Food and Wine

CROCK-POT REVOLUTION: From cooking classes to a “good food list,” how Karen Secord is transforming the Parkdale Food Centre

Karen Secord, coordinator of the Parkdale Food Centre, is pushing people to think outside the box in terms of what a food bank can offer its community. Photo: Luther Caverly

It’s Thursday morning, and a long table, with a clean white bedsheet as a tablecloth, is neatly set for eight guests.

Karen Secord of the Parkdale Food Centre pulls up a chair and joins the group of clients who are sitting down to enjoy the results of their morning cooking workshop: asparagus frittatas and spinach salad topped with toasted almonds and mandarin oranges.

With her funky asymmetrical haircut, leather jacket, and black knee-high boots, Secord looks more like a fashion editor than the coordinator of a food bank. She’s the type of person you’d expect to find strolling up Wellington, stopping in at gourmet food shops and sampling trendy restaurant dishes in the city’s foremost foodie neighbourhood.

But Secord understands something that those who can treat themselves to lobster rolls and artisanal beer might not realize: hunger lurks in those very same streets. “Last month we fed 185 children,” she tells me later in her makeshift office tucked behind shelves of cereal boxes and canned fruit. “That’s the highest number ever.”

The food centre feeds close to 200 children per month

Back at the table, Secord gestures toward two dazzling cakes — edible centrepieces donated by nearby caterer Thyme & Again — and confesses that when she was a kid, she used to eat dessert first. She appreciates that most of her tablemates — six men and two women — rarely eat a meal in a social situation like this.

The men, most of whom live in one of the area’s 14 rooming houses, have only a hot plate, making it difficult to cook for themselves and others. One of the men asks why Secord isn’t eating. “I can’t have certain foods since I had that surgery,” she says, referring to the gastric bypass procedure she underwent in 2010. “I lost 140 pounds. I was a big girl.”

At the end of the table, a gruff man with tattooed arms suddenly quips, “So you’re literally half the woman you used to be!” Everyone laughs. For a few moments, the scene takes on the intimacy of a typical family dinner. Secord’s down-to-earth demeanour and candid conversation have put everyone at ease. The frittata is a hit, and everyone around the table agrees they will make it at home.

The food centre asks for "good food" donations such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes

Since becoming coordinator over a year ago, Secord has been gently prying the food bank out of the past, challenging assumptions and trying out new ideas — including cooking classes — that go far beyond her mandate.

The Parkdale Food Centre, located just outside of Hintonburg, looks like any other food bank — the kind that popped up across the country almost 30 years ago as a temporary measure. Kindly grey-haired volunteers still ring a silver desk bell when it’s time to assemble hampers of emergency food supplies.

But behind the scenes, Secord is raising money, awareness, and a few eyebrows in her quest to source better food for her clients. “The mentality out there seems to be that those people, all they want to eat is hot dogs and KD,” Secord explains later. “It’s not true. They want to eat well.” She is working to phase out food items like hot dogs and soda crackers and has refused to distribute pop and candy that are delivered from the central Ottawa Food Bank.

Secord is inspired by poverty-fighting organizations like The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto — part of a larger food-centre movement reaching across the country that is changing the conversation surrounding hunger and humanity. (Closer to home, the model was launched in 2010 by The Table Community Food Centre in Perth.) These are places where low-income people can develop such skills as cooking and gardening, which lead to a healthier diet and stronger communities.

“Could you be smart if all you ate was KD and canned stew?” says Secord. “I’d want to stay in bed all day.” And so Secord has drafted a new donation list, dubbed “the good food list,” which she passes out at neighbourhood events and posts at cafés. The list asks for such things as nuts, barley, raisins, eggs, fresh meat, and legumes. (She noticed that the normally slow-moving shelf of chickpeas, lentils, and kidney beans emptied quickly after the centre organized a couple of vegetarian cooking classes that emphasized the benefits of protein and how to easily incorporate beans and legumes into one’s diet.)

“I don’t know how they got her, but they are so lucky,” says Hilary McVey, the newest member of the Parkdale Food Centre board, taking over her mother’s seat after 25 years. “Karen reaches out to people. If she has an idea, she always finds a way to make it happen.” That might mean asking the owner of the local ice cream truck to help collect milk donations outside the Metro supermarket or signing up local chefs to lead cooking workshops.

Secord sees being situated among the city’s most innovative chefs and food businesses as a key advantage. Where better to shift people’s thinking about the importance of good food and a healthy community than in a neighbourhood that already appreciates good food? By embracing social media and thinking outside the box, she hopes to move the food bank away from the outdated charity model. “We need sustainable solutions,” she says, “not just poverty relief.”

And that’s what got Secord thinking about slow cookers — she has given away more than 40 of them so far. She believes that cooking contributes to self-sufficiency and provides nourishment in more ways than one. It’s like the old proverb about teaching a man to fish, but in this case, if you give that man a slow cooker, he may never again need to open a can of stew.

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