A Kitchen with a Mission

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I’m obsessed with cooking shows.  Most recently, it’s been MasterChef Australia.  I like it better than the American or Canadian versions because the contestants spend more time cooking.  I am constantly amazed by what these amateur cooks can create. More than once I’ve downloaded a recipe and given it a go.   45 step decadent dessert? No problem.  Coming right up. 

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The other day I was chatting about this with some colleagues of mine while we were out to lunch.  I love food.  I cook all the time.  I go out to eat with friends, try new restaurants and often have people over for some fancy meal I am trying to put together.  It’s social.  It’s inclusive.  It’s a big part of my life. But I have to admit that it’s a privilege I have.  Not everyone could afford it.  In fact, some friends of mine, both of whom work and have two little kids can rarely join me on these food adventures.

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We often talk about social inclusion when we talk about living in poverty.  It’s hard to be part of society and get engaged in the community when you are struggling to make ends meet.  But it’s so important.  Life is about MORE than meeting basic needs.  Life is about participation, relationships and being part of a greater community.

This is where Food Bank Plus comes in. Several of our agencies have programs focused around food but geared towards social inclusion and community.  Their main goal is sharing the #joyoffood.

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Earlier this year, Ella Victor, Manager of the Lawrence Heights Community Food Space invited me to check out the new and improved Mission Kitchen program that her team was running.  Thanks to our friends at Unilever and Food Banks Canada, they were able to hire a Registered Dietitian, buy kitchen equipment, table settings and real dishes for the program.  There’s nothing like a great meal made and shared together with friends!

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Ella’s program aims to provide a safe, comfortable and welcoming space for members of the community.  Neighbours come together to learn how to make food, prepare recipes and share a meal.  Though mostly made up of women in the community, kids will often attend on PD days or when their parents can’t find childcare.  Pete, proudly representing his fellow males, is also a resident member.  I was lucky enough to join several cooks and was warmly welcomed each time. It was great to meet so many Lawrence Heights Community members – it felt like a little family.

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Nisha is the Registered Dietitian working with the program.  Each full course meal she plans includes appetizers, a main dish, and a dessert.  She tries to incorporate as many items from the food bank as possible focusing on some the clients aren’t sure how to use – such as quinoa, spaghetti squash and rutabaga.  The idea is that if they feel comfortable using the items in the group, they’ll be able to use the foods when preparing meals at home. I love discovering new foods – I know it can be daunting to use ingredients that you’ve never tried before but it can also be an adventure and it’s so great when you realize how yummy they are!

“I choose recipes based on healthier cooking techniques such as baking or poaching over any sort of frying.  I want to promote healthy eating for everyone and it’s so easy to do,” says Nisha. All of the recipes she chooses are simple but delicious with inexpensive ingredients that can meet multiple dietary needs.  If dishes aren’t suitable for some, she makes sure everyone knows – like when she told me not to have the soup because it contained chicken broth – thanks Nisha!

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Debra has been attending the program since the beginning.  As we were prepping the meal, she told me how much she loves spending time with everyone. She has no relatives in the city and lives on her own so it’s been a great way for her to bond with others.  I totally get this.  When I first moved to Toronto it was hard not knowing anyone – it was even harder to find new friends.  She’s even been trying some of the new skills and recipes at home I made kale chips at home the other day; it was easy and it’s even a healthy snack!” The program has also introduced her to items she would see in the food bank but didn’t know how to use.  One particular item that is finding its way into her kitchen is capers, she loves adding them to her salads.

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“This program lifts the community! More people should join us!” Lillian enthusiastically told me when I asked her what she thought of the kitchens.

She always has a big smile on her face and is happy to pose for photos while preparing the meals.  Her favourite foods to make in the program are new and creative salads. She’s definitely a people person and loves being around others who share her joy of food.

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Maudlyn is a retired caterer and keeps coming every week because it keeps her active.  “This program is a commitment to myself.  It gets me out of the house to socialize with others! My favourite part is actually setting the table!”  I can relate.  Table settings seem so simple but they set the ambience.  When I have friends over I pay attention to these details.  It’s just another way I like to show people that they are important to me.  Maudlyn feels the same.

“Setting the table really brings the group together.  It makes it feel like we really are a family sharing a meal.”

After every cook the smells in the kitchen were amazing.  I couldn’t wait to eat.  When all the cooking was finally done – the best part – I got to try everyone’s new creations while getting to know everyone better.

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Nisha and Ella also led a talk about nutrition and what foods everyone enjoyed.  Participants are also encouraged to bring containers to take any leftovers home.  Recipes are also handed out if anyone wants to give it a try at home. “Bringing food home to share with their families is just as important as sharing the meal here,” says Ella.

“They get to take pride in their work and share the joy even further.  We also love hearing if their families enjoyed the food as much as we did or what adaptations they make to the recipes the next time they make them.”

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Every time I left, I felt inspired, encouraged and stuffed.   It was such an amazing sense of togetherness and community.  It makes me feel grateful that such programs can exist so that everyone, despite circumstances, can enjoy the joy of food as much as I do.

Without your support, amazing programs like Mission Kitchen couldn’t exist!  Even though it is only for a couple of hours each week – it really means a lot to people like Pete, Debra, Lillian, Maudlyn and the others!

Everyone deserves a place where they can safely meet people, build relationships, feel included in society and eat delicious food regardless of their income! If you would like to support programs like this in your community, please make a gift today!

Again, a BIG THANK YOU to Unilever and Food Banks Canada for making the Mission Kitchen possible.

 

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