Voting for food security: giving kids access to healthy nutritious food

Looking back on my life so far, I can point to a few pivotal moments that have really affected how my life has turned out. As the Canadian federal election really gets going (towards an election date of October 19, 2015), I am reminded of the importance of food security…and the year I started to really explore the concept of food security is one of those pivotal moments of my life.

Rewind to that pivotal week

I became involved with a community service learning program at my university, where we learned about and discussed issues that impact a specific community while volunteering with an organization within that community. During Reading Week in my second year of university, 30 students came together from across many academic disciplines to volunteer in spaces like an elementary school, a women’s transition house and an HIV/AIDS health program. Each morning, all of the university students would come together and have an incredibly thought-provoking discussion led by a community leader or faculty member. I don’t think remember specifically discussing food security during those 4 days together, but we talked a lot about issues that impact marginalized communities.

My participation in that 4.5 day project has really shaped my view of the world. It was the first time that I really remember being pushed to think in a different way. I almost feel like most of the learning that I had ever done in school up until that point was very passive; you go to school, you learn about set topics, you hang out with friends (usually people somewhat like you socioeconomically speaking) and you regurgitate content (tests, exams, projects, assignments). That week, I was exposed to a number of issues that I had known about in a cursory manner but had never discussed in such depth:

  • what does it mean to be marginalized (I actually don’t know if I even knew that word existed prior to)?
  • what do marginalized women face and how can a community support them?
  • what special issues do children who grow up in marginalized communities face?

Going through that project, I don’t think I even understood how much of an impact it would have on me. Only now, looking back, can I see the trajectory that it pushed me on. Anyways, my continued involvement with the community service learning program over a few years really educated me on appreciating each person’s life experience. You never really know what another person is going through or has gone through and how that impacts their interaction with the world. Which brings me to food security.

Fast forward to voting for food security

Food security is having access to a sufficient amount of safe and nutritious food.

A basic element that every child needs to survive is food. Without food, they cannot meet their potential. Imagine having a growling stomach all day long, every day. Your stomach could be growling for many reasons; maybe your caregivers can’t afford much food or maybe you don’t have regular access to nutritious food. I bet you’d feel tired and your main focus would be on finding something to eat. Imagine going to school in that state, every single day. Being told to sit in your seat, finish your assignment, write that test, run a few laps, don’t fall asleep…all while your stomach growls. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? Every child should have access to enough safe and nutritious food so that they can focus on learning and growing and playing instead of on their empty stomach.

Nobody can deny that children are the future. Just biologically, this is a fact. Children will grow to be the adults of tomorrow and the adults of today will eventually die. Investing in the children of today is incredibly important. And it is truly the biggest and best investment that we can make. How these children feel, think, perceive the world will impact what our world will look like in 10, 20, 40 years. This is why we need a universal healthy national school food program for children.

How would a national school food program impact our today and our future?

Show that we, as Canada, truly value and recognize the important that food plays in our communities and in our future as a country. Encourage the adoption of a food policy that gives kids healthy and nutritious food at school. A national school food program would shape our future in a few ways:

  • immediate impact: children would have access safe nutritious food so that they can focus on learning and playing.
  • intermediate impact: children would explore what ‘healthy eating’ truly means, understand the role that food plays in their own culture as well as in society by growing a school garden, learning about food systems locally and globally, discussing issues related to food security and learning to prepare delicious culturally appropriate meals.
  • long-term impact: children would grow into adults who think critically about the world around them and can support and sustain themselves (better able to focus at school may mean more likely to succeed in society, know how to grow and cook healthy foods, understand the relationship between themselves, food and the environment). They may also be healthier, reducing negative impacts on our health care system.

You can read more about this on Food Secure Canada’s page on a national healthy school food program. This year, ask your local candidates what they think about giving kids access to healthy food and EatThinkVote.

Advertisements

A toddler’s gift of cooking

Young children are sponges. Everyone says it. Infants and toddlers seem absolutely interested in observing those around them and imitating them. In our household, we’ve tried to involve our toddler in our everyday activities. This, of course, would involve cooking. We built a Montessori learning tower and stood him up on it at kitchen counter height before his first birthday, so that he could see what we were doing as we prepared, cooked and plated food. We let him feel, smell and play with vegetables that we grow or pick up from our CSA share. If we harvest some kale or chard from the garden, he’ll help us wash the leaves. He mixes, pours and stirs things.

I’m not much of a fan of focussing on material possessions for birthday gifts, particularly for kids. My personal preference is to gift the gift of an experience. That could be a gift certificate to a paint-your-own-ceramic studio, some books and a pair of PJs, a crafted toy for imagination galore.

So to bring these two things together, I sewed some toddler-sized aprons for the 1 year olds in my life. My hope is that they can be used for arts and crafts, water play or cooking (read: versatile) and they’ll entice kids into the kitchen (and encourage parents to have their kids join them – since I know some folks don’t want to deal with mess…enter the apron!).

They weren’t absolutely perfect but my technique improved with each apron (shows I can still learn!). There is a nice big pocket on the front with a loop where you can slip a wooden spoon through. The apron folds up nicely so that the pocket is on top and the apron ties can be used to present the apron as a neat square gift. I slotted a wooden spoon through and added two felt carrots that I made to finish off the presentation.

Apron The gift of food

One year anniversary for food allergies

One year ago around this time, we were just learning about our baby’s food allergies. In retrospect, I’d say that it was a life-altering discovery and definitely a bit overwhelming at the start. Without experience with food allergies ourselves – as parents – and with little exposure to people living with multiple allergies, we had a lot of learning to do to understand (a) how to cook without the allergens and (b) how to read labels. Sure, we already loved to cook from scratch but the rules of the ball game had changed. A number of our go-to condiments were now a no-go.

As challenging as it has been to create safe family meals that don’t get repetitive and that include diverse ingredients and flavours, I think it’s led us to eat ‘cleaner’. We cook even more from scratch than before (remember we said bye to a lot of our condiments?), substituting things like ketchup (which is still on our list of foods to try with our toddler) with a mix of tomato paste, brown sugar and apple cider vinegar. We’ve tried different types of recipes than we may have been inclined to try before. I’d guess that our salt consumption is lower since we add a very minimal amount when we’re cooking.

I’ve also added new terms into my lexicon:

  • safe foods
  • Top 8 free (and I actually know off-by-heart what the Top 8 are)
  • ingredient cross-contamination (and not just in keeping raw meats separate from cooked meats!)
  • allergen free
  • hives

…and I’ve learned new concepts:

  • oats, barley and rye are typically cross contaminated with wheat
  • vegan recipes are great because they’re egg- and dairy-free but you have to watch out because they love nut substitutes
  • people with allergies have different levels of sensitivities and reactivities
  • things that don’t sound tasty indeed have a very useful purpose (think egg replacer and xanthan gum)
  • make friends with fads because they can make food shopping much easier (think gluten free, vegan – these are legitimate diets but the mass commercialization of them really helps me zoom in on foods that may be safe)
  • the importance of facilities in following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) to minimize cross-contamination on processing lines
  • even ingredients like spices that seem so ‘raw’ or bare bones can be contaminated with allergens (the cumin recalls are a recent example
  • the cumin recalls mentioned above actually highlighted the complexities related to the global food chain and ingredient traceability as well as factory practices.

I now make use of the 1-800 numbers for manufacturers on the backs of packages, which I used to always wonder why they needed to be listed. Now I know. It’s for people like me who need to question the safety of the packaged food. And if there is no contact information or allergen information on your website, I won’t bother buying your product any more. Which reminds me, websites that DO list a company’s allergy policy get an A++ in my books and I will be brand loyal to them.

I’ve also learned how to use an auto injector, which is a good thing to know for anyone; I even think it should be taught as part of first aid courses, in addition to AED use.

So you can see, I have gotten so much out of our life situation. It doesn’t take away the anxiety that I feel trying new foods with our child or the stress that I feel when our child has an allergic reaction (because in the moment, you can’t predict how much that localized itchiness will escalate in 5, 10, 30 minutes). I can be okay with seeming like the paranoid parent who won’t let their child eat food prepared by others (did you use a clean cutting board? did you wash your hands? could any cross contamination have happened? how safe are all of your ingredients that you used?) if it prevents my child from having an allergic reaction. But I have learned so much, so far from this experience.

You spend some, you save some

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet as well as cooking allergen-free family meals. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and wheat.

You spend some.

Using allergen-free gluten-free wheat alternatives is adding up in costs. We have a variety of flours in bags of approximately 700g, with each bag costing between $6-8. The grains are all grown in Canada and non-GMO, and mostly importantly, they’re safe for our toddler. Our most commonly used flours seem to be brown rice flour, oat flour and tapioca starch. The latter may seem odd but we found an awesome waffle recipe that happens to use quite a bit of tapioca starch. Anyways, you compare the cumulative cost of the flours with buying a bag of all-purpose wheat flour…let’s not bother calculating the difference.

You save some.

February is half a month away but you wouldn’t have known it walking down the aisles of any food-selling store in early January. There was so much heart-shaped, pink or red-coloured sweets adorning the shelves that you would think that Valentine’s Day was just a few days away. I used to wander the aisle of commercial chocolates, looking at all of the options, maybe buying a box of this or that on the odd occasion, but even if I was window shopping that aisle on most days, I’d still spend time there. This year, at Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day…I just blast right through the seasonal section of the store because I know that hardly any of the options are allergy-friendly.

This isn’t just true of the seasonal chocolates. Most of the candy in the store that I would ever want to buy either has milk, modified milk ingredients, peanuts or other tree nuts, or egg. One day at work, I was feeling munchy but after having eaten all of the snacks I had brought from home, I wandered downstairs in our office building to the little convenience store. I wanted to buy a small snack. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother but not surprisingly, every single item I picked up had one of our allergens (usually more). I can only imagine how tough it can be for people with multiple allergies. It can be challenging finding safe foods on a whim.

Allergen-free toddler (family) meal planning

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet as well as cooking allergen-free family meals. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and wheat.

Okay, first things first. Our baby is now a bona fide toddler. I can’t believe it but he is looking more and more like a little person, walking around and expressing his desires ever more clearly. We spend a lot of our at-home time in the kitchen: prepping, cooking, baking, cleaning, hanging out. One of the cool things that our toddler loves to do is stand on his wooden learning tower, which brings him up to counter height, and watch us chop, cook, or clean. He’s also been working on his skill of placing items into other objects, so we help him apply that skill all around the house. In the kitchen, this means that he can pick up chopped items and place them in a pot for cooking or into a bowl for mixing (roasted veggies). He loves helping out!

He’s also picking up on many more details about the world around him and this means that I am trying to only cook food that everyone in the family can enjoy. He notices what is on everyone’s plate and I think he learns a lot about eating food by observing us parents eat, so I’d like to have the same foods on each plate. This can be a challenge because (a) we used to eat a largely Asian diet with soy sauce, dashi, miso, and many other Asian seasonings and (b) we like to eat a variety of dishes. Our running list of foods to avoid is dairy, eggs, nuts, avocado, soy and wheat. We also have yet to try shellfish and a lot of seasonings. Luckily, our list of available proteins includes all animal and fish meats, as well as sunflower seeds…but some days I feel like we eat the same things all the time. We consulted with a dietician very recently just to learn whether or not our food offerings for our toddler were meeting his health and nutritional needs. Much to our pleasure, we were doing a pretty good job. Not surprisingly, with a diet free of dairy, the weak area of his diet was calcium.

His meals look something like this:

Breakfast

  • Oatmeal with prune or gluten-free banana waffles/pancakes
  • Selection of fruits
  • Hemp milk

Lunch/Dinner

  • A protein (beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fish) – sautéed, baked, steamed; OR
  • Beef or vegetarian chili with a variety of beans; OR
  • Vegetarian or turkey/chicken/beef stock with vegetables; OR
  • Tomato sauce with or without meatballs.
  • Rice, brown rice pasta, or quinoa
  • Sautéed, steamed, roasted or raw vegetables
  • Hemp milk

Snacks

  • Baked good using flour alternatives or rice cakes with sunbutter
  • Fruit or vegetables
  • Breastmilk

Of course, there are additional variants on these meal options but this is a general idea of what we offer our toddler at the moment. By extension, this is what we eat as well. We cook everything from scratch now and I swear, we spend so much of our time either planning for, preparing or cooking food. Each week we meal plan to ensure that we get a good variety of food on our plates and to save us from having to hem and haw over what to eat during the week when both of us parents are working. We no longer have the option of just getting take out food from a restaurant as our toddler can’t eat that food.

We’ve recently begun introducing herbs (homegrown and dried). Unfortunately, we only dried thyme and oregano this year, so the remainder of herb introductions will have to be store-bought. I’ve contacted a number of major companies who package dried herbs and so far, they all have a possibility for cross-contamination in their manufacturing facilities with all of our allergens but do claim to follow good manufacturing practices. Some days it feels like the level of scrutiny that I put into our meals is overwhelming and borderline paranoia, but without questioning every preparation method and every single ingredient, I can’t feel safe giving our toddler the food. We’re firm believers in food being an enjoyable experience, as both of us parents love food, and we’re trying hard to instil that in our toddler despite the food allergies.

Allergen-free chocolate

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, and nuts.

Ah, chocolate. That brown square that melts like velvet in my mouth. Oh but so many of the chocolates lining the shelves at stores contain milk and if not milk, they may contain or be cross contaminated with a variety of nuts. At my local health food store, I asked for a chocolate bar that does not contain milk. The lady pointed out a few good choices. I further clarified that I needed a chocolate bar that has never made contact with nuts. I was given one bar out of their entire display of chocolate bars!

When I think ahead to the Halloweens, Christmases, Easters, and Valentines of my kids’ life, I’m saddened to think that he won’t be able to readily partake in the chocolatey goodness that so many others easily enjoy. That Lindt advent calendar just isn’t in our future *tear*. It’s not just the holidays that will be difficult but facing the sheer abundance of milk/nut chocolate bars that line shelves at the grocery store, gas station, restaurants, vending machines, practically everywhere (I swear I notice it more now that I can’t eat it).

However, there is hope and that hope exists in allergen-free chocolates. Unfortunately, they are challenging to locate and the selection of flavours isn’t the greatest, particularly in my city (ie. not in the United States). Still, they are hidden gems! So far, my finds are:

  • Giddy Yoyo (free of dairy/nuts/soy). An Orangeville, Ontario company!
  • Hummingbird Chocolate (free of dairy/gluten) has no nuts in their bars. An Ottawa, Ontario company! (updated July 2015: I’ve noticed that Hummingbird now has “may contain traces of nuts” on all of their bars…boooo)
  • Enjoy Life! chocolate bars, chips and chunks (free of the common allergens). An American company that produces many products that are all free of the common allergens.

It’s super exciting when I find an allergen-free chocolate and I’m hoping to discover many more in the months to come!

Ubiquity of milk ingredients

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, and nuts.

I read labels when I shop. What are the ingredients? Where is it from? What is the nutritional information? However, I’m realizing that I hadn’t been reading labels on every single food product that I was purchasing.

My go-to chip is the Kettle brand chip and during one of my recent grocery shopping trips, I absent mindedly picked up a bag of sweet onion-flavoured chips…and yes, I had a chip craving one day and went to grab a handful of these chips, only to read the label at that point (did I mention I had an immediate craving!) and find milk ingredients! Reluctantly, I put the bag back in the pantry, unopened.

The more I scrutinize food products, the more I realize just how ubiquitous milk ingredients are. There are the obvious dairy products: the cheeses, yogurts, and ice creams. Then, there are the somewhat obvious milk-y products: many popular chocolates, sherbets, cheesy crackers, etc. But the chips!?

Luckily, products now have a clear statement when they contain any of the top food allergens (soy, milk, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, sulphites, mustard) – see Health Canada’s page outlining 2012 changes to allergen labelling requirements – and many have precautionary statements laying out possibility of inadvertent contamination with common allergens. Had I read the label on the chip bag, I would’ve easily seen “milk ingredients” among the list of ingredients but I didn’t realize that seasonings are another possible source of milk.

Milk. It’s in so much of the packaged foods that we consume and to an extent that I am only now realizing.

Straight dairy alternatives…so far

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, and nuts.

I grew up drinking a lot of milk. I’ve heard many a complaint from friends that skim milk just tastes like water but that is exactly why I loved it: water with calcium. Oh so refreshing! I would have it with my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then, in my twenties, I started to suspect that I was a little bit lactose intolerant and decided to stop drinking milk. However, I could not stop did not want to stop eating dairy products such as ice cream (craziness to cut that out!), yogurt and cheese. I love these things, after all.

Fast forward to today, where I have a stronger reason to cut dairy out of my life: my baby is allergic to it. Pause. My baby is allergic to dairy. Scary.

Liquid milk was fairly easy to phase out of my life. Ice cream, yogurt, and cheese, not so much. In times of weakness I could foresee myself caving to having just that one lick of ice cream or yogurt or a cube of cheese. Therefore, I put myself on a search for feasible alternatives, not with the mindset that these new options would have to taste like their dairy counterparts (that would be a good way to set myself up for disaster) but that could offer me a real tasty alternative. After all, why would or should I need something to taste just like dairy-cheese or dairy-yogurt when it’s not made from dairy?? It’s like trying to find a brown rice that tastes just like a white rice: they’re just not the same!

So far, I’ve tried:

  • Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss ice cream: absolutely delicious. I’ve never been a fan of coconut but I really enjoy this ice cream and *gasp* I actually find it much more satisfying than dairy ice creams. It’s creamy and comes in a variety of delicious flavours.
  • Good Karma Rice Divine ice cream: reminds me of the flavour of Japanese mochi ice cream (which I love)…but has a gritty mouth feel that I did not enjoy.
  • So Delicious yogurt: cultured coconut milk. More palatable than a soy yogurt that I tried.
  • Soy yogurt (forgot the brand): had one spoonful and did not want to eat any more. Not the right product for me.

I haven’t ventured into the world of non-dairy cheese yet, but am pretty happy to have found a solid ice cream. A few teaspoons full a day keeps me pretty happy!

Being thrown into the world of food allergies

I love food, so when it came to introducing solid foods to our baby, I was quite excited to be able to share something that I loved with a person who I loved. We exclusively breastfed for six months and decided to let baby lead the weaning process as he started to explore foods other than breast milk. We would provide a selection of appropriate food items for him to choose from, and he would use his hands and all other senses to “eat” the food that he chose to “eat”. We didn’t start with rice cereal, as is so typical in our society. Instead, we gave him steamed broccoli florets, a bell pepper, an apple slice, and a strip of steak. The key with this approach is for the caregiver to provide a well-balanced assortment of foods and the eater to control if and how much they “eat”.

It was going fine until our baby experienced some fairly significant reactions to food. The look in his eyes as he scratched at his neck and face is something that I will not soon forget. After that first adverse reaction, we saw our family doctor and he referred us to a paediatric allergist. In the meantime, we avoided the foods that triggered that reaction but continued to offer other foods.

Meanwhile, while we waited to be seen by the allergist, another particularly strong reaction led us to the emergency room, where some Benadryl and the passage of time eventually calmed the reaction; I felt so thankful and grateful that the reaction didn’t continue to worsen. This ER visit led us to equip ourselves with an epinephrine auto-injector. Just having to fill the prescription for it illuminated the gravity of the situation. Heaven forbid we ever have to use it, but better to have it in our possession than be sorry.

Skin prick tests are not the most conclusive in determining whether or not a baby has an allergy but at our first allergy appointment, we had it done for numerous common allergens. The test indicated that he was positive for peanuts, nuts, dairy, and egg. Based on our history, we were also directed to avoid wheat until another test could be completed in a few months.

With neither parent having any known food allergies, we were thrown into a new world. That’s a bit of hyperbole…it’s more like we started to see our world with new glasses. Questions floating through my head included:

  • what can he eat?
  • how will we eat out?
  • how do we best equip ourselves in the situation?

A blessing and a curse, because I’m breastfeeding, I was also instructed to avoid all allergens to which my baby may react to. The curse: Our allergist mentioned that trace amounts of dairy and egg would be allowable for me (no nuts whatsoever) but if my ingesting these products was affecting my kid, I decided that I should try to eliminate them from my diet too. The blessing: Taking dairy, egg, and nuts out of my diet would give me the best perspective in what could end up being the life of my baby. I would be forcing myself to question what I’m eating, how that food was processed, and (I’d get a head start on determining) how to prepare foods without those allergens.

Some interesting links related to early parenting

Without too many close people around me who have recently had babes, I find myself looking to the internet for discussions around various issues, such as breastfeeding and sleep. On second thought, I bet that even if I were surrounded with many babe-toting friends, I would still be looking to the internet for more information; thus is our lifestyle. Anyways, I’ve quickly learned that for each piece of advice I read, there is a contradictory piece of advice on the next website. Some interesting pieces that I’ve come across during the past few weeks:

The Truth about Maternity Leave

As I look down at the peaceful face of my babe, napping in my arms, I feel blessed to be able to spend so much time watching him grow and interact more and more with the big world around him. But there are definitely days when I wish I could just wake up, press snooze a few times, get dressed, head to work, and do desk work for the day and chat with coworkers…oh and do things like eat lunch while it’s hot but in no big hurry or go to the bathroom alone. It just sounds so easy! (Not diminishing the fact that the corporate workplace has its own challenges….) Some days, I have dinner on the table by the time my partner gets home from work, the sink is clear of dishes, the house is relatively together, and I feel great. I’ve found we do really well on days where we get outside to go and see a movie or to a baby play group. Other days, I wonder where my baby’s snooze button is hidden, where I can find energy to even get some lunch ready for myself, and dinner? Yeah right.

Actually, I should mention how thankful I am that I get maternity leave at work and that this leave is one year long. I was speaking to an American colleague days before my maternity leave was to commence and learned that her leave was a mere EIGHT weeks! Of course, we are both blessed to even have ANY leave at all.

The truth about maternity leave is that it challenges you in ways you may not have been challenged previously. The day can seem to last an eternity yet the time on a larger scale seems to pass much too quickly. You’ll be at your best and you’ll be at your worst. Contradictions. Thus is maternity leave.

The Wait-It-Out Method of Sleep Training

I’ve learned that sleep is a hugely popular topic associated with a baby. Moms ask each other about sleep, moms get asked about sleep from friends and strangers, moms question themselves about sleep…. Where should baby sleep at night or during naps, how long should baby sleep at night or during naps, should baby be on a routine, how do you get behavioural changes out of baby (for example, let them cry until they resign themselves to a new routine), etc.

I really enjoyed reading this post dubbed the wait-it-out method (a twist on the popular cry-it-out method), mostly because it resonated with me. I don’t know why society seems to expect babies to live on the same type of schedule and within the same constraints as adults, right from birth.

Toddler and Baby Sleep Timeline

As I read or hear about triumphs from moms about their babies sleeping through the night, I wonder what my expectations should be around baby sleep needs. I found this post to be the most helpful in understanding what is happening with babe as he grows.

The Good Baby

“Is he being a good baby?” I’ve been asked this numerous times by friends or in line at the store. This is a great post on the ridiculousness of this question as it stands literally. Yes, of course my baby is good. I don’t think he can be malicious or manipulative…yet. He’s so pure.

Did you mean to ask if he sleeps through the night or doesn’t cry at all? Because those are ridiculous measures for my baby as well. My baby sleeps like a baby and uses crying as a communication means. I don’t think it’s normal to not cry as an adult so I’m not sure why babies are any exception. Of course, truly colicky babies cry in excess but some crying by everyone, including babies, should be fine.

So when you ask me, “is he being a good baby”, what exactly do you mean?