canculture - FoodShareToronto

Wandering the streets of Toronto during a class or work break, the hungry look for a fast and easy meal. Often that leaves us in fast food joints, or standing in front of a vending machine. Not the healthiest choice, but at least it’s something to eat.

In a society where fast, processed and cheap meals are easily accessible it’s not hard to understand why such a high number of our population consumes unhealthy food.

Have we lost the importance of eating healthily? FoodShare Toronto knows the importance of learning about healthy and accessible food from the start. It’s therefore no wonder that the organization puts a focus on educating kids. “Healthy food for all” is the mission of this Toronto-based organization, and in the modern world this becomes especially important because, more often than not, the opposite is our reality.

Attempting to implement a nation-wide school food program isn’t done without difficulty. FoodShare exists through donations and grants from governments, foundations, communities and generous individuals who support their work.

“Society does not yet put food first, so there aren’t many government grants for this kind of stuff,” says Debbie Field, executive director of FoodShare.

As a result of this, FoodShare exists very much on fundraised donations. The organization’s Recipe for Change event next year, which offers an abundance of healthy food for attendants to taste, will help FoodShare pay for its staff to focus on what they call “food literacy” work in schools.

The idea of food literacy is based on teaching children the basics of making healthy decisions, so that it is easier for them to build upon these skills later in life.

A main goal of FoodShare’s food literacy programs is to make healthy-food education mandatory from kindergarten to grade 12.  It’s also important to teach children that they can find foods that fit their specific lifestyle and cultural choices, be that Halal, vegetarian, vegan, etc.

“It’s not about feeding people in a very passive way,” says Field.  “It’s about activating people to take control by, for example, growing some of their own food [and] cooking their own food.”  She explains that FoodShare aims to inspire kids to become involved in overseeing their own food system, describing their teachings as providing an “activist approach.”

Healthy eating is not impossible. Through FoodShare’s programming, Field has noticed that kids will eat anything that looks and smells good or if they’re hungry and it can be accessed easily.

But how many Canadian schools have vending machines doling out bags of chips and candy? In 2009, an astonishing 78 per cent of vending-machine purchases made by adolescents were made in their schools. FoodShare is working to teach children that healthy food can be accessible and affordable as well.

“If you don’t eat healthy food, you cannot be healthy,” says Field.  “We have a growing crisis of childhood obesity and diabetes, and what’s very sad about this is that we’re going to spend billions of dollars treating a problem downstream that doesn’t need to be created”.

Although a mere six per cent of Canada’s population is estimated to suffer from diabetes, an incredible 13.1 billion dollars was the estimated cost of this disease on the Canadian healthcare system this year. Field believes that if kids begin learning about health at an earlier age, this figure could drop dramatically and not only increase personal health, but also Canada’s economic strength.

In an effort to decrease these numbers, FoodShare runs various workshops within schools to teach children how to cook for themselves. The organization works to teach kids that there is variety in healthy food choices – they never have to be stuck eating something they don’t enjoy.

For example, the “Signature Salad” workshop allows children to make their own salads, choosing from a salad bar with cut up vegetables, fruits, proteins and carbohydrates. Kids are able to choose what they want to eat from a range of options and get excited about the meal they’ve created.

“If you allow kids, or adults even, to make their own food from scratch, involve them in the process, then it’s quite easy to encourage them to eat healthy food,” says Fields.

Fields recalls a certain reaction to a previous Great Big Crunch event, during which kids all across Canada took a bite out of an apple at the same time. After participating, one third-grade student “put up his hand and said ‘Miss! Miss! This is revolutionary!’”

Indeed, FoodShare receives a great flow of positive feedback from the children they feed and educate, as well as from their parents.

“We have tons of quotes about how important a snack is to them, and how it made them feel better, or made them learn better, [and] it’s very rewarding work that way,” says Field. “It’s quite amazing to see kids who are as excited about tasting an apple as they would a potato chip”.

Nevertheless, FoodShare is more than just a local organization committed to food literacy.

Take the Great Big Crunch, for example: the apples the kids bite into are sourced from the Norfolk Fruit Grower’s Association, a group of local Ontario farmers. So while FoodShare helps excite and educate children about healthy food, they also support local farmers, improving their financial sustainability.

It’s not meant to simply be a community affair. The people at FoodShare are striving to have their initiatives extend out of Toronto, out of Ontario and all across the country.

FoodShare is credited with having developed the model for school food programs in Canada, and the organization continually speaks at meetings advocating for this model to become an implemented reality throughout the country. It’s shocking to discover that Canada is one of the only countries without a universal food program. Such programs exist in the United States, Brazil and other countries around the world, not dependent on their affluence.

By teaching in schools, the initiatives of FoodShare not only affect children, but their families, their communities, their provinces and all of Canada.

“It’s got levels and layers. It’s about a universal school food program, cost shared by the federal government, the provinces, the city, the parents, and [other] community donors,” says Field. “It’s about food literacy being integrated into the school curriculum. It’s about choice for children and putting them in the driver’s seat”.

Erica Salvalaggio is a first-time contributor for CanCulture and a radio and television arts student at Ryerson University.

This article was edited by Melissa Myers, food section editor for CanCulture.

Photography courtesy of FoodShare Toronto.