Who is Changing the Conversation around How We Eat?

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…

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Elaine Cheng is a Food Consultant, Nutrition Analyst, Educator, and an Entrepreneur from Vancouver. Surrounded by food tasting classes, she recently completed her Master in Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. Afterwards she moved to the UK to teach cooking to vulnerable communities with the former Jamie Oliver Food Foundation where kids have never tasted juice from real fruit.

Why did you get interested in sustainable food?

Elaine: Learning about how we view food abundance in Europe and America is overwhelming. Shortly after, I took a trip to the villages of Guatemala and witnessed food and water scarcity. Comparing the two worlds fascinated me. Inspired by the range of innovative ideas around food and social impact currently existing in Europe, I wanted to bring some of these initiatives to Canada to start a conversation around food waste and redistribution. I started my company Food Connections to host events like Feeding the 5000 – a global communal feasting event made from surplus wasted food to raise awareness about the fact that 40% of all food produced is discarded.

Through your work, what changed in how you see food & poverty?  

Elaine: Hunger is not an issue of charity, but of justice. Through working with marginalized populations, I’ve come to realize it’s more of a poverty of relationships and dignity than it is a poverty of food, money, and shelter. There is more than enough food in this city, and in this world to go around, and the issue is way more complex than just donating food to charities. If we want to make an impact, we may need to take a little more time to learn the real gaps in the system by listening to the voice of all parties involved, so we know where to best divert resources (whether monetary or surplus food) to maximize convenience and efficiency on all levels. I believe food has the power to bring people together of all socioeconomic statuses and cultural backgrounds. We’ll learn to respect food a little more as we view it with a community lens rather than just a commodity in which we are entitled to having.

What do you need to keep going?

Elaine: I love sharing and building my networks through meeting people. Everyone has unique skills or networks that can contribute to this issue. We’ll need talents of all areas – the only requirement is that you’ll have to share the same passion.  At the moment, I’m specifically looking for people talented in tech (app development), system design, and an experienced grant writer/fundraiser. If you’re interested in chatting more about the food waste issue in Vancouver or have a creative idea brewing, I’d love to meet over coffee to bounce ideas.

Contact Elaine: elaine@food-connections.com


New Canadians & Food Insecurity

4975692471The news is dominated by the story of the 25 000 new Syrian neighbours we expect to welcome in Canada over the next few months.  Refugees and new immigrants often experience a hunger and food insecurity in their first months in a new country for a number of complex reasons*:

  • New immigrants often rely on welfare, disability payments, or minimum wage jobs as their primary source of income, and are thus not able to afford adequate food
  • May live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, lack a social support network, are not fluent in English, have limited knowledge of local customs and culture, have minimal savings to fall back on, must rely on public transportation, may not have job opportunities in their field
  • Foods available in Canada are often unfamiliar, out of their price range, or of poor quality, especially if obtained at a food bank or charitable meal program

For most, as they acculturate and acclimatize, new Canadians no longer struggle with hunger. Individuals become familiar with the social benefit system, foods available in Canada, and are more likely to secure stable employment and adequate income. Unfortunately, as many adopt 4975695101Western lifestyles, including physical inactivity and consumption of more processed foods, they experience an increase in obesity and chronic disease, such as diabetes and heart disease.

To address food insecurity for Syrian refugees or other new immigrants:

  • Learn about the roots of the conflict, and the culture and familiar foods from their region, taking ideas from The Conflict Kitchen in the United States, or the Conflict Café in England, two restaurants that serve food from countries in conflict
  • Support organizations that provide food for the refugees, though volunteering, financial or practical gifts
  • Remember that refugees may need specialized foods, such as infant formula or soft foods for older adults
  • Our favourite foods and eating practices may be unfamiliar to new neighbours. Asking about what kinds of food they eat can help open the doors to new relationships.
*Rush, T., Victor, N., Irwin, J., Stitt, L, & He, M. (2007). Food Insecurity and Dietary Intake of Immigrant Food Bank Users. Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, 68(2), 73-78.

Dementia & Community Food Programs

Written by Farzana Latif & Karen Giesbrecht

You are what you eat – good nutrition contributes to healthy brain development & functioning.

DementiaAccording to some estimates, 1 out of every 3 people reading this will develop some form of dementia in their golden years. As memory and strength begin to fade, individuals with a good support system will have their partners, family members, friends and eventually professional care staff provide needed support with basic activities like meal preparation and eating.

Consider now the vulnerable individuals in our city who live without family, a close social network, and an income that would provide care at increasing levels as dementia sets in. Maybe Joe, the homeless man you passed on the way to work, who is in his 50’s, but a hard life prematurely aged his body. Or Lydia, the older woman living alone on your block, who has always been independent, but did not seem to recognize you when you last saw her.

Joe and Lydia live fairly isolated lives. They do not reach Vancouver’s Healthy City Goal that “all Vancouverites report that they have at least four people in their network that they can rely on for support in times of need.”  But Joe and Lydia do attend community meals regularly, nourished by the social connections as much as the food.

If you volunteer at one of these community meals, you may notice some behavioural, emotional and physical changes in Joe and Lydia, such as:

  • Poorer appetite
  • Sunken eyes and dry skin from dehydration
  • Weight loss and baggy clothes

Common difficulties associated with dementia and nutritional needs include:

  • Decreased ability to recognize hunger and satiety
  • Decreased ability to taste or smell food
  • Food preferences might change
  • Preparing food becomes more difficult
  • Unable to communicate food likes and dislikes
  • Difficulties with chewing and swallowing

If you suspect guests at your community program are starting to show signs of dementia, try these mealtime tips:

  • Serve small portions so as not to overwhelm
  • Give extra sauces for flavour and because moist food is easier to swallow
  • Avoid difficult to eat foods, such as hard, crunchy vegetables, or crumbly baked goods
  • Offer more finger foods if you notice coordination problems, such as chicken strips, or soft sandwiches
  • Encourage hydration with water or other non-caffeinated, low sugar beverages
  • Offer simple selections, such as choosing between two items, but not more
  • Slow down and enjoy mealtimes with the individual
  • Keep conversation, friendly, simple and light-hearted – if an individual starts to talk about something that you do not think is true, do not argue, but try to redirect the conversation to another topic
  • Look for ways to get individuals involved in planning, preparing and serving meals for their peers

Poor nutrition leads to an overall functional decline, decreased mobility and an increased need for assistance and encouragement. Meal times are important for sharing and offer a great opportunity for people like Joe and Lydia to socialize with friends and neighbours.

As volunteers and staff of community programs, we must respect an individual’s autonomy, but if we notice someone is not functioning and suspect dementia has reached a critical stage, we can:

  • Send small, non-perishable snacks and beverages with individuals when they leave the community program
  • Ask about their home supports, and ensure they are aware of available services in their area

Dining in Silence

A Hearing Impaired Experience of Community Meals

Written by Angelina Lam

The Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) Awareness Survey reported that almost 1 out of 4 Canadians have some hearing impairment. It is commonly thought that hearing loss is related to age, however younger people can also experience changes in their hearing ability.

Dining for people with hearing impairment can be challenging, especially when it comes to ordering food. A new restaurant, Deafined opened in Vancouver with the main dining staff serving customers using American Sign Language. This restaurant aims to help promote and empower those that have hearing impairments. Deafined recruited their staff from local schools such as Vancouver Community College, Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and YWCA Metro Vancouver Work BC.

My first experience dining at Deafined was delicious Middle Eastern food. A young waiter with the biggest smile greeted my table. He was patient when we tried to order in sign language. At our dining table was a booklet with common sign language that is useful when communicating with the dining staff such as “thank you” and “check please.”

Through my experience dining at Deafined, I noticed how important body language and facial expressions are when interacting with people who are hearing impaired. Reading someone’s eyes to see if they nod or seem confused is a simple step to determine if they understand.

The waiter also kept an eye at our table and re-filled our water without us having to flag him down. Before we left the manager came to ask us how our experience was and if we wanted to learn anything else in sign language. Overall, I felt that Deafined was a safe environment with staff members that shined with positive attitudes.

Deafined is intentionally set up to offer employment opportunities for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and to break down barriers between the deaf and the hearing. Restaurants like this encourage us to think about community meal settings, where hearing-impaired individuals with food security needs can find themselves in settings that are difficult to navigate.

Ways we can help improve dining at food programs:

  • Brightly lit rooms can help with easier lip reading
  • Lowering the music volume and unnecessary background noise can help those with hearing aids to pick up conversation and necessary sounds
  • Having pens and papers available at the dining table can be useful for those who are not familiar with American Sign Language
  • Training staff basic American Sign Language and how to read body language and facial expressions can be helpful for basic communication

Angelina is studying to be a dietitian at UBC. She is interested in learning about the complex challenges of hunger and health. In the future, Angelina wishes to work in the community and develop programs and resources that are accessible to everyone.

Those who Promote Peace Through the Rupert Report

From our Community Kitchen Coordinator, Simeon:

Each week, over the sounds and smells of an active kitchen, I hear the stories – stories whose affects last long after the food is gone. They are stories of life, living closely together, the struggles of keeping health or the fight against isolation, and the bountiful opportunities for care and support that seem so attractive, and all too common, if we just had the time…

Over the past 12 months, I have been lucky to have the time to hear these stories of peace and those who promote it and I have grown to admire the “news roundups” – something that I have affectionately come to call “The Rupert Report.”

The Rupert Report comes together with the preparation of lunch from the trickle of Beulah Garden residents that attend this senior’s Community Kitchen (CK), which is hosted in the Rupert Residence. Every other week, when the CK convenes, participants share news of those who are currently too frail to attend appointments or catch the bus by themselves to get groceries. Solutions are offered, right there and then, to these common problems that beset the elderly who live alone.

As we chop vegetables and stir broth, I hear exclamations of delight, as neighbours report the delivery of food to neighbours returning from family travels weary and yet to fill the pantry. I hear the list of who is in or out of hospital and where and when visiting times are scheduled. The Rupert Community Kitchen in reality, is hub of sharing – a time, not just for eating, but for meeting and organising around the needs and wants of fellow residents – whether they come to the CK or not.

Each and every one of these Rupert Residents are seasoned individuals from a diversity of family backgrounds and rich life histories who come together out of the shared need for one another and for the camaraderie and social interaction that we all seek with our neighbours and those in need around us (in this case around the dining table!)

Whether they realise it or not, the members of the CK have formed deeper relationships over the year, that reach back into their shared place of residence. Not only is food brought forth from these stories, but reflection of the shalom we seek when two or three gather together and I am blessed and reminded of this peace every time I attend and listen to the Rupert Report. The hope is that this kind of interpersonal love and care spreads throughout the Beulah Gardens community and beyond!

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’” – The Message

Rupert’s Community Kitchen was established in the Summer of 2014 as a social initiative in partnership with Beulah Garden Homes Chaplain, Mary Dickau. Under the continuing mentorship of our Community Kitchen Coordinator, Simeon Pang, a group of residents from the Rupert Building have grown in confidence as they share the responsibility of suggesting menu ideas, selecting recipes, prepping and cooking with one another, accompanying one another to and from the kitchen, as well as developing more stable relationships outside of the CK, within their own building complex. The CK is part of a raft of community-building activities organised around the Rupert Building to encourage and build social interaction and strength through relationships.

First Taste of Food Security

Written by Planted Volunteer, Angelina Lam

Food security is an issue for people living in poverty. Having adequate foods and a safe place to eat can be difficult. However, a quaint community café at a little corner of West 10th Ave makes dining possible even for vulnerable individuals.

This summer through a UBC course on HIV Prevention & Care, I was given an opportunity to volunteer at the Oasis Community Café. I quickly learned that Oasis is unlike other community kitchens and hot meal programs. Instead of serving foods in an assembly line fashion, Oasis has shifted into a full dining service where guests can enjoy their meals and socialize with their friends without being rushed out the door.

The purpose of Oasis is to bring together individuals and build a stronger community. Although there is a small dining fee of $1, it is flexible for those who cannot afford it. Individuals are welcome to volunteer and in return meal coupons would be given as a honourium. There are currently volunteers and staff who were past participants and were hired to help run the café. Not only does Oasis provide means to food security but also opportunities for individuals to develop working experiences.

Oasis Community Café goes beyond just providing nutritious meals for their guests; they also provide extra food to take away to help with food insecurity when able. The importance of community engagement is also highlighted through their community garden in which herbs and vegetables are grown and picked in season as ingredients for their meals.

Increasing dining experience for guests is important. Dining tables are decorated with colourful tablecloths and flowers are used as centerpieces for the coffee table. Guests are greeted as customers and waited on to eliminate any power imbalance between guests and volunteers. This welcoming environment encourages guests to visit again so continued access to healthy, safe and nutritious foods is possible.

My experience at Oasis increased my understanding of how community services can help increase engagement to health care. Without meeting basic food requirements an individual will have to worry about hunger as well as health care concerns. We need more community services like Oasis to improve food security, decrease barriers to care and to empower individuals with skills through social support and volunteerism.

Angelina is studying to be a dietitian at UBC. She is interested in learning about the complex challenges of hunger and health. In the future, Angelina wishes to work in the community and develop programs and resources that are accessible to everyone.

Everybody Copes: Understanding Addiction

Written by: Cristel Moubarak, RD

There are various explanations for addiction, and many degrading descriptions for those suffering from it. But are addicts really that different from the average Joe?

Well… not really. The primary difference is the coping mechanism. Can any of us go through life without coping?

The Union Gospel Mission counselors and the Planted Network put together an engaging workshop to explain the make-up of addictions and the science surrounding it. It turns out that the line between addict and not is pretty thin.

Everyone goes through traumatic, tragic or emotionally unbearable and overwhelming experiences. Many feel better by making impulsive purchases, eating chocolate, taking long baths and watching their favorite shows. Others numb the pain with some alcohol, cigarettes or any drugs that may be within their reach. You would not shame someone for having a few too many shopping sprees, but you would if they had a few too many drinks. So, in this sense, everyone is an addict, in one way or another.

There are three aspects, and contributing factors, to understanding addiction:

Relationships & Environment

All addictions have a direct correlation to the environment and relationships of the addict. The type of connections you have with the people around you – healthy, abusive or otherwise – have a profound effect on how you see the world around you, and how you learn to cope with the traumas of life. This is true of all addicts, regardless of other factors involved.

The impact we can have on those around us, by reinforcing stereotypes or lifting someone above them, is tremendous. Shame has never elevated someone above his or her circumstances, nor inspired greatness. Addiction is a vicious cycle that cannot, and will not, be broken through shame, disgust or anger.

Brain Function, Genetics & Psychology

While your personality, your life experiences and relationships have a definitive say in developing addictions, your genetics could be a contributing factor. This is a fact one must be aware of, that predispositions can, and do, make it harder for some to make healthy choices.

But, perhaps more compelling is the reality that our physiology makes it harder for any of us to make good decisions when in emotionally trying circumstances.

In simplistic terms, we have two parts to our brain, each responsible for something a little different. When working in tandem, we have a healthy balance. When unbalanced, it is reflected in the quality of our lives, and our choices. The Prefrontal Cortex is the ‘logic’ centre of our brains. It allows us to weigh pros and cons, facts, and consequences. The Limbic System is responsible for our emotions and much of our ‘autopilot’ behaviours; the things we do when we react, when we aren’t really ‘aware’ of what we’re doing. When we are emotionally aroused, when we are upset or angry, ashamed or embarrassed, our Limbic System is running the ship and we are incapable of making truly rational or logical decisions. We will make our choices based on what ‘feels’ good, or right. We will choose what is easy, convenient or immediate.

Food & Nutrition

Just as potent is our hunger. When we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (HALT) we are more prone to making poor decisions, as we begin to slip into the Limbic System. We know that emotions can be a trigger to poor judgement, and most can admit to making more than one bad decision due to a lack of sleep.

Commercials abound, making light of the reality that low blood-sugars, poor diet, and a basic lack of food make you not you. When we have a healthy relationship with food, we fuel our bodies in the way needed to make good, positive decisions. But food and eating are also a bonding exercise. A good meal can heal emotional wounds, form new relationships or rekindle old ones. Sharing a meal can be a source of great comfort, and serve as a balancing agent for our hearts and minds.

If you or someone you know is going through adversities and in need of help to cope with the overwhelming influx of emotions, it is better to act sooner than later. Get professional help from those who are able to help you through your recovery process wherever it may be at.

We all cope; some of us just need help finding healthier alternatives. You may feel lonely, but you are definitely not alone. Here is a helpful resource list by the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.

Vancouver’s Iron Chefs

Let me introduce a few of Vancouver’s Iron Chefs. The original Japanese Iron Chef was a cooking show where guest chefs competed to make a meal with an unknown set of ingredients that would be judged for its taste and visual appeal. Here in Vancouver, we have people who have made a career of such a challenge.

Every day a creative, committed crew of cooks make their way to their kitchens in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES). They do not know how many hungry people will show up for the next meal, nor how many guests will be struggling with an addiction, mental illness, the stress of poverty, or a trauma that can make their actions unpredictable.

These chefs also do not always know what ingredients they will have to work with that day. In the world of charitable food programs and food recovery, cooks quickly learn adaptability and resourcefulness as they turn donations of food that may be close to its expiry date into a meal that will nourish some of our most vulnerable neighbours.

Like all large foodservice operations, these kitchens are exceptionally busy, with only a brief calm between cleaning up one meal and starting the next. The kitchen managers trouble shoot today’s problems, plan for tomorrow, schedule staff for next week, build relationships with donors so there will be food next month, and orient the volunteers who were expected to arrive an hour ago. Then, if there is still time, they take a lunch break.

There is no manual on how to run a food program in a neighbourhood as unique as the DTES. Mostly, we learn by doing. And we learn from each other. Several of the head chefs, kitchen managers, dietitians, and food advocates from the neighbourhood, including Union Gospel Mission, Belkin House (Salvation Army), First United Community Ministry Society, Door is Open (Catholic Charities), Harbour Light (Salvation Army), the DTES Kitchen Tables Project, and Planted: a community food network have been meeting together to share ideas and encourage each other as we move toward more nourishing, dignified, and sustainable food programs.

One issue we are working on together is to find best practices before the pending organic waste ban in 2015. Several of the organizations are already composting, but with an already stretched budget, hard decisions are made between buying more quality protein and funding a compost program. The City is working to support the charitable food sector, but it will take all of us working together to find systems that work.

To learn more, contact Karen Giesbrecht.

Inclusion is the New Fusion Cooking

Simeon, or Community Kitchen Coordinator, shares what he has learned about the benefits of inclusion – Vancouver-based cooking lessons from around the world:

“I don’t remember ever being ‘taught’ to cook. I just followed my mother, and later my grandmother, picking things up as I went along. They were mainly ‘meat/potatoes/veg’ recipes…I wasn’t exposed to other cultures. It’s been refreshing learning about other methods. Some I will adopt at home” – South Granville Volunteers Community Kitchen participant.

I (Simeon) come from a mixed-race, or other “rooted” cultural background (as I’ve come to call it). For me, this meant I grew up experiencing food heritage from areas that literally, seemed worlds apart. As a longtime foodie, I also spent a lot of my childhood in the kitchen helping to prepare the foods I loved to eat.

My early memories, real or picked up from photographs, include walking in pyjamas to get savoury Chinese donuts to eat with a congee breakfast. Visiting grandparents always included a trip to a local pub – the “Bluebells” or “Fox & Hounds”, to eat scampi or fish and chips.

Traditional Sunday roast lunch meant roast potatoes nestled in there with a bed of rice next to beef, lamb, chicken or pheasant. In my uni years, I became known as the “uncle” of the house, who would look after his roommates by cooking pineapple fried rice (in the pineapple) with satay and beefy white rice noodles with broccoli. And I feel truly blessed to have experienced this inclusive culinary dining table throughout my life.

So this is how I facilitate the community kitchens I am involved with – I ask the participants for ideas from their own childhoods, from times when they have cooked for friends or family, or more recently from restaurant menus when they have dined out and want to learn how to cook a specific dish that is “exotic”, to them.

This means that over the past year or so, I have had the pleasure of enjoying meals inspired by cultures from around the world but all present here in Vancouver, courtesy of community kitchen participants. The feasts include an authentic Japanese sushi-making class, a “trip” to the horn of Africa with Ethiopian chicken and egg Doro Wat eaten with injera (sourdough flatbread), experiencing what “marriage” means in El Salvador with mixed beans, rice and sausage “el casamiento”, and mashing the ingredients for a Dutch boerenkool and worst stamppot (kale and wurst, mashed potato).

“It’s nice to have a variety of things to choose from [over the months at the South Granville Volunteers Community Kitchen], which has greatly expanded my knowledge. Allowing members to choose the next meal plan and…introduce new foods has excited me. I think most of us benefit from inclusion in the process.”

For me, inclusion has meant experiencing a rich and diverse tapestry of food heritage and personal experience – coming by many different routes, but rooted locally, in Vancouver’s growing community kitchen movement.

Dining in the Dark (Part 2)

Continued reflections on community meals & visual impairment… From David Neufeld

Personal Safety

Personal safety while dining among people with unpredictable behaviours is a concern. Vision loss makes it difficult to gauge situations and escape conflict. A sighted patron who has become agitated may misinterpret the presence of someone with a visual impairment, and may become hostile. Encouraging supportive participation from the wider community as dining companions not only can help those with visual impairments, but can also normalize tense environments with their presence.

Finding the Table

Visually impaired patrons appreciate being asked if they need help getting to an empty seat. Sometimes they know where there is an empty seat, while other times it is too difficult to know where the seats are and how to get to them. Asking is the best way to find out. If they want help, don’t grab them, but offer an elbow for them to hold as you lead them. Sitting at a quieter table with guests willing to assist and provide conversation is also appreciated.

Based on the venue and the person’s capability some diners may readily accept an offer to bring food to their table, while others will want to get their own or be guided to the serving area.

Finding Food at the Table

Many people with visual impairments rely heavily on their remaining sight. Good lighting and high visual contrast table settings are helpful. As shown in the picture above, identifying food with low vision is challenging. The photo on the left shows what a sighted person would see, while the photo on the right shows the reduced information that a visually impaired person may perceive of the same meal. This can result in an awkward moment when reaching into a bowl of chips, only to plunge one’s fingers into a soggy dish of warm hummus.

Patrons with no functional vision rely on being told where food is on their plate according to a clock face system. For instance, mashed potatoes at the 4:00 position, roast beef at 9:00, and carrots at 12:00. Some foods can be tricky to handle without vision, so volunteers could offer to cut up parts of the meal. The dining guest is the best source of information on how you can help them with any difficult menu items.

For a “taste” of dining without sight in Vancouver, consider visiting the Dark Table restaurant where the meal is served in the dark by visually impaired servers.

Speaking the Written Word

Reading ability ranges from difficult to impossible for someone with a visual impairment. Written menus and instructions should be read aloud. Visually impaired patrons should be offered assistance to fill out any forms or sign-up sheets, instead of being asked to find and fill them out themselves.

Parting Thoughts

I have met only one other visually impaired person at community meals, and both of us rely on our remaining vision. A few other visually impaired acquaintances recall church community meals, but most did not have any experience with community dining. Some did not have an economic or social need for a community meal, but many mentioned personal safety and accessible ambiance as concerns that would keep them away. For the most part, there was little awareness of community meals. Spreading awareness of community meals suitable for those with visual impairments according to the previous issues of safety, ambience, accessibility and assistance may bring a few more patrons who could benefit from sharing food together.