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Council prepares a meal, learns how Food to Share helps County’s food insecure

Story and photos by Sharon Harrison
Prince Edward County councillors had the knives out this week – but also big, wooden spoons, as they traded work around the horseshoe for an evening in the kitchen.

Mayor Steve Ferguson and five councillors rolled up their sleeves in the commercial kitchen at the Wellington and District Community Centre to first establish their cooking knowledge, then learn about Food to Share’s important work in the County.

All were in good humour around a big kitchen island preparing to get to work.

When asked about his cooking level, mayor Ferguson noted, “For this particular dish, I excel at this,” referring to the chili on the menu.

Prince Edward County’s Food to Share program invited the group to experience first-hand what it is like to prepare and cook meals for the area’s food insecure. The program makes use of the Highline Hall kitchen twice a week, every week.

Cooking with PEC councillors, from left, are: Bill Roberts, John Hirsch, Food to Share founder Glen Wallis, mayor Steve Ferguson, Mike Harper, Bill McMahon, and Kate McNaughton with daughter Norah.

Wellington councillor Mike Harper, Picton councillor Kate McNaughton (plus daughter Norah), South Marysburgh councillor John Hirsch, Ameliasburgh councillor Bill McMahon and Sophiasburgh councillor Bill Roberts were joined and the mayor worked as a team, chopping, stirring, flipping, grilling, cooking, serving, packaging and then cleaning up.

South Marysburgh councillor John Hirsch and Food to Share board member Peta Shelton on vegetable preparation.

Along with Food to Share co-founder Glen Wallis, chair Heather Ford, board member and treasurer Peta Shelton and a handful of helpers and volunteers, the group cooked up a meal of beef chili, coleslaw and corn bread from scratch.

Food to Share began in 2015 when Wallis applied was awarded a PEC Awesome grant for $1,000. The initial concept was a simple one: to take the excess bounty produced by growers (farmers, individual gardeners, etc.) and turn it into prepared foods that could ultimately be distributed through local food banks and other groups.

Wallis recently attended the Food Summit which is the collection of all the Good Food organizations from across Canada, and which Food to Share became a member of last year.

Councillor Mike Harper gets crackin’

“The aspirational goal, in a dignified way, is to help people with food insecurity get access to good, healthy food,” said Wallis. “Coming away from that summit, it became clear that we are incredibly successful as a community in taking steps in addressing food insecurity. I met people from municipalities of 100,000 or more that had no end of trouble. They couldn’t get a meeting with a councillor, let alone get them to come out and cook. They had funding issues and all sorts of issues with the community. The idea to have hundreds of volunteers was completely outside the realm of possibility, and yet that’s exactly what we have here,” he said.

This is the first year Food to Share has had free access to the kitchens in the two arenas in Wellington and Picton as council agreed to give the space in-kind to Food to Share this year as a test, to see what the cost is and how it works out.

Food to Share founder Glen Wallis

Wallis said the kitchens will allow them to double the output of the food they make every week. They are now on track to be able to produce 200 meals a week, and if they do that for 45 weeks a year that is 9,000 meals, which will eclipse what they were able to do in the past – with entirely volunteer hours.

“By having the municipality put in a relatively small amount of money and leveraging the work of all these outstanding volunteers, and working with the farms and the food banks, we are making real headway in addressing the problem, getting rid of the stigma, and trying to make improvements,” said Wallis.

He noted the new Sophiasburgh Food Hub will be another venue they will be able to use.

“We are hoping that Sophiasburgh might be an example of a relationship where all the food that is prepared in that ward, stays in that ward, so people from other wards can see that as a model and build on groups using the kitchens for their ward.”

Wallis said Food to Share is actively trying to look at other ways of recruiting people to cook. One thing they are going to do is have cooking sessions with businesses, groups who are socially active and want to participate, and extended families who want to come out and make meals.

“We are working the TD Bank in Picton who want to be the first business to try it which is excellent,” said Wallis. “Hopefully, we will have a cooking session once a month.We are very excited about that.”

Food to Share has tried lots of different initiatives over the years and most have done well, he said. He was pleased to host council.

“This is awesome getting the councillors out, getting their support, letting them see, it really is a fun thing to do. And that’s why the volunteers keep coming back – because it’s a social and a fun thing for them to do, and you get to have that great feeling of helping your community.”

Wallis said they are waiting for the granting process for the $20,000 set aside by council for food insecurity issue.

“That process has to be initiated so that they can start – both the food banks and Food to Share would like to see more fresh produce available at the food banks.

Seventy-five per cent of those who are eligible for food banks don’t use them, he noted. “Only 25 per cent of those living with food insecurity in the County use the food banks.

“The reasons, and there are many, range from, ‘I’m not so badly off’, ‘that person deserves it more’, to the stigma, not liking what’s on offer, to the restrictive hours.”

Some of the councillors also helped with making French toast, a new recipe and an experiment for the group.

“We have this concept that we are going to try because we get donations of a lot of bread which we have a problem using up. It is not expired, but it is verging on stale,” said Wallis. “We are going to cook some French toast today, and if it works out and clients like it, you can just stick it in the toaster.”

After the light-hearted cooking session, the group sat down to sample their culinary skills as the discussion around food insecurity continued.

Prince Edward County ranks second for food insecurity in Ontario.

“Everyone is trying different initiatives to see how we can make the food system better in the County,” said Wallis. “In 2019, I really want to get more people who are food bank users, or people who are living with food insecurity, to be part of the solution.”

Councillors and Food to Share volunteers enjoy their efforts with a meal of chili, coleslaw and cornbread while discussing food insecurity in the County.

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