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.

A garlic harvest of our own

Last weekend, we celebrated our very first garlic harvest! After eating the little scapes from our garlic last month, we were excited to see what the bulbs looked like beneath the soil. I think we harvested them a little bit later than we maybe should’ve (1 week earlier would’ve been good) but sure enough, we found fully formed bulbs! They were rather small but I’d still say we were fairly successful for a first ever garlic planting. These were from cloves that we picked up at last year’s Carp Garlic Festival. We’ll be going back to the festival this year to buy a few more bulbs for eating and for planting.

Fresh out of the soil Ready to be hung

In other news, our tomatoes are still green but there are a good number of them growing larger by the day. We also have a healthy number of flowers that will become tomatoes very soon (fingers crossed!). The peas are doing fabulously but like last year, the plant is large and unruly. I really need to work on how to grow a nicely contained pea plant. Our purple beans are beautiful as ever and the plant looks like it is doing well. The chard and kale are producing good yields, and unlike last year with a mold issue, this year’s cucumbers are looking great! We’ve got a lot of flowers and a few cucumbers already growing.

Ripen, babies, ripen Future tomatos Part of the haul Peas IMG_4481

I love seeing our vegetables doing well. It is so satisfying! But I also cannot believe that it is August!?

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.

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).

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.

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.

Stimulating Saturdays: edX course on Food

I recently learned about a great learning tool called edX. They offer some really interesting online courses  from various universities, such as UC Berkley, MIT, and Harvard, for free.

There is currently a course called Food for Thought (CHEM181X), taught by three professors at McGill University (Montreal, Canada)., covering the basic science behind food and popular issues related to food and health. There are several short video lectures per week, complemented by quizzes and surveys. Your level of participation is completely up to you; there are assignments and an active discussion board for the course as well. Perhaps one of the neat things about this and presumably all edX courses is the diversity in “students”. Just scanning the classroom introductions on the discussion board, there are people from Montreal to California to Mexico to Lebanon.

Cooked bun?

I cannot believe that it is the end of October already! The leaves on the trees have gone through their colour changes and, for the most part, fallen off the trees. The temperature is starting to dip below 0C overnight (and sometimes into the day – eek!). The wind is crisp. But I also don’t know how this year has passed by so quickly!

Granted, this year has been different for me. Several months of nausea, a summer of feeling like a walking oven with stubby toes and fingers, and a fall of feeling large. All the while, moving slower and slower (what a different way to enjoy the world around me). I still find it hard to believe – and really, quite mesmerized – that there’s a little person growing inside of me…and as the third trimester draws to a finale, I look so forward to seeing this little person!

Looking back on the past nine months, here is some advice that I was given early on that I now have learned to appreciate:

  • “Towards the end, you’ll just want to be done with being pregnant.”  I didn’t really understand how one could ever feel this way, particularly since the event separating pregnancy from no longer being pregnant is labour. Which I equate with PAIN. A somewhat controlled train ride that cannot be stopped. Did I mention, pain!?
  • “You may be able to squat now but you probably won’t be able to squat much later.”  Yeah right, I told my friend. I like to joke that I’m channeling the Asian in me when I say that I can squat quite comfortably. Yup, I was naive.
  • “You’ll waddle soon.”  I think this goes along the lines of everything will become uncomfortable to do. I thought the waddle was an exaggerated move done by some pregnant women to further exemplify just how pregnant they are. Nope. It’s hormonal and your pelvic area really doesn’t make it easy to not waddle towards the end.

It’s true that it’s quite hard to imagine what it feels like to be pregnant without actually going through it yourself. Much like many other life experiences. The biggest thing that continues to cement itself in my head, particularly throughout this pregnancy, is the wonder of the human body. It does so much on its own without our conscious control and it’s so absolutely amazing.

Luxury of morning hikes

It is such a luxury to – instead of sitting at a computer in an office cubicle – be able to go for light hikes in the morning through beautiful forest of coniferous trees and rivers. Hearing birds talking. Feeling the dirt trail beneath your feet. Smelling the fruity air, thanks to the ripening berries on the bushes.

Ah the beauty of a vacation in beautiful British Columbia!

You may have heard of the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which is a very popular (paid) tourist attraction in North Vancouver. However, there is a little gem in the Lynn Valley neighbourhood of North Vancouver called the Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge. It isn’t as long as the Capilano bridge but it feels less touristy, is still quite impressive and well-maintained, has a good network of trails surrounding it, and is free!

Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge
Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge
Ready to cross the Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge? Watch out - it sways!
Ready to cross the Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge? Watch out – it sways!
Beautifully clear water
Beautifully clear water
Such serenity, listening to the water pass by and wind through the trees!
Such serenity, listening to the water pass by and wind through the trees!

Just north of the Capilano Suspension Bridge is Cleveland Dam and the salmon hatchery. The Capilano Pacific Trail is one of the major trails linking all 3 places; you can actually walk all the way from Ambleside Park (by Lions Gate Bridge) in West Vancouver via this trail all the way north to Cleveland Dam near the base of Grouse Mountain.

A view of Capilano Lake, from the dam
A view of Capilano Lake, from the dam
The Capilano Dam
The Capilano Dam

If you walk on the east side of the Capilano River, either down from the Capilano Dam or up from the Capilano Suspension Bridge, you can visit the Salmon Hatchery. I remember going here on school field trips to learn about the lifecycle of fish and it’s still well-maintained years later.

The Hatchery
The Hatchery
Baby fish at the hatchery
Baby fish at the hatchery
Another view of the hatchery and surrounding beauty
Another view of the hatchery and surrounding beauty
Another view of the hatchery
Another view of the hatchery