy soup to feed her kids. "You can't do this alone. You leverage partners and work it out." Betti says. 

Betti's motto "You don't wait for the kids to come to you, you go to them," has proven great success in their ever-present breakfast programs in the schools-- from grab & go baggies, brekkie served on carts and displayed at food counters, it eliminates the stigma of social status and feeds every child in a welcoming way. At lunchtime students can eat a free hot lunch and those participating in after-school tutoring and enrichment programs can also eat a free dinner. “A lot of kids come to school to eat,” says Wiggins. Other initiatives include providing material and personnel support to develop-your-own community gardens, developing sustainable farms to feed the schools-- selling produce to employees and producing heirloom produce for restaurants, and providing work for ability-challenged students. Just incredibly uplifting and inspiring!

With Betti Wiggins, Executive Director of Detroit Public Schools Office of School Nutrition.

I love the centre's vibrant wall art pieces interweaving multiculturalism, nature and food.

A healthy breakfast spread of granola baked apples and fruit prepared at FoodShare.

Smudging performed by burning sacred medicines-- sweet grass, sage and cedar, and an eagle feather is used like a fan. 

The remainder of the day we attended our choice of workshop, divided into four groups: Healthy School Cafeteria Lunches: Learn about our new research into viable business models; School Gardens and Farms: Farming school yards for food production and youth engagement; Sourcing affordable food for agencies and schools: Case studies from our Good Food Programs and the one I attended: Why culturally appropriate food matters.

Although the healthy school cafeteria session was most relevant for me in my work with children and food, I wanted to hear about the importance of access to heritage ingredients for communities. FoodShare purchases food from small farmers and the Ontario Food Terminal at a subsidized cost to provide those who benefit from it the most while maintaining dignity and removing stigma. Their Good Food Programs connect families and communities by increasing the availability of fresh vegetables and fruit in food deserts or food swamps (areas with the most fast foods)-- breaking down social isolation and creating vibrant public spaces. This is run through drop off Good Food boxes, and Mobile and Good Food Markets to name a few. The latter was the most impressive for me. The Mobile Good Food Market is a bus that travels to low-income communities selling fresh produce. Good Food Markets are community led, and some are seasonal, while others operate year round. Toronto Transit has donated Wheel Trans bus for mobile markets and the centre's hope is to get TTC drivers on board with the mobile market. Wouldn't that be something? While only 2% of the community uses the mobile market service, they know this has captured regular customers who really needs it and with this accessibility, food behaviours are changing and that is carried forward... As one customer says, "I've been eating more fruits and vegetables than I've ever had in my entire life." Another great thing is that cultural ingredients (selected based on neighbourhood demographics) are also being distributed making them available when they wouldn't have been in their local stores.

Photo Credit: Yonge Street Media. FoodShare Toronto transforms a TTC bus into a mobile food market.

Photo Credit: One More Post

While the Ontario Food Terminal carry culturally-diverse foods with many being imported, FoodShare are cognisant that these ingredients are expensive where some families won't be able to afford it and spoilage is a large factor. Guelph University has been trying to grow International foods in warmer months and other agencies such as CICS (a welcome Immigration centre serving mainly South and South east Asian communities) have avid volunteers and families gathered together gardening on the weekends, sharing experiential and intergenerational learning of growing specific crops and plants organically. Import produce like yucca, okra and callaloo are now grown in Toronto.

Photo Credit: CICS From Garden to Table at CICS Community Gardens

35% of low income families are obese compared to 24% that are from medium + income households. People often immigrate to Canada in good states of health only to see a health decline in three years on average. And the longer they stay the worse their health becomes. Cultural foods they enjoyed eating back home and likely cooked from scratch were being replaced by convenient and processed foods. A prominent example was presented to us by Patrick, an aboriginal native. His people were forced into adopting western foods that drastically altered their diets that were dependent on the natural habitats of the forest, fields and water such as deer, rabbits, leeks, morels, beans and fish. Game meats were drastically reduced and pollutants contaminated the resources they relied on to obtain their food. Adapting to things like white flour and refined sugars has increased their rate of diabetes. The tradition of inter-planting corn (white maize), beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together-- bean vines help stabilize corn crops and the large squash leaves hold in moisture to sustain the soil. Wide-spread in Native American farming societies, it is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations. 

With all that's going on about Global Climate Change, preserving soils and waters, aboriginal leaders are being consulted on to create solutions on restoring Mother Earth.  Although we can not change the historical events that occurred on our land, we can only hope together with government leaders they could work to develop a system of mutual aid and support in the struggle for the preservation of our environment and for the maintenance of life. We have indeed so much to learn from our native sisters and brothers.

Patrick Nadjiwon, founder of The Three Sister's House

Reconvened with lunch to end the session-- a taste of the three sister plants in a healthy aboriginal stew consisting of beef, corn, squash and beans alongside bannock (a quick biscuit) studded with cranberries courtesy of The Three Sister's House recipes. It was so delicious I went for two helpings. Simply delicious comfort food anyone can cook!

Being at FoodShare for the day gave me a deep sense of community and no louder can it be said that healthy food is a citizenship-right!  Good Food is a Citizenship Right, Not a Status Right - Betti Wiggins

With these amazing organizations and tireless volunteers we pride in our city we can end hunger together and nourish all with real fresh food!  Changing food attitudes one person at a time...

I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. 

-Helen Keller

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