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    Categories: Lifestyle

Focus on nutrition at food banks

Chef David Omar and registered dietitian Emily Mardell have partnered with Catelli and food banks across the country to create a free online cookbook about cooking healthy meals on a budget.

Nutrition may not be the first concern for those who need to use the food bank. It’s more often a case of simply having something to eat versus going hungry.

But a cross-country effort by food banks and dietitians is aiming to change that by providing low cost ideas for nutritious meals based around items found at food banks. Registered dietitian Emily Mardell says this will provide health, wellness and dignity for those that use the food bank.

A recent survey representing 251 food banks across Canada showed that roughly half of food banks described nutritional considerations as extremely important when serving their clients. Since demand routinely exceeds donations, food banks are focused on doing more with less.

In the Edmonton region, Mardell and Zinc Restaurant Executive Chef David Omar have teamed up to boost educational efforts of food banks by contributing a recipe, food picks and health tips to the free-to-download book Out of the Box: Healthy Family Pasta Meals on a Budget (available at catelli.ca)

As part of Catelli’s Help Us Feed the Hope campaign, Mardell chose three nutritious ingredients – zucchini, asparagus and Greek yogurt – which Omar fashioned into a vegetarian bowtie pasta dish. All dishes in the e-book have to feed a family of four for under $15.

“Food is a right, not a privilege. Everyone should feel they can access inexpensive local ingredients to help create healthy meals for themselves and their families,” Mardell says. “Food banks do their best with our monetary donations to buy bulk potatoes, carrots and other fresh, local produce, but we can also help consumers up their food skills – to learn how to stretch food dollars and prepare healthy meals using high quality, shelf-stable foods (peas, lentils, beans, etc.) plus local, in-season foods.”

Edmonton Food Bank executive director Marjorie Bencz says the food bank has also launched a TV series called Cook It Simple, where Chef Stanley Townsend demonstrates “delicious, simple and healthy recipes using ingredients commonly found in our hampers.”

At the St. Albert Food Bank, executive director Suzan Krecsy is pursuing health and nutrition options for clients in an even bigger way. At its Beaudry Place site, the food bank’s vibrant Community Village offers meal prep and class instruction for those who struggle to put a healthy meal on the table. The operation’s kitchen hosts teaching sessions courtesy of volunteer nutritionists, while MacEwan nursing and dietitian students teach clients about ‘healthy alternative’-type diets, and so-called diabetic diets that reduce sugar and simple carbohydrates while focusing on fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.

“We don’t even have to ask folk to ‘plant a garden row for us’ as they have in the past. Now, with a big walk-in cooler/freezer, we can request fresh and frozen foods, milk, meat and garden boxes of fresh produce,” says Krecsy. “Every food bank needs non-perishables, but our donors are health-conscious and they’re bringing those fresh alternatives to us too.”

Krecsy says she’s also ‘over the moon’ about the food bank’s partnership with the St. Albert Farmers’ Market. Last year, Chamber of Commerce/market staff started collecting leftover produce from vendors at the end of each Saturday – wilted lettuce, unsold baked goods, fresh vegetables – to the tune of 2,500 pounds of food throughout the season.

“We’re helping over 200 families per month with food hampers, and the fresh foods make a huge difference,” she says. “And every parent feels better when the food they put on the table is nutritious.”

Lucy Haines: Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.