As we explore who is involved in providing nutritious food in ways that foster community and build on the strengths of the vulnerable, let us introduce you to…
Karen Dar Woon, is the owner and executive chef of Your Secret Chef, my third food business. As well as working with individual households for day-to-day meals and social events, I teach food skills for community agencies, and work with organizations to provide food programming. My most public contract is with Gilmore Park United Church, as their community meal chef, since 2007. I’m a mom to two wonderful women, a wife, a festival volunteer, former Director at The Sharing Farm, and currently Secretary of the BC Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier.
Why did you get interested in sustainable food?
Perhaps I’ve always been interested in where our food comes from. My grandparents kept a small food garden in the backyard of my childhood home. As a young parent, and then single mom, it was important for me to teach my kids about self-sufficiency; knowing how to grow, cook, and preserve, food was part of that learning. It could be a measure of success that my kids both knew how to cook as tweens, and taught their house-mates as young adults.
Professionally, I was already aware of some challenges for community food centers before it became “fashionable” to consider such things. Food which is grown without extensive chemical treatment, by farmers who are actually making a living, and with low impact on our local ecology… this food is usually sold as a premium product, with premium prices.
What’s frustrating to me, is that community food programs often don’t have the budget to facilitate making the sustainable choice. Sometimes we need to acquire a lot of food, inexpensively. Wouldn’t it be better if all our food was grown with health and wellness for people, land and animal, in mind?
Through your work, what changed in how you see community meals & food security?
It’s really been a privilege to work in the community meal (CM) program at Gilmore Park United. The program was initiated as a community-building work, as well as to address the physical hunger need in nearby residents. Because the church is blessed with some financial stability, the CM has stable funding, which, while basic, is adequate.
One special moment: Learning that caregivers at a neighbourhood group home brought the residents to Gilmore Park CM as a programmed outing. The workers needed a break from daily meal preparation, and I was honoured that they found our environment so comfortable and welcoming for their group.
Through my association with Gilmore Park, I started to work more closely with The Sharing Farm (formerly Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project) to use produce which was grown, or gleaned, by volunteers in our city.
Richmond Food Security Society facilitated using the produce as raw materials for preserving workshops, and a whole new community of food preservers was hatched. I’m really proud to have been part of that.
Perhaps the most significant change has been in my understanding of how organizations lack infrastructure for working with fresh food. Especially when we speak of diverting non-market (“imperfect”) food away from the waste stream, and into community kitchens, we must also talk about resources such as time and space. Churches, community kitchens and non-profit organizations may lack sufficient cold storage, freezer space or pantry space to make best use of donated or diverted foods. Or, volunteers, who provide the majority of the labour, may lack time for processing 50 lbs of tiny crooked carrots, compared to the same of “standard” carrots.
What do you need to see your community eat better?
It would be amazing if civic planners could balance public greenspace with public gardening spaces. The presence of small plots in urban areas really does increase the likelihood that individuals will learn to plant and grown their own food. And, I’ll bet that people who grow their own food have a deeper awareness of food waste. The community, at large, benefits, because less food enters the waste stream, less food spoils before being eaten, and more food is used in its original purpose.
Another “something” that I think is critical to strengthening the food system, is the creation of permanent building(s) in the urban centers, where farmers and other food producers could ship/deliver their product for packing and distributing to consumers. The building would include spaces for cold storage, sheltered space for minimal processing (trimming off root ends, bundling/packaging), and maybe a commercial kitchen for making preserves or sauces. I see some success for an operation which could assist farmers/producers in selling their stuff, without the farmer having to personally attend to a stall all the time.
At the same time, I really applaud the work being done by the BC Farmers’ Markets Association, in supporting farmers’ markets throughout the province. The BCFMA is also working with community agencies to provide food literacy programs and financial support to low income households, so that everyone in our communities can access fresh, healthy food.
Canada needs both a national food strategy and a national housing strategy. These two aspects work hand in hand, as food and shelter are the largest part of household budget, especially for lower income households.
What I see in Metro Vancouver is that the cost of housing is disproportionately high, relative to median income. When households are struggling to pay for housing and transportation, there’s less money for food. When families struggle financially and the adults are working more, there’s less time for cooking and eating together. I think that our society suffers greatly as a result.