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Culture, cuisine come together in classroom

New cooking classes for youth just a slice of $300K response to North End food assessment

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Hers will be an unenviable job, getting kids to not only make their greens, but eat them too.

So, Lissie Rappaport will mix together a little creativity with culture when she begins a series of weekly after-school cooking classes geared for inner-city youth at the Turtle Island Neighbourhood Centre in Lord Selkirk Park beginning Thurs., May 30.

From Aboriginal to Afghani to South Asian cuisines, the classes will focus on purchasing and cooking healthy food by creating traditional fusion meals, all in the name of building food literacy at an early age.

"We’ll be making foods that are healthy but also tying in cultural elements to make it interesting for kids . . . depending on who the participants are," said Rappaport, North End co-ordinator for Our Food Our Health Our Culture, a Food Matters Manitoba initiative behind the class.

"For older youth, knowledge around cooking is a way to take ownership of their lives. For younger kids, it’s an exposure to healthy food and having them see where their food is coming from and build a connection to that food through cooking."

The Thursday evening classes are just a small part of a four-year, $300,000 funding package the Public Health Agency of Canada granted to Food Matters Manitoba earlier this year for Our Food Our Health Our Culture. It aims to address food security shortfalls Food Matters found following its North End Food Assessment in 2010.

The assessment did much to confirm the so-called "food desert" that exists in the community, defined by little or no access to grocery stores selling foods needed to maintain a healthy diet.

The assessment did much to confirm the so-called "food desert" that exists in the community, defined by little or no access to grocery stores selling foods needed to maintain a healthy diet.

In fact, the survey counted more than 60 convenience stores, far outweighing the number of larger scale grocery stores. The survey found convenience stores selling a limited selection of food, in particular fresh fruits and vegetables, coupled with jaw-dropping prices: at some stores, apples cost 75% more than at chain grocery stores, chicken 50% more, cheese 70% more, and milk up to 23% more expensive.

It’s little wonder then that 81% of the community surveyed said fruits and veggies were too expensive, while 88% said meat was too expensive. More than 62% said they cut their grocery budgets to pay rent or utilities instead.

"There are huge barriers to accessing food in the North End," Rappaport said.

"That has everything to do with affordability, accessibility and infrastructure that’s there."

For a community with large rates of poverty, it has resulted in a charity model of food delivery for North Enders, where food banks and meal programs are increasingly being relied on to fill empty stomachs.

"What we’re trying to move forward with is empowering people not to be relying on handouts," Rappaport said.

"We want to empower people to have the skills and knowledge to take control of their food choices and where and how they get food."

The cooking classes for youth are just one of 50 recommendations the assessment made to try to move the North End toward a more sustainable model of social enterprise and private investment.

Food Matters Manitoba will be using some of its funding to develop a curriculum for community groups, dubbed Community Tables, with aboriginal dietician Monica Sinclair, Rappaport said.

"The idea behind the program is that ideally, after groups participate, they take steps to developing healthy food policies for their organization," she said.

The money will also be used to work with North End stores to develop a system that allows corner stores to offer a wider range of healthy food at lower prices, Rappaport said.

Back at Turtle Island, up to 80 kids show up on the average evening, with up to 120 on busy nights, said facility supervisor Chris Lagimodiere. The cooking classes will be a first for the centre, which offers a range of art programming, a powwow club, and various sports programs.

"Healthy eating and living is part of creating the holistic child," Lagimodiere said.

"It’s very important to their development, both mentally and physically, and takes them a long way to preparing their own lunches or taking care of their siblings."

The classes are just one small part of helping youth in Lord Selkirk Park find a passion to chase as a career, Lagimodiere added.

"It allows them to be a part of something, opens up opportunities to them," he said.

"Maybe they’ll realize cooking is something they like doing, and they might want to work towards working in a restaurant."

For more, visit ourfoodhealthculture.com or www.foodmattersmanitoba.ca.

matt.preprost@canstarnews.com

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Twitter: @timesWPG

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