“Eggplant is my favourite vegetable because it is so versatile. You can roast it, put it in soup, and use it to make baba ghanoush,” explains Ron Cockburn, the new Community Chef at the CRC Regent Park Community Food Centre.
“And I like lettuce because there are so many varieties and I love to use it in soups,” says Valda Alleyne, longtime Kitchen Assistant.
Ron began cooking as an eight year old in his mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. “I was a kid who liked to hang around the kitchen, and when smelling Grandma’s cooking I wanted to be the first to taste it. This was a big motivation in wanting to learn how to cook.”
Valda learned to cook in her mother and aunt’s kitchen while growing up Jamaica. She has been with CRC’s Community Kitchen for 14 years where she has served as food preparer, cook, and dishwasher. She enjoys meeting participants, chatting, and laughing with them. “It takes away the stress and brings me happiness,” she smiles.
Ron began working at CRC last September and took the job because it meets with his passion “that people should get the best food possible – fresh, healthy and nutritious.” “I really enjoy people’s immediate reaction to having a good meal,” he adds.
CRC has a new partnership with Community Food Centres Canada to establish a Community Food Centre in Regent Park. Since 1964, CRC has been providing practical assistance to those marginalized by poverty in this downtown inner city neighbourhood in Toronto.
“The CRC Regent Park Community Food Centre will build on the deep roots that the CRC has in serving Regent Park with its community meal, gardening, and food security programs,” comments Liz Curran, Community Food Centre Manager. “An expanded program mix will be developed using the principles of the Community Food Centre model, with the goal of creating a space where the community can come together to grow, cook, share, and advocate for good food.”
“It will provide community members with access to high-quality food in a dignified setting that doesn’t compromise their self-worth; with the space and tools to develop cooking and gardening skills and experiment with new foods; and with the opportunity to find their voices on the issues that matter to them, to make friends, and to find supports.”
And that mission excites both Ron and Valda.
For Ron it means that a healthy food program in Regent Park will supplement people’s food needs. “It will fill a gap for those who can’t afford fresh fruits or vegetables. It will mean the meals are more consistent and that we can offer food skills training.”
For Valda it means that “people will still have a place to go to get a warm meal and not be lonely.” She adds, “The cooking classes will mean that people can learn from each other, sharing their favourite dishes from their own countries.”
As the program expands, Ron’s role will be to ensure that the kitchen is well equipped and runs smoothly, especially since it relies so heavily on volunteers. “The people that come here to help out every day are very passionate and take great pride in what they do. They want to make a difference. To me they are the unsung heroes of the program,” Ron points out. “I am pretty intense and task-focused, but I love working with my volunteers because they keep me grounded and together we are creating something very special here.”
“Especially when the volunteers are ladies because that’s when the best food is made,” laughs Valda. “But seriously, it’s great that the new kitchen is so new and modern. It helps people be motivated in their work,” she adds.
And how have the changes so far been experienced by the participants, those that access the programs at CRC?
“One day someone told me that the bean salad was restaurant quality because it had so many good ingredients in it,” Ron answers. “And, one of my favourite dishes – stuffed peppers with rice and ground chicken, sauce, and parmesan cheese – is always a big hit.”
So, will eggplant and lettuce add to the variety and versatility of the new food meal program at CRC?
“Of course, because eggplant is so tasty and such a good meat substitute,” smiles Ron.
“Absolutely,” says Valda, “because there are so many types of lettuce and there is lots of soup and salads to be made.”