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.

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Raspberry picking at Proulx Farm

In mid-July, we went raspberry picking at Proulx Berry Farm in Orleans. We are more accustomed to the busy seasons of strawberry and pumpkin picking, and were pleasantly surprised to find that there were just a few other groups of pickers for raspberries. Proulx is great as a U-Pick location. You pay a small admission fee per person but that cost is deducted from your berry price at the end (keep your entrance receipt!). Their pricing for both strawberries and raspberries seemed fantastic (compared to buying berries at the farmers’ markets). You take a short wagon ride (attached to a tractor – selling point for young kids) to and from the bushes. Raspberries are a bit easier to pick than strawberries as they grow on bushes (not along the ground). We went a few weeks into the season but there were lots of ripe berries to pick.

Raspberries

After we had finished picking, we enjoyed a pre-packed allergy-friendly lunch on a grassy area. Our toddler played on their play structure and with their numerous toy trucks in the sand ‘pit’ (really more like a huge pile of sand). We also visited their animals and looked at more tractors.

Animals Little chicks! Hello! Sitting Pigs Hanging out

Roots and Shoots CSA share – 3rd week of July

I cannot believe how quickly time seems to pass by. I used to think time passed quickly but now, with a toddler, I feel like it whizzes by! This week’s share included one of my least favourite veggies: fennel. I just cannot tolerate the licorice scent or taste! However, in looking for fennel recipes, I found fried fennel. Maybe we’ll give that a whirl this weekend….

It looks like we got a mound of zucchini but half of them are from my trade this week (I traded in my cilantro for more zucchini). Scapes are still looking great! The garlic that is growing in our garden is long past the scape stage, with its greens almost completely brown and dried. Almost time to harvest?

CSA share 3rd week of July

From left to right, we have a bag of mixed beans, lettuce, beautiful beets, kale, carrots, onion, zucchini, fennel (ugh), scapes and cucumber.

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.

Allergen labelling part of proposed food labelling changes in Canada

Health Canada is requesting feedback from Canadians on proposed labelling changes until August 27, 2015. Amongst the numerous proposed changes, they want to change the formatting of ingredient lists so that each ingredient is separated by a bullet point, black font is used against a white or neutral background and “Make the ingredient list and information on allergens easier to find and read.” These are basically changes to establish a more common look and feel to ingredient lists.

You can read about the label changes that impact allergen listings but the big differences on the allergen front are:

  • Food colours will be represented by their common name in the ingredient list. This would eliminate the use of a generic term such as “colour”.
  • “Contains” statements that list allergens used in the product must appear right after the main ingredient list. Allergens in the product will continue to be required on the label in a “Contains” statement.
  • “May Contain” statements that indicate potential cross contamination with allergens must also appear right after the main ingredient list and “Contains” statements, in the same size font as the rest of the information.

One ingredient in Health Canada’s illustration/example of the new label format is “Spices”, which continues to be vague and a possible source of contention for those who have food allergies. This is not addressed in the proposed changes.

If these changes to the Regulations are accepted, Health Canada is proposing a 5 year transition period before the new requirements come into force. Products sold by those who make them (think craft shows, farmers’ markets) would continue to be exempt from the requirements. Grocery retailers who use “retail or scale labels” would also be exempt.

The proposed changes would make sure that ingredients are all listed together in a legible manner on the label of packaged foods. Anything to make reading and interpreting labels easier is certainly welcomed by me but I’m thinking it would be helpful to require listing the specific spices in addition to colours?

Anyways, go make your voice heard!

Food allergies in emergencies

I’ve been thinking about this quite often lately. What do people with multiple food allergies do in an emergency? Obviously, there are many magnitudes of “emergency” (the natural disasters, being stranded somewhere, otherwise unexpected events) but no matter how small or great, they present a particular challenge for those with allergies. Dealing with multiple allergens, particularly ubiquitous ingredients such as dairy, egg and wheat, it’s not like you can just pop into a store or a gas station and expect to find any safe food. And then imagine if it’s a mass emergency that impacts lots of people…the shelves at stores would likely already be slim pickings….

Now more than ever, we have tried to have a decent amount of dry goods in our pantry for those just-in-case moments. Canned fish, rice cakes, Tetrapak hemp milk, sunbutter, some safe snacks that we’ve found. My personality already sets me up to do worst-case scenario analyses and honestly, the natural disaster-type scenario makes me extra anxious from the food perspective.

Setting aside those “emergency” scenarios that we typically think of, I started to think of those life changes that can impact food availability. Things like loss of income, ill turn in health, other situations of poverty. I read about the Food Equality Initiative just by chance through a social networking site. This is an organization based in Kansas that runs a gluten-free and allergy-friendly food pantry. Wow, what an amazing concept. I contacted the Ottawa Food Bank to ask how they work with clients who have allergies. They informed me that their community partners – the organizations who actually hand out the food items – work with clients to determine what foods they can or cannot eat. They also told me that some partners may keep allergy-friendly foods stored separately for clients who self-identify as requiring them. I think about what a challenge it can be walking through the grocery store to find safe foods so I wonder what the experience is actually like, trying to get safe foods from a more limited selection (like that available from the food bank).

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.

My new take on vegan and gluten-free

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.

A year ago, if you told me you followed a vegan or gluten-free diet, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to have you over for dinner. I just wouldn’t have known how to prepare a meal for you because those words were huge psychological barriers.

Whenever we prepare food for our friends, I ask if there are any dietary restrictions. This has been a habit for me for many years. Usually, the answer was no dietary restrictions (phew). Occasionally, there was an allergy to nuts, an aversion to beef, or a religious restriction on pork. One type of food restriction, I could handle.

Now that I have spent almost half a year working on cooking and baking without a number of categories of ingredients, I feel as though I can be a much more welcoming host. My pantry includes a host of gluten-free, top 8 allergen-free products: tapioca and potato starches, brown and white rice flours, oat flour (gluten-free of course), sorghum flour, xanthan gum and egg replacer. I’ve become more familiar with the brands that I can buy from: Only Oats for oat products, EnerG for xanthan gum and egg replacer, and Purest for baking ingredients. Unfortunately, brands like Bob’s Red Mill, which is a super popular and widely available gluten-free option, have precautionary labelling for cross contamination with some of our allergens, making those a non-option for us. It isn’t enough to be gluten-free because it needs to be allergen-free for us as well. And yes, I have been that person, sitting on the floor in the natural foods stores/aisles, phone in hand, researching the companies that produce the products in my hand to see if they are allergen-free. It’s a time-consuming process.

I should note that we aren’t avoiding gluten because of celiac disease in our household. We’ve noticed a few welts and itchiness/redness develop after our toddler consumed wheat products (all homemade so we suspect it’s wheat and not anything else), so we’re taking a wheat hiatus. You’d think that would mean just avoiding flour but it turns out that things like oats are usually contaminated with wheat and that wheat can be masked in many products under many names. It’s actually easier just to avoid gluten because if a product is gluten-free, then it is definitely wheat-free.

My recipe arsenal is also growing. When I’m searching for recipes on the internet or in cookbooks, I use certain key words now: vegan, gluten-free, allergen-free. For baking, I find it easiest to search for vegan recipes because I know they will not include butter, milk, or eggs. From there, I can try to substitute my own home-mixed gluten-free flour for the conventional flour the recipe calls for. The only issue with vegan recipes is that they call for nuts. With savoury cooking, I start my search specifically looking for allergen-free recipes and I am so appreciative of the many blogs that I’ve come across, as well as allergicliving.com. I want meal recipes that I can just follow without having to experiment too much with ingredient substitutions. Sometimes I search for vegan recipes to find bean, vegetable or quinoa-based recipes that don’t call for dairy or eggs. I try to make a new dish at least once a week so that we continue to increase the variety of dishes we can eat.

A year ago, if you told me you followed a vegan or gluten-free diet, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to have you over for dinner. A lot can change in one year.

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.

Raw chocolate is free of our allergens

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.

I just wanted to update my post about allergen-free chocolates. After casually browsing the chocolate bar sections at numerous health food stores, I think I’ve realized that raw chocolate bars seem to be free of dairy, eggs, and soy, and there are several nut-free lines too…so I’ve paid the $6-$8 a bar to try a few raw bars. Giddie YoYo from my previous post is actually a raw bar and I really enjoy their line of products, not to mention that they are nut-free. Some of the other ones that I’ve tried have been okay but nothing spectacular (as in, I’m not averse to them but I also wouldn’t go out of my way to buy their brands again). I definitely have my days of missing that sweet commercial chocolate, particularly at key holiday times where my favourite commercial dairy- and nut-laden chocolates are ubiquitous, but I’m still happy to explore the less-processed raw chocolates. I suppose a side benefit is that the lower temperature processing of raw bars combined with the simple list of ingredients is actually more healthful….

If my toddler doesn’t outgrow his dairy allergy and he isn’t allergic to cacao, then raw chocolates just may be his best option, aside from Enjoy Life products.