Peggy and her daughter started coming to The Local’s Monday night Community Meal in 2013, shortly after the Community Food Centre opened its doors. Peggy was living in a room in shared house at the time, and was finding it hard to make ends meet on monthly government assistance cheques.
Peggy quickly made new friends at the CFC, including Liz Mountain, The Local’s food skills coordinator, who invited Peggy to join the cooking and gardening skills program Shovel and Spoon. Peggy liked the program so much, she signed up to participate in every food skills program The Local had to offer.
In January 2014, The Local launched FoodFit, a pilot program created by CFCC with advice from medical professionals and community members. The twelve-week program combines cooking sessions, clear nutrition information and easy-to-do exercise in a social atmosphere; the program’s goal is to empower people living on low-incomes to make measurable changes to their health, while respecting the limits of their circumstances.
Peggy felt she had the time and the motivation to join. Her pre-program health measurements revealed that she was obese, with a BMI of 33 and a waist line circumference that put her at risk for developing a number of chronic health problems such as coronary artery disease and Type 2 diabetes. Her fitness level, based on her age and resting heart rate, was classified as “poor,” and she was pre-hypertensive. Her goal at the beginning of the program was “to make more healthy food choices so I can live longer for me and my kids.”
“She was very quiet at first, taking in all the information,” says Kate Van, The Local’s FoodFit facilitator. Weekly sessions vary in focus: one week will be whole grains, another will be “nutrition facts” labels, or mindful eating. The program’s curriculum is based on the latest research in healthy eating and how people make change, and strives to create a welcoming, non-judgemental atmosphere, and to motivate people via realistic group goal-setting.
By the last week of the program, Peggy’s blood pressure readings were lower, her fitness level had improved from “poor” to “above average,” and she had dropped 12 lbs in body weight and four inches from her waist line. The first week of the program Peggy recorded an average of 3,954 daily steps on her pedometer – by the end of the program she had more than doubled her daily steps to 9,601. She also learned a lot about healthy eating and cooking healthy meals, and had made new friends.
When asked what it was about Food Fit that helped her reach and maintain her goals of getting healthier and losing weight, Peggy simply said, “It’s a good program.” She found the food label reading activity particularly helpful, “I never understood all those words and Kate explained it so I could understand.” She also liked that everyone was encouraged to make changes at their own pace, changes they could live with. “You do what you can, you start off slow. Start with walking around the block and, if you can, you go around twice.” Kate notes: “It was common sense what she was learning, and she trusted the program and enjoyed the food. Trust is a huge thing. She believed in the program – we didn’t make it up, it’s not just a fad diet. She trusted it and asked questions.”
At the end of the program, Peggy asked to stay on as a volunteer with the next group of participants. “She walks the talk! A lot of people have come to FoodFit because she was telling everyone!” says Kate.
“I loved the group,” says Peggy. “A lot of the people really enjoyed how I helped them out because I knew what they were going through. I met some really nice ladies in the group and I still see them.” And Peggy has been a huge asset in running the subsequent FoodFit groups. “She knew the recipes and what everyone was going through.” And the participants recognized Peggy’s volunteer efforts with a personal thank-you card on FoodFit graduation day.
Positive changes have continued for Peggy. “I’ve found it easy to keep doing things because I have the books and papers. I’m more conscious about what I’m eating now. I’m keeping the weight off.” Peggy continues to monitor her health measurements: seven months after starting Food Fit she has lost a total of 43 lbs., and her BMI has dropped to 29.3 – a measurement that is classified as overweight, but no longer obese. And she’s lost a total of nine inches from her waistline; with this smaller measurement, she is no longer considered at risk for developing a number of chronic health conditions. Her blood pressure is also normal. “I walk everywhere. I’ve always been a walker, I picked it up from my mom, but I walk further now, at my speed, and I walk with my kids.” Peggy feels her health has improve both physically and mentally: “I have osteoporosis, it usually bothers my lower back and it’s not as sore, my osteoporosis is less active since I’ve been keeping the weight off. I have more confidence in myself. It’s been good for my self-esteem.”
Peggy doesn’t spend as much time at The Local these days because two months ago she found employment in a kitchen at a restaurant. She credits the experience she gained in The Local’s food skills programs and a connection made through The Local's community chef for helping her get the job. “I did the groups here and I love it so much and that’s one way I got my job. I felt really well prepared. My experience is with food.”
In November, Peggy was able to move from a rooming house into a one-bedroom apartment she shares with her daughter. In spite of this positive movement, Peggy still struggles: “I try and stay away from junk food but with stress it’s sometimes hard.” Peggy's skills have improved, but the food environment hasn't: junk food is still everywhere she looks, and it is often cheaper and more accessible than healthier alternatives. And all the skills in the world can't change the fact that making ends meet on a low income is a daily challenge.
Despite her busy schedule, Peggy has managed to maintain her social connections, dropping in to catch up with Kate and other staff at The Local and attending Community Meals when she can. A fellow FoodFit alumnus even stopped by the restaurant where she works for lunch one day to see her. She plans to stay involved with The Local as much as possible. “I want to keep volunteering but working kind of cramps my volunteering. But I’ll ask ‘what can I do’ if there’s a special event. I’d never say no, not to this place.”
It’s difficult for Peggy to imagine her life without The Local. “I think it would be depressing. It’s the people here, all the people together, they make the programs. All of them make this place and they’re all so special.”