College culinary program supports students facing food insecurity
When Mariko Nagata picks up a free lunch at Okanagan College she likens it to a warm hug.
The mother of two was laid off during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic giving her a chance to return to school and enrol in the Culinary and Pastry Arts program. Now, she's helping cook healthy meals that not only support her during her studies but a range of fellow students who are facing food insecurity.
“It's nice to be able to access this help and the food is always so beautifully presented,” says Nagata.
“I think it makes a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”
Called OC Serves Up, the initiative was created after COVID-19 resulted in the closure of the College’s restaurant, Infusions, where students would normally prepare customer meals as part of their training.
With Culinary and Pastry Arts students back in the kitchens for physically-distanced training and Infusions only open for take-out with limited hours, the program leaders came up with the idea of having students use their skills to prepare meals for students who are struggling financially.
A new study by the University of British Columbia (UBC) recently found that post-secondary students in the Okanagan are among the most food insecure in the country. Even before COVID-19, over 40 per cent of UBC students experienced what’s called household food insecurity, and that is consistent with other universities and college’s across Canada, the report found.
OC Serves Up ran as a pilot program last year thanks to support from RBC Royal Bank of Canada, the Okanagan College Students’ Union and Sysco. The program was a success, providing more than 4,000 healthy, wholesome lunches to students over the five-month period.
Now, thanks to the support of Valley First, a division of First West Credit Union, and the TELUS Friendly Future Foundation, OC Serves Up will continue until the fall serving up to 50 lunches per day. Valley First is donating $25,000 and Telus Friendly Future Foundation $15,000 to support the project along with ongoing in-kind support from Sysco and the Okanagan College Students’ Union.
“Food is so important in terms of quality of mind,” says Paulo Araujo, President of Valley First.
“When students are trying to study and unable to concentrate due to a lack of proper nutrition, it can have a big impact on their ability to learn and retain knowledge. We’re proud to make an impact by supporting local food initiatives in the communities we serve.”
Sean Pihl, TELUS Thompson Okanagan Community Board chair, says supporting initiatives like OC Serves Up is one way the TELUS Friendly Future Foundation is helping organizations across Canada in the fight against COVID-19.
“During this unprecedented public health emergency, we are especially focused on supporting our communities and enabling urgent funding where it is needed most,” says Pihl.
“TELUS commends OC Serves Up for its impressive work, providing meals for at-risk students who are learning from home and are experiencing food insecurity due to COVID-19.”
For students taking the course, being able to cook for other students is satisfying.
“It makes me feel proud of OC for having this kind of initiative,” says Jessica Madinabeitia, a first-year Culinary and Pastry Arts student. Madinabeitia adds that almost all of the food is made from scratch, from pizza dough and soups to stews and noodle dishes.
“I see it as a win-win situation. We get to give to others and we also are practicing and showing off what we’re learning in school. Everybody is really putting their heart in what they’re doing and wanting everything to taste good.”
Nagata adds that the instructors also focus on maximizing food so nothing is wasted. It’s a skill she’s happily employing at home to stretch her food budget. While going back to school was a challenge, the meals she cooks for others and also receives are a welcome bright spot making the transition back to school as a mature student easier.
“I feel very supported,” says Nagata. “I’m really thankful to the sponsors and people who came up with this idea.”
Tags: Trades, Culinary Arts, Pastry Arts, COVID-19, OC Foundation, Inside OC
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