The seniors start to arrive at the CRC Regent Park Community Food Centre long before their workshop is to begin. Three times a week, community food skills coordinator Emily McKenzie hosts what’s called a Community Kitchen.
These are free cooking and nutrition workshops organized around a theme, such as the LGBTQ youth kitchen for street involved youth, the liver health program for those who’ve had a history of substance abuse, or Food Fit for anyone who wants to eat healthier.
Today it’s the Seniors’ Community Kitchen, and about a dozen people have shown up — though some participants who don’t seem quite old enough to be seniors have snuck in too. That’s okay. Everyone is welcome.
Emily offers a healthy snack of granola and yoghurt before the group divides up the cooking tasks. This afternoon, they are making chicken pitas with tzatziki.
Peter, a participant who is originally from Macedonia, offers to take charge of that part of the meal. He knows the recipe well because, he says, they make tzatziki where he comes from — though he raises his eyebrows at Emily’s spice choices.
“You put oregano?” he asks. Then, shrugging, he says, “OK!” And off they go— Peter to clean the cucumbers before he will grate them, two women and one of the men into the kitchen to get to work on the chicken, others to tackle the pita bread.
This is just one of the many food programs that are on offer at the Regent Park Community Food Centre. On weekdays, the centre’s community chef, Ronald Cockburn, along with volunteer help, cooks about 200 lunches for whoever wants to drop in for some food. Most days they make breakfast too. Lunch could be steak, goat curry, burgers. Whatever they are serving, it’s all tasty.
The point, says McKenzie, is to provide healthy food that is also delicious in a pleasant environment. There’s no shame in coming for a from-scratch meal and eating in the clean, light-filled dining room. Volunteers even serve the food to guests as if they were at someone’s home — there are no cafeteria-style line-ups here.
“I love what I do,” says Cockburn. “It’s an environment that is warm and caring. When you work in a restaurant, you don’t have that connection.”
And when people come for a meal, they can also access many other resources. Six peer advocates from the community have been hired to help visitors to the centre with everything from accessing disability support to figuring out citizenship issues.
Other programs focus on educating the community about healthy food.
In the gardening program anyone can learn to grow vegetables, guided by coordinator Ashrafi Ahmed. She helps to run the centre’s allotment plots, as well as the communal garden where everyone shares the bountiful harvest.
Gardening in Regent Park is particularly special, says Community Food Centre Manager Emily Martyn, because there’s a chance for people from so many different countries to share and compare their knowledge. For example, last year the community discovered that they all grew the amaranth plant but used it in different ways. Bengali gardeners cooked the leaves of the plant, whereas the Mexican gardeners used the flower heads and seeds. The Vietamese gardeners, on the other hand, chose to cook the younger leaves and the stalks.
Back at the Community Kitchen, the participants are eager to talk about how much they enjoy being there. “It is a really good program,” said an older man named Servi. “It gives you a chance to talk to people and learn about good food and nutrition. I really enjoy it.”
Peter agrees. “He and I, we share the same opinion,” he says. And then they share the work of preparing the meal.