What’s in a Chalmers basket?

Posted March 11, 2019 by

CCSC’s own Peter Gill recently sat down with Sophia Podrozny to find out more about the origins of Chalmers good food program. Sophia, a registered dietitian who now works with the family health team, was the architect of the program.

Peter: How did you first get involved with Chalmers?

Sophia: It was the fall of 2006 and Lori Ryan-Gray, the manager back then, contacted me to ask if I could help design a ‘basket’ of nutritious food for their guests. The food pantry was operating in the basement of Chalmers United Church and was pretty much run by members of that church.

P. What had they been doing before?

S. Well, there was hardly any money to spend on food so Chalmers relied on donations mostly. If we served 75 guests in a week and we had donations of 50 cans of soup, we would go out and buy 25 cans. There was no food budget back then but when John Buttars became chair, we established a budget. I don’t recall much being spent on fresh produce although we would occasionally get donations of a bushel of apples or tomatoes from someone’s garden. There was not a real strategy around what was offered. I got a lot of feedback from volunteers that they did not feel good about the foods they were handing out. We did get products from the Ontario Association of Food Banks and back then the quality was much better. It declined a lot over the next few years.

P. And so we decided to sever our relationship with the Guelph Food Bank a few years back.. How did you decide what food items we should be offering?

S. In 2007 the new Canada Food Guide had been published so I tried to adhere to those guidelines as much as possible – fresh fruit and vegetables, protein, dairy, whole grains, some carbohydrates. The goal was to provide food for 2-3 days which guests could access every two weeks. We couldn’t afford to buy all these things at one time so the basket had to be introduced over a period of years. Chalmers also started to ask donors for specific foods, peanut butter or pasta for example. It was a gradual process.  I must say that Chalmers was extremely forward-thinking in adopting this nutritious food program. I did some research when I first started and could hardly find any food banks that had an intentional policy of offering good food – it’s much more common now of course.

P. What do you think Chalmers should be looking at around its food program for the future?

S. Well, there’s a new Canada Food Guide which might be an opportunity to look at what you offer. Essentially the new guideline is that 50% of your plate be fruits and vegetables, 25% protein and the other 25% whole grains – brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat pasta for example. I think you should go back to offering oatmeal at your cafe mornings as well as the treats.

I know you’re doing a lot more than just offering food these days but I would like to see a more integrated approach to food along the lines of the Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto where communal cooking takes place and cooking classes as well as the growing of produce. I know there’s a plan to have a rooftop garden at 42 Carden and the community kitchen is under construction. If you can make use of these facilities, that would be great.

I’ve always been proud of Chalmers’ approach to helping marginalized people – not doing any means testing or requiring proof of need, and treating people with respect, referring to them as guests. I think the food program that was designed ten years ago was very much part of that philosophy.

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