People and programs 03/08/2018

For International Women's Day 2018 we shone the spotlight on five amazing women who are working to power to good food movement across Canada. Who are the women inspiring you?

“Everyone’s got a connection to food—everybody eats. And food also connects us together too, because when we’re talking about food, or eating it, it can really break down some of the barriers that can otherwise separate us."

Barb Wong
Food Coordinator, Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House, Vancouver, BC

 

Barb Wong has had a long and varied career in food. A registered dietitian, she worked with pregnant and parenting women affected by substance abuse in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. After starting a family of her own, she switched direction somewhat, co-developing an all-natural cookie dough company and working at a cookbook store. Then, when a position at the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House came up in 2012, she jumped on it because, as she puts it, “it was an opportunity to help build the very community I live in.”

The Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House has served East Vancouver for over fifty years, bringing together the community through childcare programs, senior wellness workshops, yoga classes and much more. Food has always been part of its programming and it became even more so after Barb became the Food Coordinator. She’s worked to unify all its food programs – from community kitchens and supper clubs – and create new programs to meet community needs.

One of those programs is the youth leadership program EAT (Eat! Act! Think!). EAT is an eight-week program that teaches students in grades 9 to 11 about food security and food literacy. They then pass their new knowledge on, developing an eight-week curriculum that they themselves teach in programs for elementary school-aged children in the area. “With the EAT program, it’s an opportunity for kids to volunteer in the community,” Barb says. “But when they make the realization that, ‘Whoa, this is how the food system works,’ then translate that into something that kids might understand, and then those kids take that home to their families, it’s amazing.”

Barb calls the Neighbourhood House a “kind of community living room,” and she’s delighted to see the number of kids that now spend time hanging out in it. “Young people are our future policy makers,” she says, “so if we can make an impact on them now, we’ll see some big changes in the future.”

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“There’s nobody who doesn’t love a good meal with people they care about.”

Gillian Flies
Farmer and CFCC Donor, Creemore, ON

Gillian Flies has been running the New Farm, a sprawling organic farm in Creemore, Ontario, with her partner for eleven years, and still they get visitors who don’t know that potatoes grow underground or who’ve never seen a carrot with dirt on it. In fact, Gil says, this is exactly why those people are visiting the farm—“They crave access to the outside, where food is grown. So many people come to the farm just to get that connection to food, and their eyes are opened when they do.”

Opening people’s eyes to food—how it’s grown, how it tastes, and who gets to eat it—has been Gil’s mission since the farm started. While she and her partner, Brent Preston, don’t spend that much time doing the physical planting and harvesting themselves anymore, they are still intimately involved in every other aspect of the work. While both take care of quality control (washing, packing and shipping), Brent tends to handle the fields (soil management, crop rotation) and Gil coordinates sales and events. That’s a very simplified way of saying she’s in charge of an exhausting and inspiring amount of food-related activism: getting their crop to market (they now sell out before the end of every season), programming the New Farm kitchen (which hosts, among other things, corporate retreats, canning workshops, various dinners), speaking at farming conferences, and organizing their Farms for Change fundraising series, an enormous celebration of food, music and farming that’s featured the likes of Sloan and the Tragically Hip. The New Farm now raises about $150,000 a year for Community Food Centres, money that’s used to increase the availability of fresh, organic produce in several Toronto communities. “We see organic, local food, the kind of food we all want to feed our kids,” says Gil, “as a human right for everyone. We do these fundraisers in an effort to help make that happen.”

Those fundraisers are great parties, for sure, but they also provide yet more lessons. “The light goes on,” Gil says. “The big grocery stores really work to convince people that it doesn’t really matter what brand food is, what farm grew it. Like a tomato is a tomato. But a tomato is not just a tomato. It really matters.”

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“Food brings people, and people bring ideas, and ideas bring strength to our communities.”

Rebecca Sylvestre
Community Advocate, Birch Narrows Dene Nation, SK

Living in Birch Narrows in northern Saskatchewan, raising a daughter while she went to school and worked various jobs, Rebecca Sylvestre too often had to rely on the generally nutrient-poor, processed food available on the reserve. Too rarely did they get fresh fruit or vegetables or good meat. “When she was growing up,” Rebecca says of her now 15-year-old daughter, “she was overweight, because of all the unhealthy food I was feeding her. Now we have programs where we can learn to cook healthier meals, but we’re still limited to the foods available at our stores.”

But Rebecca had also been around food her whole life. Her grandmother had taught her to dress duck and rabbit, her mother moose; she’d worked frequently as a cook, once at the Rabbit Lake mine. She knew there was a different, better, way.

So she started organizing hunting trips for kids around her community, as well as trips for other hunters further south where there’s a bit less wilderness and moose are easier to find. She hired hunters, brought along elders, and got the Birch Narrows Chief and Council to approve and pay for the trips. Later, she applied for grants to cover the costs of the hunting trips, and she started to receive them. She didn’t stop there. With other grant money, she built community gardens, including one in her own backyard, bursting with potatoes and carrots. Compelled to travel south a couple times a month (her adopted son has health problems and requires hospital treatment), she always returns with fresh produce she freezes and then donates. She’s now using a grant from Community Food Centres Canada to consult with the Birch Narrows community about creating a welcoming space where people can come together around food.

"When communities gather around food and prepare it themselves, relationships build," Rebecca says. "Friendships are made and knowledge is gained—through preparing meals, you discover new ingredients and recipes. Food brings people and people bring ideas and ideas bring strength to our communities."

On the first hunting trip she organized, there were just six kids. On the last one in late February, there were 39, ranging in age from 9 to 17. After each trip, these novice hunters sometimes get lucky and return with a moose, whose meat gets distributed among the children’s families. The effect of the experience, plus the additional nourishment, has had a transformative effect, Rebecca says—on the community and herself. “I see more kids going to school,” she says. “I see a lot of kids reaching out. Older kids showing younger kids what they’ve learned, being role models. My dad always tells me, ‘These kids will always remember you for everything you do.’”

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“Food is so multi-functional. It’s a basic need but it’s also cultural and personal. It’s a source of joy and pleasure. It connects us to the land. It’s central to our health but also to building communities.”

Renée MacKillop
Program Manager, The Alex Community Food Centre, Calgary, AB

Few people understand the connection between food and communities as well as farmers. When, like Renée MacKillop, you’re a farmer with long, intense interest in food security and social justice, you understand it almost better than anybody. She spent several years in Cuba, Oakland and Victoria researching food security issues, returning to Alberta to help out on the farm that’s been in her family for generations. Motivated to make change back home, she became a food sustainability consultant with the City of Calgary and co-chair of the Calgary EATS! Stewardship Group. When The Alex Community Health Centre and Community Food Centres Canada partnered to build a CFC in the city, she knew she had to be involved. Over the past few years, she’s provided the indispensable leadership and energy that helped bring the CFC to life.

“It’s the best job in the world,” says Renée. "I get to be part of inspiring stories that happen at the centre every day."

Soon after The Alex launched in 2016, a young mother enrolled in one of the cooking classes. She was battling postpartum depression and her husband had lost his job. She was struggling to put food on the table for her family, but after coming to the Community Food Centre she found healthy food in a welcoming space and made new friends. “I don’t think she could have been connected to the community in such a powerful and transformative way,” Renee says, “if it wasn’t in this kind of space.”

The success stories that Renée tells are often of individuals—like community members struggling with diabetes whose change in diet now means they no longer need insulin, or people who come for a meal and find housing, employment, new skills and friendships. She also talks of elemental shifts in the neighbourhood itself. “People say, ‘I never used to say hi to my neighbour, I never used to wave.’ Now they do. Because they’re part of the CFC and it’s such a place of community care and abundance. It brings out the best in people. And I’m so proud to be able to play a role in that.”
 

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“One of the most important things I’ve seen is the power of food being returned to the people. We are growing, eating, and sharing recipes and stories around the table. A table that welcomes everyone.”

Amanda Nickerson
Peer advocate, Dartmouth North Community Food Centre, Dartmouth, NS

Amanda Nickerson had no background in food or activism when she got involved in building an affordable produce market for the new Dartmouth North Community Food Centre. What the stay-at-home mother of two did have was a great deal of empathy, a love for Dartmouth North, and a keen understanding how transformative a place for food could be in the neighbourhood. “We were really excited to start it off,” Amanda says. “There wasn’t anything in this area for food security. But it was just as important to have a place to belong.”

That sense of belonging is something Amanda now spends a lot of time cultivating. After the market was up and running, she took the centre’s Community Action Training and became a peer advocate. She quickly learned that food security is a complex, multi-faceted problem, and that addressing it requires an equally complex and considered response. She now spends her time in the Community Action office helping connect her neighbours to the support and service they need. “But first, I’m a listener,” she says. “An active listener. A lot of people come into the centre and just want to be heard.” Her three-year-old daughter, Aubrey, has joined in too. She’s known as the centre’s “mascot,” Amanda says, opening the front door and greeting everyone who comes in.

Amanda is pleased to see the ripple effects of the work she and other peer advocates are doing. People who had previously been isolated now meeting up with new friends. More people wanting to get involved in social justice. “I know personally that these people might not have gone as far as they did,” she says, “without being able to chat with somebody over a bowl of soup.”