December 22, 2017

The Culture Knot: Interpreting Somali and European Cuisine in Canada

Figure 1: A Canadian garden. Photo by Stuart Filson.

Introduction to food sovereignty
To answer why food is vital to culture may seem simple at first. As the energy of life, food justifies itself to be both indulged and elaborated upon. As people move and resources change, food persists as a constant source of consideration. In turn, cuisine is continually reimagined because food does not exist as a blank slate. Given how fundamental food is to the human experience, it should be no wonder that cuisine follows people as an enduring source of culture.
            It is the relation between cuisine and culture that drew me to explore Somali Canadian food sovereignty. While food sovereignty can encompass many ideas, a general definition holds that food sovereignty is the collective ability of peoples to access culturally discernible food, through socially just and sustainable means (Patel, 2009). Instead of viewing food in a superficial manner, food sovereignty is about empowering peoples’ cultural connections to cuisine (Ambalam, 2014).
Fortunately for Somali Canadian food sovereignty, the aspirations of these goals overlap with other efforts that may not initially seem related to food. By merit of food being fundamental to humanity, many activities link back to food sovereignty issues. The promotion of a socially aware and green economy bolsters the principles of food sovereignty (Ambalam, 2014).

Unravelling Somalia’s cuisine
While I am not Somali myself, I became attracted to Somali food sovereignty because of Somalia’s unique past. Through colonization, several European powers vied for control over Somalia; most notably the nations of Italy and the United Kingdom, but also France to a lesser extent (Zoppi, 2015). After Somalia eventually secured its independence, the regional instabilities from colonization continued to threaten Somalia’s nationhood through disputes over borders and separatist movements. In the time between independence and the 21st century, Somalia had ongoing conflict with Ethiopia, as the side-switching powers of the United States and Soviet Union used Somalia as a stage for proxy warfare (Aalen, 2014). Consequently, observers have cited Somalia as a failed state, but this term can be overly dismissive without further consideration (Elmi, 2014).
Although Somalia has endured much strife, its cuisine has gone through a great fusion (Abdullahi, 2001). Given the prominence of Somalia’s former occupiers, it is hard to ignore the European influence on Somalia’s cuisine. Whether it be Italy’s pastas, the UK’s comfort foods, or France’s pastries, the Somali people have come to reimagine many formerly European techniques (Abdullahi, 2001). Be it war or colonization though, the irony of these national confrontations is that in spite of conflict, the continued interaction between peoples promotes the exchange of culture, which can bring people closer together.

To the west of Somalia, there is the similarly diverse cuisine of Ethiopia. Despite the tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia, these nations share a lot of food between each other. In both countries, the spongy flatbread, known as injera, is incredibly popular. Injera is great for drawing up sauce and eating with other food. In my experience, while Ethiopian injera reminded me of a soft pita, the Somali injera was much more reminiscent of a crepe. Another difference I found between cuisines was that Ethiopian food is noticeably spicier.

Figure 2: East African inspired food, such as injera, in Guelph, Ontario. Photo by Stuart Filson.

Although culture can move around quite easily, not all aspects of cuisine are readily transferable. Given Somalia’s persistent conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia, known as the birthplace of coffee, as well as Somalia’s long colonization under Italy, I had suspected that Somalis would tend to drink coffee regularly (Daniel, 2016; Zoppi, 2015). However, although reliable statistics on beverage consumption in Somalia are difficult to find, it appears that Somalis drink notably more tea than coffee, but this could be changing with rising global coffee consumption (Hassan-Kadle & Musse, 2017). Nevertheless, however infused Somalia’s cuisine has become, it must be remembered that Somalis’ culture is ultimately defined by Somalis (Abdullahi, 2001).

Somalis beyond Somalia’s borders
While the previous section provides some summary of Somali cuisine for those living within the country’s borders, I was curious about the cuisine of Somalis living elsewhere. When I talked to Somalis whose family was from outside of modern day Somalia, they themselves identified as Somali. This was because they considered their homelands different from the formal boundaries of Somalia.
Coincidentally, in addition to Italy and the UK being notable to Somalia’s history, I happen to be British Italian myself. Unlike Somalia’s notion of nationhood, Italy and the UK are cosmopolitan formations of now subnational city-states and countries (MacDougall, 1999). As former empires, Italy and the UK each covered many regions and many peoples. Even for the citizens originally from far outside of these countries, many of these people still primarily identify with Italy and the UK as their nationalities (Innocenti, 2016).
In contrast to western conceptions of nationality, Somalia’s clan system underlies much of its national kinship (Zoppi, 2015). With or without Somalia, Somalis would endure because formalities do not define Somalis’ homelands, especially given the contentious nature of Somalia’s borders. For these reasons, many Somalis live outside of Somalia for generations yet still identify as Somali, first and foremost.

Canada’s national identity
2017 marked a milestone for Canada as the 150th anniversary of Confederation. In defining Canada’s national identity, this can lead to many conclusions: Canada is a cultural mosaic to an American melting pot; a former set of colonies to Franglish colonizers; and an inexplicit home to an underappreciated Indigenous diversity. When people discuss Canada, they describe Canada as being young. In contrast, when people describe Italy, they think of the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, and view Italy as being old, but in the past, people did not think of the competing Italian city-states as a singular entity (MacDougall, 1999). Despite the stark differences, people perceive Ancient Rome under Italy’s banner, yet not so for Canada’s long Indigenous past (Johnston, 1994). Whereas Italy has a collective sense of lineage, Canada’s lineage is fragmented. Similarly, people characterize Somalia as fragmented, yet not by national lineage, but by national conflicts over border disputes, clan lines and regional sovereignty (Zoppi, 2015). In comparison, the difficulty of Canada’s lineage is that it is anything but linear.
Although Canadians often compare ourselves to more populated countries, Canada’s population is larger than 80% of all other countries (United Nations, 2017). Geographically, Canada is well over double the combined size of the European Union, the now leaving UK, and the non-EU countries of Norway and Switzerland (Field Listing, 2017). Furthermore, Canada continues being a staple in sports, academia, arts, entertainment and business (Patel, 2016). The humility of the Canadian identity is that Canada could be the most grandiose country in the world, yet Canadians would still focus more on where we can improve rather than where we already excel.
While modest in person, Canadians’ thirst for national fulfilment has made self-promotion Canada’s battle cry on the world stage (Black, 2015; Cotter, 2017). Even in the Canadian flag, its designers did not choose the maple leaf’s 11 points out of symbolism, like the self-expressive American flag, but instead for excelling in being legible during wind tunnel tests (Matheson, 1980). Ever since, Canada’s flag very much succeeded in becoming among the most recognizable flags, despite having only existed since the 1960s (Cotter, 2017). Canada’s national identity is not obstructed from a lack of national recognition or being too young. Given Canada’s enigmatic past, its resulting identity invites individualistic discussion.

My Canadian identity
Although my family has lived in Canada for several generations, I still hold a sense of being an outsider in a country of outsiders. In reflecting upon the Canadian national identity, immigration is inescapable. Many newcomers are excited to be Canadian but do not yet feel that sense of belonging. For many immigrants, especially Somali Canadians, immigration has occurred in waves (Duff & Becker-Zayas, 2017). This was the case for my own ancestry.
I am half Italian, a quarter Swedish and a quarter from the UK (specifically, England, Scotland and Ireland). Although my Italian born grandparents almost exclusively spoke Italian in Toronto, neither myself nor my brothers learned much Italian. For my cultural connection to my Swedish side, my family’s relationship is further distant, yet we still occasionally eat Swedish cuisine. For my UK ancestry, dating back to the 19th century in Canada, my family has no culturally present connection in our activities, except from some external Canadian influences.

Figure 3: A Canadian landscape in Tiny, Ontario. Photo by Stuart Filson.

Without the active drive or exposure, culture can readily give way to other culture. Further still, many immigrants do not directly immigrate to Canada from one country. Instead, a lot of newcomers have already lived in multiple countries, and so they may feel a different linkage to their place of origin than what others may expect. As a result, culture can be difficult to pinpoint.

Canadian markets
Since 1827, Guelph has been the home to the second longest running farmers’ market in Canada (Basil, 2012). In modern times, Guelph’s Farmers’ Market has become a weekly outlet in which both farmers and resellers have sold produce and other items. Observers have often considered the City of Guelph a mid-sized Southern Ontario city (Census Metropolitan Area: 156,029) (Best, 2013: Statistics Canada, 2017). Guelph is situated an hour’s drive southwest of the Greater Toronto Area, and a twenty-odd minute drive from the over half a million populated Tri-Cities of Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge (Statistics Canada, 2017). While the quaint riverside housing and rural surroundings of Guelph present a small-town charm, the City’s ten-plus storey condos remind by-passers that they are nevertheless within reach of Toronto Land. It is this very juxtaposition of rural and urban that has caused marketing researchers to repeatedly choose Guelph as a representative of Canadians abroad (Cranfield, Henson, & Masakure, 2011).
Having been born and raised in Guelph, I have gone to the Farmers’ Market over the years. While there, you can find a snapshot of farming practices and trends. Onlookers can experience a diversifying market segmentation, emphasized in the popular terms of the day: organic, fair trade, locally grown, GMO free, and so on. As with other western assortments, many of the Market’s crops derive from around the globe. Tomatoes originally came from South America. Corn is from North America. Soya beans are from Asia. Coffee beans are from Africa. However, this is not a wide selection. A very small number of crops dominate western farming. Despite Ontario having more ethnic diversity than much of the rest of Canada, Ontario’s farmers are still predominantly Western European (Smithers & Sethuratnam, 2014).

What is adequate representation?
When shopping for produce beyond the common western options, the question of representation repeatedly occupied my thoughts. In the case of Somalis wanting ingredients and meals in the tradition of Somali cuisine, it can be difficult to tell how much demand there is and how enduring the demand is. Across Canada, farming has experienced aging and diminishing workforces. With proportionately fewer Canadians becoming farmers, it can be difficult to promote domestically grown ethnocultural produce for traditional Somali cuisine (Smithers & Sethuratnam, 2014). Instead, local markets are more likely to grow some of the more prominent crops, like okra. Unfortunately, to only grow a limited selection of traditional Somali ingredients is an incomplete solution.

Figure 4: Somali food in Etobicoke, Ontario. Photo by Stuart Filson.

Excessive importing is bad for the quality of food as well as for social wellbeing. Food presents and individual and communal connection which people cherish. If buying produce was always better, people would have little reason to garden. The various mechanisms of experiencing food highlight the importance of empowering Somali Canadians through different resources. However, rather than seek an all-encompassing solution for Somali Canadian food sovereignty, it is more reasonable to recognize the constraints and work through the priorities to achieve an optimal solution.

Answering Somali Canadian food sovereignty
Few things are as emblematic to culture as cuisine. In Canada, people often treat culture as a recreational experience. Although culture can be very enjoyable, we should take time to reflect on the deeper meanings. Without recognizing the origins of culturally discernible food, we can too easily ignore the value in these activities. By neglecting food sovereignty, we neglect people’s connection to cuisine. In turn, people can quickly turn to the lowest common denominator of an unhealthy, cheap and fast industrialized diet (Ambalam, 2014). In an increasingly globalized world, it is valuable to shift our eating habits away from the unsustainable temptations of the industrialized diet by empowering our relationship with food from the bottom-up (Ambalam, 2014).
From talking to multiple Southern Ontarian individuals that immigrated from not just Somalia, but also Nigeria and Uganda, I heard people express that culture should not be restrictive of cuisine. I had gone in with the assumption that culture was what made traditional Somali food important. However, from these interviews, I became more concerned about other qualities of food: freshness, cost, choice, and more generally, access. Simply put, the people I interviewed wanted the freedom to have food the way they felt. They did not want to be boxed in by either an overly restrictive western selection or a preconceived notion of traditional food.
Without trying to speak for Somali Canadians abroad, I have come to believe that to empower Somali food sovereignty, the word “Somali” should not mean others’ conceptions of Somali culture but should instead represent Somali people and their interests. As I have seen, Somali Canadian food sovereignty is valuable, not simply for cherishing and potentially expanding upon Somali culture. It is through ensuring Somali Canadian food sovereignty that Canadians abroad can benefit from the rich heritage between Somalis and their foods.

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Stuart Filson, Graduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph
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November 28, 2017

The Assimilated Canadian Diet

Canada is often touted as being the world's most multicultural country (Brennan, 2008). Further still, Canada's largest city, Toronto, is touted as the most multicultural metropolis (He et al., 2013). With most Torontonians having been born outside of the country, Toronto may be expected to champion its own culturally diverse food systems, yet against this depiction, Toronto, as with Canada, exhibits food assimilation (Alem et al., 2010). Although commonly associated with the west, the industrial diet has spread globally at the expense of the environment and people’s wellbeing (Aaron, 2014). In Canada, this phenomenon can be seen in the changing dietary habits of many newcomers (Bourdeau, 2010). Culture may be a cause but culture can also be a product. Whether it be out of convenience or affordability, people in an industrialized food environment tend to gravitate towards particular habits (Aaron, 2014).

Although the demand is ripe for a greater choice that better caters to the preferences and ethnocultural diversity of buyers, Canada remains food insecure despite already producing more than enough food. In British Columbia, its government emphasizes locally sourced food yet its legislation maintains export-based agriculture. Instead of cherishing locally grown diversity, access to fresh food options has been impeded by costs, availability, and a restrictive selection (Wittman, 2011). Beyond the inconvenience of lacking choice, there are economic and health issues resulting from this industrial complacency (Filson and Adekunle, 2017). Inadequate access to ethnocultural food can lead individuals, especially lower-income individuals, to seek unhealthier alternatives like processed products and less fresh produce (Bourdeau, 2010). For farmers and the food network abroad, this unmet demand has been a lost opportunity (Wittman, 2011). Adding to this difficulty is that there are often physical and language based barriers preventing immigrants from sharing their knowledge and experiences with others (Bourdeau, 2010; Filson and Adekunle, 2017). Although these problems are particularly problematic for the cultural diversity of markets, it also afflicts individuals that simply want a greater choice when buying groceries, eating out, or whatever the occasion may be (Wittman, 2011).

It is understandable that farmers may have concerns about taking on an unfamiliar crop. While some ethnocultural crops can be grown quite easily in North America, others cannot be viably grown in what is ultimately a foreign environment. Despite Canadian agriculture reaching gains topping any other industry in Canada, farmers have had their revenues squeezed by retailers and suppliers (Wittman, 2011). In addition to competing within the agricultural industry, farmers are now having to compete with developers and aggregate extractors for the same prime agricultural lands (Epp, Drake, & Caldwell, 2017). Farmers have also been given additional operating costs to meet ever-expanding environmental regulations while their incomes have stagnated (OMAFRA, 2016; Statistics Canada, 2014). If the supply is to diversify, it is imperative that these concerns be met through various support mechanisms. By anticipating potential competition between food producers in advance, farmers can make more informed choices while better serving consumers with fresher and more accessible food. The improvement of transportation between supply and demand can alleviate both ends of the food network by further increasing efficiency through a smarter distribution of food availability (Specht et al, 2014). Naturally, some of the demand may be too challenging to satisfyingly meet but in other circumstances, there are opportunities to benefit from. Although more work still needs to be done, there is already a large body of research and instances of people that have taken on such endeavours (Wittman, 2011, Filson and Adekunle, 2017).
When disseminating information to interested parties, it is important to properly communicate considerations regarding how susceptible a crop may be to microclimatic conditions, soil types, pests, diseases, perishability, and other factors. As demand is everchanging and agricultural output varies seasonally and regionally, proper dissemination involves assessing the costs-to-demands over different timescales. One of the biggest challenges in judging demand is the reluctance among consumers to express their desire for ethnocultural food. Many individuals can take it for granted that their preferences are not to be met on the perceived basis of such preferences being economically unfeasible or culturally incompatible (Wittman, 2011). If we are to evaluate unmet demand, this means reaching out to people through social media and cognizant policy initiatives. Whether consultation is top-down, bottom-up, centralized or decentralized affects the outcomes as well (Obregón & Waisbord, 2010). Organizational capacity, like farmers' groups, can be empowered by democratic means so that members feel more compelled to their organization’s efforts (Wittman, 2011). Furthermore, not all of the demand requires stocking retail shelves. Individual and community gardens play an important role in ensuring fresher and more nutritionally fulfilling diets. By empowering people to take advantage of co-operatively managed gardens, this can be especially valuable for urban areas that lack access to affordable fresh produce and individual garden space, yet still have an ample community of willing people (Walter, 2013, Adekunle, Cidro, Filson, 2015).

During my personal struggle of weight gain while growing up, others had simultaneously developed diabetes (Amed et al., 2010). Given how fundamental food is to society, the knock-on effects of healthier foods need to be better highlighted when bringing about change. Although I overcame much of my challenges in part by avoiding the industrial diet, a school mandated food component could have more proactively assisted me and other Canadians, as it does already in various countries (Holdsworth et al., 2012). Rather than an explicit endeavour, food sovereignty represents principles that can take on new meaning as knowledge is better understood and technology advances. By having the Supreme Court of Canada recognize that the Delgamuukw people’s hunting rights extend to modern technology, their food sovereignty was not restricted in time to the technology of signing (Wittman, 2011). As overcoming distance becomes less of a problem in the wake of new technological advances, other considerations could become more prominent for achieving food sovereignty (Specht et al, 2014). Whether it be animal wellbeing, Canadian farmers, migrant workers, or the distribution of agricultural wealth, the lack of food sovereignty afflicts everyone (Wittman, 2011). Furthermore, the reality of overpopulation and ecological changes has since made many of the historically sustainable food systems either no longer possible or grossly unsustainable (Reijnders & Soret, 2003). Ensuring food sovereignty means rethinking the supply chain so that food is treated more as a conscious democratic necessity. If food sovereignty is depleted, the ability of Canadian governments to enact change will also be less viable (Wittman, 2011).

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Adekunle, B., Cidro, J., Filson, G. C. (2015). The political economy of culturally appropriate foods in Winnipeg: A case of refugee path immigrants (RPI)Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
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Amed, S., Dean, H. J., Panagiotopoulos, C., Sellers, E. A., Hadjiyannakis, S., Laubscher, T. A., Dannenbaum, D., Shah, B. R., Booth, G. L., & Hamilton, J. K. (2010). Type 2 diabetes, medication-induced diabetes, and monogenic diabetes in Canadian children. Diabetes Care33(4), 786-791.
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Epp, S., Drake, E., & Caldwell, W. (2017). Land use planning and agriculture: Measuring prime agricultural land conversion in Wellington County, Ontario. SURG Journal9(2).
Filson, G. C. & Adekunle, B. (2017).  Eat Local, Taste Global: How ethnocultural food reaches our tables.  Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
He, M. F., Haynes, A., Janis, S., Ward, C., Pantin, M. M., & Mikell, C. (2013). Teaching courageously: In-between contested race, gender, class, and power in the US south. Counterpoints412, 109-141.
Holdsworth, M., El Ati, J., Bour, A., Kameli, Y., Derouiche, A., Millstone, E., & Delpeuch, F. (2012). Developing national obesity policy in middle-income countries: A case study from North Africa. Health Policy and Planning28(8), 858-870.
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Reijnders, L., & Soret, S. (2003). Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition78(3), 664S-668S.
Specht, K., Siebert, R., Hartmann, I., Freisinger, U. B., Sawicka, M., Werner, A., Thomaier, S., Henckel, D., Walk, H., & Dierich, A. (2014). Urban agriculture of the future: An overview of sustainability aspects of food production in and on buildings. Agriculture and Human Values31(1), 33-51.
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Wittman, H. (Ed.). (2011). Food sovereignty in Canada: Creating just and sustainable food systems. Winnipeg: Fernwood Press.

Stuart Filson, Graduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario, SEDRD, Canada
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August 9, 2017

Food Banks: Perceptions of an International Student

Food banks generally provide food to less privileged and disadvantaged individuals in our communities. Food banks were first initiated in the United States of America, however, food banks have grown to become a household name in many communities around the world. The primary purpose of a food bank is to receive and distribute food to reduce or prevent hunger. These fixed ideas were imprinted in my mind after my first exposure to the concept of food banks. Imprinted by whom? Why did I perceive food banks as only a food storage and distribution concept? At the time, there was a dearth in my knowledge about food security and food sovereignty. I only understood food security from the viewpoint of poverty and lack thereof of knowledge which can improve access to nutritious quality meals. After all, why will an individual need to go to a physical location to access free food.
I had moved from Ghana, to this new location which I was excited to integrate into as soon as possible. During my period living in the United States as an international student, I never visited a food bank. However, I would often hear about a call from food banks, for food from community members and students, specifically cans of food and less perishable foods. I would think that this was a well-meaning cause for those who needed food and yet, I was not sold on the idea of eating canned food. I must admit that growing up, I was spoiled by easy access to fresh cooked meals, hot from the pot with no use of a microwave. This was just the norm in my community and my country and it was not because of riches or access to cheap food. I recalled the smell of fresh “light soup” with bay leaves, tomatoes and peppers, and pounded cassava and yams (fufu). I believe I would have almost starved if I had to choose canned food instead of a nice cooked meal. I was still adjusting to life in America and little did I know that on one chilly night in the near future, I would rely on a nice bowl of chicken noodle soup and crackers to help me get over my flu. Since that day, I occasionally purchased some canned soup from the grocery store. Some years down the line, I found that comparable grocery store items could be found in both grocery stores and food banks.

Canned and packed foods

Fast forward into the future, I arrived in Canada a few years later, once again an international student trying to familiarize myself with a North American country. After days of orientations, I learned that a food bank was located somewhere on the university campus. To my surprise, a food bank charge was listed on my student bill. I wondered and said out loud to myself, “why are students paying for the food?” I knew very little about food banks and all I knew were the words “needed” and “free”. A month had gone by and I had still not been to the food bank to see what it was all about. I kept hearing people talk about the food bank but this only surprised me as I expected cans of soup and beans. As an international student, I needed to budget wisely and ensure that I had enough food without breaking the bank. After a few months of spending scarce dollars on food and the thought of shame often accompanied by visits to food banks, I weighed my options. I cared very little about what it meant to visit a food bank. I thought to myself, “why am I spending the salary of one adult person (in Ghana) on just food?” The idea haunted me anytime I went grocery shopping. Also, I never had enough to buy the food products I needed, or access the products I needed. I relied heavily on specific vegetables, fruits and rice, the cheaper ones of course. Even though any choice of food produce was expensive, I was too far away from an “African store” to purchase anything familiar or cheaper. As a matter of fact, food from African stores cost more because of export and storage requirements. As a result, I improvised with the basic and common foods like onions, tomatoes and oranges.


Finally, I decided to visit the food bank to save money and access food. I was dumfounded when I arrived at the food bank provided by the university.  Mind you the food bank was a smaller version of what one could find in any Canadian community food bank. I was met by warm greetings from fellow students. One student was stacking both fresh and non-perishable foods, while the other asked if this was my first time so she could sign me up with a membership card. I was expecting to find only pre-packaged bags of canned food ready to hand off to the needy. This was often the condescending and shaming thoughts I had associated with food banks. To my surprise, I found a lively room busy with students (single or with families) from diverse backgrounds, and storage bins filled with a large variety of food produce. In a walk-in room to my left there were two freezers and one fridge filled to the brim with milk and crates of eggs. The freezers contained, fish, chicken, frozen pancakes, frozen vegetables, hamburgers, and the list continuous. In the main open space, bins had been filled with onions, eggplant, coloured peppers, carrots, bananas, apples, oranges potatoes and other fruits and vegetables. 

Frozen Beef

There was a second room with non-perishable breakfast foods, oatmeal and cereal bars. Rice, lentils, cans of soup, tuna, beans, chicken, tomatoes spaghetti, flour and sugar were all available for the taking. I felt as though I was in the wrong place. This was not a food bank, but a mini grocery store that cost almost nothing. Of course, portion sizes had been conveniently provided to ensure that everyone had equal access to the food provided. When I finally recovered from my surprise about the food bank, I noticed a message board with a list of ingredients and recipes provided for interested individuals and families. I wondered to myself “why would someone take the time to make this recipe board and why is it necessary?”  Most importantly, all the ingredients listed could be found in the food bank so the meals were achievable. Contrary to my previous beliefs, my first rational thought about the food bank was that distribution was not the primary goal of this food bank. The administrators set out to provide access to a variety of nutritious meals to all and to ensure that quality food was provided. Two things happened to me that day, first I redefined my conception of food banks and secondly, I wanted to learn more about food banks.  

Lentils and Cereals

I set out to do some research on my own and found that even though Canada is a wealthy country, people are still living in poverty and they still have little access to food. For every 6 individuals supported in Canada by food banks, 1 person has a job. This means that not having a stable source of income is not the only reason for a person to visit a food bank. Food banks provide much more than food related support. Corporate and local food bank partners encourage support from able organizations and individuals, collect and provide safe quality food, raise funds to support the cause, provide household products, general skill training and build capacity for community members to make the most of their access to food, while reducing hunger and improving the quality of lives (examples include starting community gardens and developing cooking skills). Food banks are bringing community members together to share a meal and fight for a common worthy cause. So, there is more to food banks! I have benefited from a visit to the food bank! Now, how can I as an individual contribute to this idea that appears to be bigger than just access to food.  I had so much more to learn on this new journey.

Antonia Abena Ofosu, Graduate Student, ECVOntario, Canada
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June 5, 2017

The Art of Alternative Agriculture

It was nearing the end of fall. We were sad yet excited. It was a quiet and warm day. Planting season was coming to an end. On our way to the Maitlands’, we talked about ways we had personally practised alternative agriculture and food sustainability.

 The Maitlands’ are a sweet couple who have a passion for gardening and alternative agriculture. In the past, they had traveled to a few African countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, and experienced delicacies from various cultures around the world. When we arrived, they welcomed us with much warmth, tea and some banana bread. The house had a hospitable feel to it. Gardening hadn’t been much on our agendas coming to Canada. One thing for sure is that we had never imagined coming from Africa was that many households in Canada practiced this art. For us we grew up watching our grandparents, parents and other relatives both garden and farm. When planting season came, they had a certain smile we couldn’t quite put our fingers on.  We saw that in the Maitlands’ that day, proud yet humble home gardeners.

Just before we saw the garden we sat to discuss more about their passion for gardening and alternative agriculture. Both of us were just as curious asked what inspired them to start gardening. Mrs. Maitland explained to us how her father before her had studied Agriculture and it was through him that she was inspired to start gardening herself. The Maitland further explained “We also knew that industrialization was coming, so we still wanted to experience good organic food”. That was something we, like many others rarely thought of when we talked about what inspired one to start farming themselves. Indeed, industrialization has had a great impact on our lives in so many ways, even in our food production and consumption. For instance, a trip to the grocery store means more packaged food, such as chips and pre-packaged salads, whereas the opposite means one could pick fresh produce straight from one’s own garden.

“We have been gardening for over some 25 years now” they further observed. They noted that after having done it for so long it somewhat became therapeutic as well as a hobby. We sat there in awe and amazement at how much we were learning from these proud yet humble home gardeners.

Artists they were, as we dove deeper into conversation the Maitland’s mentioned they also took part in other forms of alternative agriculture such as community gardening and various forms of food preservation methods. As they further illuminated their thoughts about Alternative Agriculture, they introduced us to the idea of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ( and plot renting. For the Maitlands’ it was at Ignatius ( that they parttook in community gardening outside their home . “It is also a great way for locals and small scale farmers to interact with their community, while having access to fresh local produce,” Mr. Maitland added.  At Ignatius they were able to rent a piece of land where they could work, grow and eat their own food in addition to their private backyard garden. This not only meant they could save more on food but also plan their menus and meals around their own fresh produce from the gardens. We were both intrigued and we loved the idea of directly taking part in growing and harvesting one’s own food.

Backyard showing the compost container

Once we were done enjoying our snack, the Maitland couple invited us into their backyard garden. We were impressed with the professionalism of their garden. There in the backyard was a small yet functional greenhouse. Mr. Maitland explained to us that that is where they start their seedlings in the spring. Yet there was more, a compost station. This was the most interesting concept about the garden. They used the residue of crops from the harvest as their compost manure. This was done not only as a sustainable practice but as a cheaper alternative (as oppose to store bought manure) for the next planting farming season. The Maitlands’ grew almost everything we could think of a backyard garden could have and more. They grew tomatoes, onions, all kinds of herbs (such as parsley, cilantro and dill), collard greens, carrots even radicchio. We even got to try some of their cherry tomatoes and other herbs straight from the garden.

Compost preparation - leaves 

“This year we tried something new” Mrs. Maitland explained. They had never grown okra until just now. To the Maitlands’ (as they had explained) trying out and growing new plants was an exciting challenge. One thing was certain; this challenge was tackled with much grace and ambiance, as they had a successful yield of Okra. They also talked about other challenges they had growing other crops like melons and cantaloupes. “These are quite difficult to grow in the backyard” they explained. Another was corn, as it took up much space so they decided not to grow it.

Flowering okra plant @ Maitlands' backyard

When we finished looking at the garden, we headed to their basement. There they showed us the various ways in which they preserved food. They refrigerated their peppers and other vegetables. They dried or canned their tomatoes, fermented their cabbage and cucumbers and stored their carrots in buckets of soil, all year round until planting season was in full wing once again. “The only things we normally buy are our meat and dairy products and fruits, and maybe a few fresh products such as tomatoes” they explained.

The afternoon was coming to an end, as we got ready to leave the Maitlands’ house, they offered some goodies from their backyard garden and storage. Filled with gratitude, we both headed home that day having learnt more than we had expected to learn. We not only learned just how easy and affordable it can be to have access to healthier and fresh food right in our neighbours’ backyards, but also how it can bring one joy and fulfillment.
We will leave you with a quote from Dr. Lionel Tigers (Professor and Anthropologist)
“Our ancestors were eating meat over 2.5 million years ago. We mainly ate meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts. We have to assume our physiology evolved in association with this diet. The balanced diet for our species was what we could acquire then, not what the government and doctors tell us to eat now.”

Senda Chinganzi & Antonia Ofosu, Research Assistants, ECVOntario.
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May 10, 2017

The Pursuit of Happiness: The Story of a Somali Refugee-Path Immigrant

Olaitan Ogunnote, Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario

I left saturated and quieted by so many emotions. I felt inspired and hopeful. I also felt sad and angry.
Seated across this man, restaurant patrons interrupted our conversations by greeting him and exchanging pleasantries. They greeted with hands in the air and then proceeded to place them on their chests. He seemed well known and well respected. His round, slightly sunken eyes were encased in his glasses, and they told the stories of their experiences, their long, hard journeys, and their resilient spirits. He began, ‘I escaped hopelessness in pursuit of happiness’. Abdi is a youth mentor whose ignited storytelling transported me to the world I would never know.

Our discussion with Abdi was a heavy one, we laughed, and we almost cried. We caught a glimpse into the life of a man that has had a wild dance with life. Shortly after his mother died, Abdi stood by helplessly as his father was murdered right before his eyes. With no parents for support, he and his ten siblings scattered and ran for survival after witnessing their 14-year-old brother get shot in the back. They all dispersed haphazardly, severing their family cord. With regret, Abdi confessed that he left his 8-month old brother in his urgency to escape death. They were uprooted from each other by forces greater than them, and as they all ran in different directions, they scattered around the world in a similar fashion. Abdi’s parents and siblings were taken away from him.

As an eight-year-old, Abdi had more access to guns than pencils and sand was his paper. Following his flight from his town in Somalia, Abdi walked alone for about 350 km with no water, no shelter, and no food. He eventually found some adults in the distance who he followed until he reached Kenya. He recounted being too fragile to continue and having an adult carry him. It was an ordeal, to say the least. Fortunately, Abdi encountered his Uncle in Kenya who from there became a parent and a saviour to him. Together, they surmounted the overwhelming odds that stood against them and found their way to Canada.

Abdi recalled immigrating to Canada as a young child who did not speak English. He remembered his teachers being kind and compassionate to him. His voice vibrated with gratitude as he talked about the opportunity to receive healthcare and education. Going through what he went through at a tender age, anger and bitterness grew deep roots in him. To overcome the psychological and emotional turmoil Abdi experienced, he became bookish. School became his escape, and he was determined to succeed, graduate, and make it to university. Abdi did and graduated with a degree in Anthropology and History. He mentioned that the learning process morphed into a healing process for him as he began to learn about people and cultures and historical events. The education he received began to assemble the shuffled pieces of puzzling questions he had regarding why his native country, Somalia, unfolded in the damaging way that it did.

The screen glared with the images of a happy family. Abdi proudly showed me a picture of his wife and his four children on a family vacation at Niagara Falls. He proclaimed, “I’m living the dream”. I asked him to clarify on that. What did he mean by he is living the dream? He replied, “I’m a father, a husband, and a youth mentor”. “I come home to my kids, and they love me, I’m the world to them. I’m living the dream”. Abdi described Canada as the greatest country as it gives individuals reason to do well and be whatever they want to become. His patriotism is unparalleled as his identity as a Canadian is unshaken. In his words, he is just as Canadian as anyone who was born in Canada, and he would take a bullet for Canada.

Despite all the amazing things Abdi had to say about Canada, he was clear in highlighting that Canada as a nation still has flaws. Even though he reckoned that Canadian values are some of the greatest with respect to kindness, humility, co-existence, mutual respect, and tolerance are promoted, he is also aware that income inequality, poverty, and homelessness are still huge problems in Canada. “We need to advocate for our indigenes”, he remarked. [1]Only in the 1960’s were the First Nations people allowed to vote without giving up their Indian status. [2]Not a single statutory holiday for the natives. [3]Not one single currency note with natives on it. [4]And, the residential schools were just abolished in the 1970’s. All these he relayed with passion in his voice.

Abdi brought it closer to home and discussed his community and the issues they encounter. The schools in their neighbourhoods are under-funded and under-resourced. The police are distanced, and the community is a hostile environment where the language of, ‘priority neighbourhoods’ is a euphemism for ‘ghetto neighbourhoods’. Working as a youth mentor, Abdi is aware that the young people’s parents work two to three jobs to [5]provide for them. Having to [6]care for them in addition to that is a difficult task. He soberly recalled an incident where he witnessed a 12-year-old being beaten by three police officers. “Young people don’t want to have anything to do with the police. When you’re such a resilient community, you don’t talk about it. Even when they talk about it, there are no actions. The community has been over-conferenced, over-sessioned, and over-trained”, he noted.

The immigrant experience is a unique one. Abdi has since reconnected with all his siblings. He has a brother in England, Norway, Finland, and a sister in Germany. Some of his siblings are in Canada as well. Recently, they had a reunion, and he relived the experience with joy on his face. With laughter breaking out, Abdi commented that the problem now is that all their children speak different languages. He prides himself in that all his siblings attended university despite the traumatic impact of their shared childhood experience. Abdi suggested that counselling should be provided for the incoming Syrian [7]refugee path immigrants. Although preserving their culture is vital to many immigrants, he also stated that immigrants want to learn and have that sense of belonging. They adopt quickly and observe cultural behaviours over here in Canada such as holding the door for people or that it is acceptable for two men to hug. Abdi laughingly declared that “I never knew dudes hugged”. Immigrants are hard-working and resilient people, he added.

Abdi concluded that Canada is the best country ever despite all the issues he pointed out. He said his loyalty is 110% and that the best thing Canada provides is a voice to speak up. “I’m lucky to be here”, he asserted. “Even though you go through unpleasant experiences, you see it, you scratch your head, and you question; you have to move on. It is important to develop a mechanism that protects your emotions, your spirituality, and your state of mind. Life is a learning process, and at the end of the day we are all children of God”, he ended.

Olaitan Ayomide Ogunnote, Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario.

[1] “On 31 March 1960, portions of Section 14(2) of the Canada Elections Act were repealed in order to grant the federal vote to status Indians. First Nations people could now vote without losing their Indian status.”-
[2] National Aboriginal Day is a statutory holiday that is observed on June 21st only in the Northwest Territories-
[3] “Haida symbols are featured on the 2004 $20 note” -
[4] “The last residential school closed in 1996”-
[5] ‘Provide’ in this context means catering for physical needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.
[6] ‘Care’ in this context implies being actively present to guide the young ones away from evil and towards good.
[7] “Refugee path immigrants (RPIs) are people who entered their new country through refugee routes” (Adekunle et al. 2015)
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