Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Experience at the Breakthrough Leaders Program in Vermont

It's now been several months since I packed up my car and headed south of the border for The Breakthrough Leaders Program at the University of Vermont (UVM). I had been accepted into the program in late May and was very excited to be taking part in the inaugural year of a program designed to support and develop leaders in the sustainable food movement.  

I really had no idea what to expect from the program. All I could predict with any certainty is that I'd be inspired, because Vermont serves inspiration up like it's going out of style (which, sadly, it is).    I had a feeling I'd leave the program with more questions than answers. They'd be good, but challenging questions I'd be forced to ask myself, the type of soul-searching questions that can shift the trajectory of a person's life.  And that is exactly what ended up happening.

But what exactly did the Breakthrough Leaders Program offer up, and what were my key take-aways?  I'm not sure I can answer any  these questions with great certainty. It is often difficult to pinpoint or articulate how an experience, a particular interaction, a conversation or a combination of these things can contribute to subtle, yet profound shifts in one's life. All of this is to say that I am having difficulty identifying precisely what it was about the program that made it an invaluable experience, but I will try to share what made the week so special and spectacular.

So as not to keep you waiting, I'll begin by sharing some of the quotes and concepts from the week that resonated most deeply with me, and that I expect I will return to often for inspiration as my journey continues to unfold:

  • Love is better than anger or hate. You cannot sustain the necessary energy to be engaged in the food movement (or any movement) if you are operating from a place of anger or hate. It will get you only so far. You may start from a place of anger, but it's imperative that you  move to a place of love.
  • Be a Beaver. You can't continuously worry about what other people are doing in the forest. Find your 'tree' and start working on it. Trust that others are working on their trees and together you will build what needs to be built.
  • Information can influence, the heart can change.  It's never easy to sway a person, but I'd place my bets on tugging at someone's heart strings over showing them a table of data.  When I think of great leaders of recent times , I think of the 'heart' with which they have led - Martin Luther King Jr., Jack Layton, Jane Jacobs, David Suzuki. Sure, they were all well-educated, informed individuals that could cite facts if need be, but it was their passion and conviction that won many people over. 
  • Take Risks Together - This reduces the risk to any one individual and simultaneously develops valuable bonds between the risk-takers.
  • Collaborate -  Co-operation is a start, but collaboration suggests a more active effort to integrate ideas, projects and resources to reach a shared vision. This approach seems to have worked miracles in Vermont, maybe it can do so in other places.
  • Dream Big - no sense in dreaming small dreams when we have a whole planet to rescue
 But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's go back to the beginning of my week at the BLP program....
Heading to the Breakthrough Leaders program I wondered, briefly, if the glean of Vermont would lessen with time, if I'd feel less enamoured with it than I did in 2009 when I lived there briefly while doing field research for my thesis.  But, of course, I didn't. If anything,  its beacon shone even brighter, undoubtedly because Canada's May 2011 election had extinguished any last ray of hope my country might have of being considered progressive or thoughtful.  It was summer too,  and maybe that made it shine particularly  bright.    I arrived after a day of driving from Fredericton via Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to the welcoming arms of Maura and Joe (and Simon, the cat...but he doesn't have arms, per se), who had so kindly agreed to host me for my first night in Burlington. Somehow they knew I'd need wine and, boy did I!  Blueberry crumble was also on offer (yum!).

After a quick catch-up,  we all slumbered and then it was Sunday - the first day of the Program.  Generally I'm not a fan of the first day of anything, especially the first day of class. Let's face it, it tends to be awkward and who likes awkward? This time round though, I was simply excited to meet the cohort of others that, like me, wanted to be food revolution leaders.  I'd already received a bit of a preview of the people I'd be keeping company with and was truly impressed by the work everyone was doing and the values/reasons that had drawn them into the world of sustainable/local/socially just food. Many were already leading revolutions, from transforming DC's school lunch program, to starting an urban garden in NYC, to providing families with prepared meals of local, healthy food.

Indeed, I was not disappointed when I finally got to meet the cohort I'd be going through the BLP with. Energetic, optimistic, insightful, friendly - just a few adjectives to describe the group I was a part of. We spent the afternoon getting to know each other and ourselves, with our 'Top 5 Strengths' as the focal point of conversations and exercises. After an afternoon of in-class introductions, we were off to dinner with the President of UVM, Dr. John Bramley. As it turns out, Dr. Bramley was instrumental in getting the Breakthrough Leaders Program off the ground and after he spoke to the group, my impressions of him were solidified - this was a man that 'got it' and was able to shape his passions and values into something much bigger than himself. If only every institution could be so lucky to have the kind of visionary leadership that UVM was so fortunate to have.

Our curriculum for the week was jam-packed full of in-class learning and field trips, sprinkled liberally with time to eat good food. To speak of the highlights from the week would be to suggest there were lowlights, but there really weren't any.  There were, however, some field trips and some speakers/instructors that resonated deeper with me. I am sure for other students, such a list would be different from mine, but for what it's worth, these were the most impactful parts of the program for me (in no particular order):

  • The Intervale  - We spent Monday morning on the site of The Intervale, a 700 acre piece of land which is located in heart of Burlington. Amongst its roles, The Intervale provides farmers with access to training, land, capital and markets. It also operates a Food Hub, including a multi-farm CSA, and a gleaning program that collects surplus food during the growing season and distributes it to community members in need.   But what really struck me about The Intervale was that it all began with one person.  That's right, this amazing non-profit organization that now employs of 15 people and provides valuable resources and services to a multiplicity of stakeholders resulted from the vision and countless hours (years, really) of hard work and perseverance. If you want to learn more, check out the website and read the history of The Intervale.
  • Hardwick -  My only regret when I went here with the BLP crew was that we couldn't stay longer. This is not a place that can be fully experienced in a day. Nevertheless, I think that many in the group were inspired and impressed with the 'Town that Food Saved' and the many thriving agri-businesses that we toured while there. As many know, this little town in Northeastern Vermont holds a special place in my heart. It was here that I carried out my field research for my Masters thesis and it is in large part because of the people in this town that my long search for my life's calling was cemented. I dare you to spend a month in Hardwick and not be changed by it!  The town, like many others throughout Vermont, is bursting at the seams with 'community'.  The community bulletin boards are packed with upcoming events to engage the political minds, the artists, entrepreneurs, foodies and plenty of other passions. People have conversations in coffee shops about things that (in my opinion) matter. And there's always time to stop and say hello to a friendly face as you wander along the street. Time is a gift people are willing to share with each other.    In the span of a generation or two, I think many of us have really lost sight of what it is to be part of a community. It is my belief that the only way our species can find its way back to a balanced way of living is through vibrant, tightly-knit communities and I think food is a lynchpin, a game-changer in community development.
  • LaDonna Redmond - LaDonna has a presence about her such that she doesn't even need to speak and you can sense her power and conviction. When she speaks, however, there is no doubt left that this woman is knows more than a thing or two about 'Finding Your Voice'. And that, incidentally, was the name of the session she led with the BLP group.  She spoke to us about finding our own voices, and led us through exercises that helped us discover our story (the Why of our involvement in the food revolution). This is something I'd been struggling with for awhile. What was MY story? I didn't come to the food revolution as a down-and-out conventional farmer, I didn't come as a parent wanting to feed my children properly, I didn't come as a person sick with cancer that wanted to eliminate pesticides and GMOS from my diet. For the life of me, I couldn't really pinpoint how I'd found myself on this journey. I knew I wanted to be here, I just couldn't find my voice. LaDonna helped a lot with that, and in the days and weeks  that followed I grew more confident of my voice and dug deep to find my truth, my story.
  • Stephen Ritz - This Bronx high school teacher spoke to our group and  then at the Vermont Food Summit (picture a TED-like afternoon of amazing speakers)  which we attended. He is a ball of energy and an amazing man. He has transformed his classroom into a living garden of learning and, in the process, is helping to transform the lives of his Bronx students (i.e. the poorest congressional district in the USA), and the community. His TED talk will do much greater justice to explaining his achievements and those of his students, than I could, so just go watch it (right after you finish reading this!). He brought three of his graduated students with him and they were also amazing young men.
  • Corie Pierce - Now maybe I'm just a sucker for any story of a successful female farmer and businesswoman, but I have to say that our visit to Bread and Butter Farm and the two opportunities we had to listen to Corie speak (on the farm and at the Summit), left me thinking 'I want to be like her!'. OK, maybe I don't want to farm, but I do want to be steering my own ship and making a difference in the lives of others. One piece of advice/widsom that Corie shared with us was that right now, opportunities abound in the farming and food worlds, but that to get there, we're going to have to forge our own paths. We must be true pioneers, staking out a place in a newly discovered land of opportunity.  I believe I am ready.

Those are just  few of the highlights. I really could write far more, but I'm sure you've other things to do, so I will end with this realization, which came to me on the very last day of Breakthrough Leaders:

We aren't fighting for a better food system, we are fighting the global and corporate powers that are shaping every facet of our life, as a species, and as individuals. Lord of The Rings and Star Wars have nothing on the 21st century when it comes to ultimate Good vs. Evil tales. Each of us has a chance and, dare I say, a responsibility to the future, to side with the forces of good and fight against these powers. Your fight doesn't have to be in the world of food. There are so many battles against power conglomerates over basically every single resource or idea worthwhile, from water to a woman's right to education. All I'm suggesting is that you choose a battle and engage. And while I use 'fighting' and 'battle' to describe these struggles, I suggest that you leave your armour and your anger at home and go forth wielding love, truth and selflessness. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Out of Balance

Last week I came down with a nasty cold. I had to call in sick for a day of work and take it easy for the rest of the week by going to bed early and avoiding exercise. It's only now, 9 days later that I'm feeling almost like my healthy self again. This is so out of the norm for me. I am not used to getting sick, and when I do catch a cold or the such, it usually only lasts a day or two.  I chalk up my good health to getting plenty of rest, exercising, eating well and just basically not focusing my energies on the possibility of sickness. I figure if I instill trust in my body, it will build off that positive energy to keep me going!

The above being noted, I knew the minute I began to feel ill that my body was signalling me that I'd let the pendulum swing too far. In the weeks (maybe even the last couple of months) I've let myself get so overwhelmed and stressed out that my body had to go to extremes to get me to take a breather.
I should have seen it coming. I feel like I've been careening along in life for the last while, trying to juggle SO many things - from a busy job that is requiring me to develop new skills regularly, to my night-time/weekend studies of holistic nutrition, to my 'other' food-related commitments (and there are a lot!), to my visiting with my family, to  friends and socializing, to Mr. Wonderful, and to my self, including my health and well-being. It's all been too much. I regularly feel like I've failed to accomplish all I 'should' have in a day, despite knowing full well that I am doing more in a day than most people would consider normal.  Summer has just added more pressure to my already over-zealous schedule of 'things to do' and I have found myself unable to say no to invitations that involve drinking, eating, sunshine and celebrating love/getting older.  After all, summer only comes to  PEI for 2 months a year.

And so I've spent the better part of the last few weeks trying to figure out how to fit it all in and still get some down time. I've not done particularly well. I've had down time but it's not been quality down time, because for the most part I've spent it worrying about what I have to do after I've stopped relaxing!  I worry about saying no to people and opportunities that I really want to be a part of right now, but am not sure I can handle. If I say no now, I have a feeling these opportunities won't crop up again. I want to be the  'yes' woman, but at what point can I say 'No, I'm sorry I can't do that right now, but please keep me in mind for next time'? 

Even in these past days when I was trying to recuperate from a sickness that I knew was related to overtaxing myself, I still expended energy feeling guilty that I had to cancel one of my scheduled rows, that I'd not had the energy to create a new Facebook, and that I wasn't able to concentrate enough to do my nutrition studies.

I know I need to make adjustments. This can't be a patch job. I have a tendency to regularly overwhelm myself and thankfully it doesn't usually result in a physical illness because I'm usually cognizant of my need to decompress and address things before they get so out of hand. Still, the more I delve into my nutrition studies, the more I realize how much havoc my emotions and stresses are having on my  internal systems of health. While I may be lucky to be generally healthy right now, it is highly likely that my mental and emotional turmoil is wreaking havoc on my systems, including my digestive, endocrine and immune systems. I may not see the cumulative effect of these internal, nuanced reactions  by the body right now, but I know that if I stay this course it will only lead to dis-health or dis-ease.  

So now I need to explore some psycho-spiritual and lifestyle changes that can help bring my mind and my emotions back into balance. I am thinking of getting a Tshirt that reads ' Gone Fishing' and wearing it on days that I want to just drop everything I've committed to and take a nice breather.
I am going to start practicing saying no. I'm going to try to learn to relax by observing others in their natural state (i.e. those to whom relaxation comes as naturally as breathing).  I want to explore meditation as well, but  right now that seems like an added time hog and something I would be trying to 'fit' into my day and I reckon that sort of defeats the purpose of meditation.

I need other ideas. I need suggestions from people who've been where I am, or can empathize with feeling overwhelmed, out-of-control and uncertain of where/how to reduce stresses and obligations in one's life. Help me get back in balance!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Wonder Woman

About two years ago I returned home to PEI from Kingston, where I'd been attending grad school at Queen's. A job opportunity had prompted me to return to the Island earlier than planned and so, with the final leg of my thesis still looming, I packed up my car and life, and drove back to PEI in early June.

A part of me was apprehensive about returning to PEI. I'd been trying, albeit with little success, to shed the 25 pounds I'd gained over the past 20 months. Weight gain seemed to go part and parcel with me leaving PEI, and heading to grad school reconfirmed a pattern I'd observed since my early twenties. Still, despite knowing I'd likely be coming back to PEI bigger than when I'd left, I really didn't want to return from graduate school with these extra pounds weighing me down. I was already weighed down enough by the stresses of my thesis and the threat of a $0 bank balance. Suffice to say, I've since come to realise that my weight gain has less to do with my geographic location and way more to do with my stress levels, which happened to be really high while I was in Kingston.

I vowed that upon returning to PEI, I would get back into a health routine of eating and exercise I booked an appointment with my former nutritionist and signed up for Largo (thai kickboxing) classes immediately upon return. I needed inspiration in a desperate way, and figured between the nutritionist and Manny, of Largo fame, I would be set.

Silly me. I forgot that when you ask for inspiration, it will come to you in people and circumstances you would never anticipate.

Within a few weeks of being home, I'd noticed something rather peculiar. Three middle-aged women that I knew had each lost a lot of weight in the two years I'd been gone. I was rather taken aback. Isn't middle-age when women are destined to pack on the pounds? How could they possibly lose weight after carrying it around for years at the very exact time in life when they would be expected to gain weight?

Two of these women happened to attend aerobic classes at the Atlantic Fitness Centre, where I'd also renewed my membership. Not only did they look fantastic, but they were kicking butt in class. I felt so out of shape and unshapely in comparison, but I realized that I was not discouraged by these toned, fit women, which I may have been if they were the same age as me or younger. Rather, I felt inspired. I thought to myself - if these women can trump the middle-age spread and become powerhouses, surely there's no reason I can't lose the weight and get back my strength and endurance. Really, I've got age working in my favor!

Now that I'm back to feeling more like myself and am in the depths of my nutrition studies, I thought this would be a great time to share some of the inspiration that I received from these Wonder Women. I asked one of them if she'd oblige me with an interview for my blog and she willingly agreed. I guess she couldn't really say no, since she's my mother! Here's her story (I am using the initials WW for Wonder Woman, not for Weight Watcher!)

SC: So, tell me a bit about what prompted you to gain weight?

WW: Well, really it was just eating too much food, especially bread with 'stuff' in between it. When I was a kid I ate milk, bread, etc. and I just continued eating like that as an adult. My activity slowed down over the years, but I kept eating the same.

SC: What prompted you to lose weight now, in the middle years of your life?

WW: Well, I'd tried losing weight a couple of times over the years by cutting back on what I was eating, but I had no real plan so never really accomplished the weight loss. When my eldest daughter started doing Weight Watchers, I saw it as an opportunity to lose weight. I began to realise that some of the foods I'd been eating were really high in points, so I switched these foods for more food of lower points. I did it on my own though, because I didn't want to pay someone to lose the weight.

SC: How did you cope with the changes?

WW: It was an excellent transition. I'd weigh myself once a week and if I was up, I'd be more conscientious the next week. I tried to anticipate and prepare for upcoming social outings. In the beginning I was very strict about what I ate. I mentally convinced myself I didn't need all the treats.

SC: What kept you going during the weight loss phase?

WW: As I lost weight, I felt better and noticed that I could work out more at the gym and was getting stronger. People were also complimenting me, which was nice to hear.

SC: How much weight did you lose and how long did it take you to lose the weight you wanted to lose?

WW: I've lost and kept off about 38 to 40 pounds. It took me about 9 months to lose that weight and I've maintained my current weight for about 2 and a half years.

SC: Have you had any difficulties maintaining your new weight?

WW: Well, I did have a fudge downfall this past Christmas. Co-workers were making fudge and bringing it into the office to share or sell as a fundraiser and it was very tempting, and I may have given in once or twice!

SC: Can you give a rundown of a typical days' meals before you lost the weight and currently?

WW: Sure. My old breakfast was typically something like two slices of bread with peanut butter or cream cheese. My new breakfast is pretty consistently the same: 1/4 dry oatmeal (cooked with 1/2 cup of water ), topped with 1/4 c. of greek yogurt and 1/4 c of blueberries.

Previously my lunch would often be something like a six inch veggie sub with mayo from Subway, and sometimes I'd make it a foot long sub. Now I opt for a salad with vegetables and add a can of tuna, a boiled egg or leftover, cooked protein from dinner the night before.

In the past I might have a mid-afternoon snack such as a muffin, whereas now I tend to have fruit.

My dinners have not changed a lot in composition, but I have reduced my portions and we avoid bread. A typical dinner would be some type of grilled protein, potatoes or rice and a garden salad or veggies.

When I was in weight loss mode I avoided evening snacks, but now I might have a small amount of cheese and some mini crackers.

SC: Has your exercise routine changed?

WW: I always exercised regularly, but I'm definitely going to the gym more often now and really pushing myself. It's easier to push yourself when you have less weight to carry around.

SC: What final thoughts and advice would you like to share?

WW: Well, if you're a middle-aged woman and you lose weight, that weight was holding things up, so be prepared when you look in the mirror!! Basically, I decided I didn't want to get old and decrepit, and then made the changes necessary. Now I love going shopping and working out at the gym.

I think for me the weekly weigh-in is very important in my having been able to maintain the weight loss, so that is still part of the routine that really allows me to see if I've been naughty or nice and to nip any gain in the bud.

Before After
(the photos don't do justice to Mom's sculpted arms and smaller size all round)

SC: And there you have it, advice from a wise, slim Wonder Woman known also as my Mom! Look around for inspiration and you're sure to find it!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Addendum

Recently, I was in Vermont (much more about that in posts to come). In Burlington, the state's largest city with a whopping population of around 40,000, the City passed a by-law several years ago that there would be only one grocery store allowed to operated within City limits. Tenders were made by, amongst others, a New England chain called Hanniford's and the local co-operative grocery store. Against all odds, the Onion River Co-op won the tender, with the City really going out on a limb to make this happen. What a concept - progressive leadership! Anyways, it is my understanding that the Co-op really floundered for the first few years, under the management of a person who'd come from the South and had come from a corporate-run grocery chain background. He didn't know how to run the Co-op and so it suffered.  A change of management (a local who had a lot of knowledge about co-operatives) turned the Co-op around and it is now apparently the second highest grossing, independently owned co-operative in the United States! Given the population it serves, this is pretty amazing. I love visiting the Co-op in Burlington. It's a full-service grocery store, so you can find things like Cheerios and a small section dedicated to Coke/Pepsi, but there are also items you'd never see in a normal grocery store, like Goat's Milk Smoothie, and everything is labelled according to its origin (i.e. local, regional, US, imported). The selection of Vermont-produced foods is wonderful, and I am always especially drawn to the cheese aisle. On my most recent visit, however, I made a foray into the meat section, as I was house-sitting and had a hankering for a homemade meal.  I was delighted when I came to the beef section and found these signs:

What a stark difference from the labelling at the local Sobeys here, where I recently discovered the cereal aisle had been labelled so shoppers could identify what types of cereals are appropriate for adults, families and children.  After I wrote that blog post, I decided it'd be nice to add some visuals to the blog post for effect. I was about to take my third shot - of the Child's Cereal' section - when a Sobeys employee (a manager I think) told me that I wasn't allowed to take photos in the store.  I was too embarrassed to inquire as to why, so I won't try to make any conclusions about the rationale, but really?! What is so secret about the contents of a grocery store that photos aren't allowed? Or am I missing something obvious? Is it about 'security and safety'...the catchall rationale for everything that 'they' want to impose upon 'us' to reduce our power/freedom.  But I digress. The manager didn't make me erase the two photos I did manage to take, so here they are!!

Finally, it should be noted that while I was taking the photos at Burlington's Co-op, I wasn't approached by anyone, however, when my friend was looking for advice about a natural remedy for a health condition at about five minutes before close, one employee went in search of a staff member that had expertise in the area and she provided some great advice to my friend.

All of this has me wondering if Charlottetown could/would support such an alternative grocery store (I don't consider Co-op Atlantic to be quite the same, although it IS better than Sobeys/Superstore in my opinion), and if we would ever see such leadership from the City in terms of establishing such a grocery store here.   One can always hope or one can take action to make it happen! Watch this space for more....

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

An Assortment of Activities and Adventures

I'm not even going to make apologies for my blogging absence over the past two months, it is what it is. That being said, I am back now and ready to write more regularly! It's been awhile, so I thought I'd share some of the food-related activities and adventures I've been on or will soon be going on. Additionally, it wouldn't be a Shanadian post without a bit of a rant (if you want to go directly to rant, it is under the title How NOT to Keep Me As Your Grocery Store Customer).


I'm certain there's no correlation between the five pounds I gained during April and the fact that PEI was celebrating Burger Love, the 2nd Annual celebration of PEI beef that challenges local restaurants to create a delectable, original burger that will woo eaters and be crowned PEI's most loved burger. I mean, really, I only ate 7 or 8 of the 22 burgers on offer *cough*. I tried, with little success, to convince Charles that we should stick to one burger a week. When he insisted he was going to have two a week, I encouraged him to go on his own while I was at work. This was a mistake, as he came home absolutely raving about The Angry Irishman he had at the Olde Dublin Pub. We made a trip there a couple of nights later and I had a bite of his second Angry Irishman - it stole my heart. There were some contenders though, including Casa Mia's, the Brickhouse's, and Papa Joe's (the overall PEI Burger Love winner). In addition to loving the burgers I tried, I also absolutely loved winning not just one Burger Love prize, but TWO Burger Love prizes, just by rating the burgers and providing a recipe for my 'at home burger'. I won a $20 gift card for a restaurant in one draw, and an apron, reusable bag, recipe book and 10 pounds of beef in the other draw. I really love winning things.


Speaking of winning things, it turns out that Tuesday, May 22nd was an especially generous day to this Shanadian. Simply by sending an email to CBC Mainstreet saying how I support the PEI local food industry, my name was drawn as the winner of two tickets to the Savour Food and Wine show. I was so ecstatic when I found out, as I really, really wanted to go to this event, but couldn't justify the $75 splurge or find someone else that would accompany me for that ticket price. A bit of a dilemma to choose my date, as Mr. Wonderful was to be working. I made a short list of the people I know who appreciate both wine and food, and contacted her (yes, there was only one!!). She was unavailable. I then made a short list of the people I know who enjoy food, booze and having fun. I contacted her and she was available! So off I went to the Savour Food and Wine show with comrade, Jen Mac (if you click on the link, you'll see her latest entry is very food-themed). I'm not going to give a detailed run-down of the event, but here some random observations and lessons learned from my first ever Savour Show:

  • It's really hard to eat things that need to be cut/spooned while holding a glass of wine.
  • It's even harder to eat any type of food while holding a wine glass in one hand and a glass of rum and fruity mix in the other hand.
  • Moosehead Mojito = surprisingly refreshing. (Jen will correct me if it wasn't a Moosehead product)
  • Meatballs on little pieces of bread will roll off the plate and splatter on the floor.
  • Men serve food, women serve wine. Rather the opposite of most restaurants.
  • Orange and basil ice cream is delicious
  • Peanut butter ball melted on a mini pancake is to die for. Thank you Chef Dave Mottershall!!
  • You will see at least 5 people you know, one of whom will not recognize you because you've changed your hair/weight/age.
  • There IS a maximum number of bite-sized samples that can fit into one's stomach
  • 2 hours is about 1 hour too short for a food and wine festival.
  • It REALLY helps if you know one of the people serving wine, as you can ensure that you get your money's worth (or you free win's worth) after everyone else has left
  • There are a LOT of excellent restaurants and chefs on PEI. We should all make an effort to support our local food industry in every way that we can!

Omg! Omg! Omg! Yes, that's right, I am jumping up and down with the sort of glee usually expressed only by pre-teens that have tickets to a Justin Bieber concert. Well, I've got something WAY better to look forward to. I have been accepted into a short, intensive program at the University of Vermont called Breakthrough Leaders Program. It's geared towards people who are/want to be leaders in the Food Revolution and aims to arm us with the knowledge and skills to breakthrough some of the common barriers to change and become better leaders. Did I mention that I'm SUPER excited!?!

The program is 2 weeks, although one week is online, so it's really only one week on campus, from June 24 to June 29th. The class of 30 will be going on plenty of field trips, learning from all sorts of leaders in the food movement and getting plenty of time to network. One full day will be spent in Hardwick, a tiny town in northern Vermont that was the subject of my Masters thesis. It'll be nice to return there. I miss it a lot. I felt so very much at home in Vermont, amongst the progressives, the hippies, the environmentalists, and the do-gooders. It's like no other place I've ever been. So, as you can imagine, I'm making efforts to extend my stay in the states for an extra little bit of vacation time. I am thinking about going to Montreal (only 1.5 hrs away) for Canada Day, then popping back down to Vermont for Independence Day. It'll be great fun, regardless of how the plans come together. Hoping I get to see some of my favorite Vermont folk including Kate, Elena, Joe and Maura!

How NOT to Keep Me As Your Grocery Store Customer

Yet another visit to the grocery store, yet more fodder for a rant. Last time it was a mother's offer to get her fat 8-year old son a Hungry Man for dinner that had me feeling queasy, this time it's signage that peeved me off.

So we decided to check out the brand new Sobeys at the edge of town. The Guardian had reported it was an out-of-this-world experience (only in PEI does the opening of a grocery store warrant a news story with a photo to boot). To say I was underwhelmed when I walked into the store would be an understatement. It's just another grocery store (in case you were holding out for a trip to celebrate some special anniversary, don't bother). But I needed groceries, so my love and I wandered the perimeter of the store, where all the fresh, decent food is to be found. Then my love suggested going down the cereal aisle. I have no use for cereal these days, but am trying to be mindful of the fact that most normal people still want a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and most even think it's nutritious!!! Ha. Anyways, we turned down the aisle, and Mr. Wonderful is like 'uh oh, you're not going to like this, but try to stay calm'. I couldn't figure out what he was talking about and then he pointed to the big signs jutting out from the shelves to help shoppers find the type of cereal they are looking for. The labels were as follows: ADULT CEREAL, FAMILY CEREAL, KID CEREAL. I put these in Caps because they were really big signs.

I already knew what I'd find in each section, but I held my breath until the very end of the aisle, where the 'KID CEREAL' was to be found. It turns out that ADULTS are meant to eat things like Fibre 1 and Shredded Wheat, FAMILIES are meant to eat things like Life Cereal and Cheerios, while KIDS are meant to eat Cocoa Puffs, Reese's PB Cereal, Lucky Charms....well, you get the idea.

I felt my heart beat faster. I felt my blood pressure rising. This is NOT cool. I don't like the idea that these food products are produced at all, but to market them as the food we should be feeding kids is absolutely disgraceful. Again, I realise it's up to the parents to make the final decision but can you imagine if you brought your kid shopping and went to buy him/her some healthier 'Adult' Cereal, the backlash you'd have to put up with. I suspect most kids would rebut with something like 'But that's not for me, look, those are the cereals for kids'. Kids are a major influence in decision-making of purchases, and food companies do their best to get kids begging their parents to buy sugar-laden foods. Now the grocers are in on the plot!!!

Here's my suggestion for Sobeys: relabel your cereals honestly. Here are some better and more accurate labels:

Won't Cause Your Child Significant Health Risks - Fibre 1, Shredded Wheat

Is Alright in Moderation, But Serve with Protein and Fresh Fruit - Cheerios, Original Rice Krispies

CANDY That Will Damage Your Child's Physical and Mental Health and Cause Them to Have Sugar Highs and Lows that Will Drive you Insane: Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms, etc.

-The End-

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I'm Over Here!

I'm in the midst of preparing a blog post, hopefully for publication by the end of day tomorrow! Been a bit of a hiatus, but I've not been completely abstinent from writing. In fact, I somehow  managed to pump out a blog for friend, amazing entrepreneur and fantastic local food supporter, Bruce MacNaughton, who is behind the success of PEI Preserve Co.  Check out my first guest blog here! And stay tuned for more regular (and shortish) blog posts in the near future!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hungry Man - The 21st Century Way to Nourish Your Children

Last week, I picked Mr. Wonderful up after work for grocery shopping adventures. I still feel slightly ashamed every time I hit up the Sobeys, even when it's the dead of winter, but there are some things one cannot forage at the market. Nearing the end of our shopping trip, I redirected us down the frozen foods aisle, since this also happened to be the same aisle where one finds coconut milk.

I noticed an average-sized woman opening one of the freezer doors, then she turned to her (very) pudgy son, who could not have been more than 8 years old and said "Do you want a Hungry Man tonight?", to which he nodded his agreement. I whispered to Mr. Wonderful 'Oh my god, get me out of here.' He turned to me and said 'Did that just happen?' in disbelief. To be honest, at first I thought he was making a commentary on my tendency to be overly-judgemental about people's food choices, so it took a couple of moments for me to realise that he was actually just as disturbed, if not more, than I was by this display of parental ignorance that bordered on negligence.

Yes, that's right, I called it as I see it: negligence. I have erased and re-written this sentence several times, as I've had an internal battle with using the word negligence, because I don't want to offend, but at the same time I don't want to tip-toe around this critical issue either. So, please forgive me if you are offended by my outlandish use of the word 'negligence'.

For those that are unaware, a Hungry Man dinner is a line of frozen, microwaveable dinners that are meant to fill a hungry MAN...not a hungry boy. Most of these meals are 600+ calories, with some exceeding a 1,000 calories, such as the Roasted Turkey Dinner (1450 calories). For a complete picture of the situation, I checked a number of sources to determine the total daily calories recommended for an eight year old boy and the average was around 1,400 calories. That's 1,400 calories for the WHOLE day...not for one meal. And I don't think it's a stretch to imagine the kid ended up eating or drinking something else in addition to the Hungry Man for dinner. Perhaps a can of pop or an ice cream sandwich? I am not even going to touch the nutritional deficits of the Hungry Man, but suffice to say they are most certainly lacking in fresh, wholesome ingredients and laden with fat, sodium and food additives that humans aren't built to handle.

Now, perhaps this particular mother only lets her son, who is clearly on his way towards being an overweight/obese teenager, have a Hungry Man dinner every once in a blue moon, so I will give her the benefit of the doubt.Still, it is becoming increasingly evident that many parents lack one or more of the following when it comes to ensuring their children are properly nourished:

1. The knowledge of what types of foods are going to best nourish a child
2. The knowledge of how many calories a child needs on a daily basis
3. The knowledge of how to prepare home-cooked meals
4. The time to prepare home-cooked meals
5. The money to purchase healthy foods

There may be other reasons/rationale for the scenario described above, whereby the parent offers an unhealthy, highly caloric meal to the child and gives him the final decision-making power, but I think the above list captures some of the major issues that are resulting in rising rates of childhood obesity and a less healthy generation of young people.

So what the heck is going on here??

First, I think there are a lot of cases where parents are unaware of what they should be feeding their children, how much they should be feeding them, or how to prepare wholesome meals for their children (see numbers 1 to 3). Does this make it forgivable that they are overfeeding and/or undernourishing their children (b/c you can overfeed a child and still not give him/her the nutrients they need)? It seems to me that the resources are out there, if a parent wants to gain the knowledge of what and how much to feed their children. There are some great early childhood programs available here on PEI, there are tonnes of books, there are doctors, there are on-line resources. Granted, there are conflicting views on the nuances of feeding children, but I guarantee any legitimate information source will discourage giving children refined sugar products and processed foods (esp. ones with food additives), while encouraging veggies, fruits, protein (for growing!), and, generally, wholesome foods. It's not rocket science, it just takes some effort and time to become educated.

One of the biggest hurdles today for most parents is probably time. (see #4). With both parents working, as is often the case, and enrolling their kids in numerous after-school activities, such that they become chauffeurs when they are not working their day jobs, it's easy to see how they would feel zonked by the time they arrive home and lack interest in preparing a wholesome meal from scratch. Heck, I only have myself to look after and I regularly feel so burnt out that throwing dinner together seems a daunting task. Coupled with this lack of time, for many parents, is a lack of knowledge of how to prepare meals.

I fear that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of parental wisdom around nutrition. In a mere 30 or 40 years, we have transformed our daily lives so much that we are no longer equipped (or willing to equip ourselves) with the very basic knowledge of what to feed our children. With dual-income homes rapidly rising, kitchens seem to have been abandoned by many families, save for the microwave and random stove-top meal.

Still, I have to stick to my belief that one must make time to give their own body and their children's the energy and nutrition it needs to operate optimally. Wholesome meals are not 'that' hard to make - casseroles, hearty stews, and slow-cooked meals are easy and often budget-friendly. Ironically, by trading in 'quick' over-processed meals that are high in refined carbs and sugars, as well as 'bad' fats, for wholesome, homemade meals, what is lost in terms of prep time is regained in terms of vitality - the reward for feeding the body the nutrition it needs. Parents would likely notice their children's behaviour and moods being more steady and tolerable, as sugar tends to throw a wrench in these.

Finally, food marketing that targets children and tries to convince Mom/Dad that Fruit Loops are a healthy way to start the day, adds to the confusion....especially when parents bring their children grocery shopping and let them pick out what they want to eat. Again, however, I am of the mind that the parents have the ultimate decision-making power. They can choose to turn the TV off and minimize ads for unhealthy foods, they can choose to leave their children home when going for groceries or take their children and allow them to pick out one treat food for the entire week. They can choose to make dinnertime a family activity and teach their children how to cook, rather than a make it a 5-minute microwave affair.

I'm not a parent and so a part of me hesitates to make judgements about the parental role, because I know it is certainly not an easy one for any, least of all for working, single parents or those that struggle financially or otherwise. Still, I can't help but reiterate that the buck stops with the parents. They have, by far, the biggest influence on what their children eat each and every day. Some might argue that the school system has a responsibility as well, or the government, or the community at large. I agree that it truly does take a village to raise a child, but this does not release the parents of their ultimate responsibility as caretakers.

We all know it's not healthy to smoke around children (or to smoke at all), and parents who choose to expose their children to second-hand smoke are often judged harshly by others. Right now, it still seems socially acceptable to take your kids to McDonald's, feed your 3 year old sugar pop, and give your child Fruit Loops for breakfast. I hope that sooner, rather than later, we will realise that unhealthy foods are the 'cigarette smoke' of the early 21st century. Many parents are, on a daily basis, exposing their children to poisons in the form of unhealthy, processed foods that will, cumulatively, reduce the child's quality of life for the rest of his/her life. It's up to us, as individuals, to take control of our own health and those that depend on us.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Food and Capitalism - First Thoughts

I've been thinking about food and capitalism a lot lately. To be fair, I've thought a lot about them both in the past three years or so, but as of late my mind has been bursting. I've been hesitant to blog about this subject, however, knowing full well I'd never be able to get my thoughts out in a coherent and concise post. It was suggested I could write multiple posts on the subject, and so here I am, writing a rather meandering prelude to my thoughts on food and capitalism.

I hate labels like 'communist', 'socialist' and 'capitalist'. They serve only to associate us with limited, human-created systems and then, depending on one's opinion of such systems, to make conclusions about that person that are equally limited in scope and depth. I've had several people tell me I am a 'socialist'. Some have said it with a slight tinge of condensation, others in a matter-of-fact way, as if this was fact, rather than perception. I can understand how they'd come to such a conclusion, given my rather vocal distaste for capitalism, but the truth is, in a Venn diagram of 'isms' by which we might structure human activities - political and economic - I don't subscribe to any of the ones that most societies recognize.

If pressed to self-label, I suppose I'd call myself a 'Mother Naturist'. In my opinion, the most well-designed, generous, self-sustaining system for maintaining life on this planet is the one we call the ecosystem. Throughout much of human history, however, we have tried with impressive force to improve upon it, to subvert it, to exploit it for our own short-term benefits. Despite our great efforts we have been entirely unsuccessful in our attempts to improve up nature's systems. I'm sure there are plenty that will argue with me and point to particular instances where human ingenuity has triumphed over nature, such as eliminating the threat of certain diseases or increasing the output of food from an acreage of land. I am not going to argue that in some respects these could be called triumphs unto themselves, but they are hardly indicative of our capacity as a species to establish a way of living beyond the constraints of nature in a sustainable and healthy way. Some would argue that since humans are a part of the ecosystem, everything we choose to do is 'natural', but come on, that's a bit of a stretch isn't it? And yet we refuse to give up, we refuse to yield to the brilliant design of nature, we refuse to recognize our own inadequacies and limitations as a species. We must prevail. Is it our ego that insists on persevering even in the face of so many signs that we are failing miserably? Is it because that we fear relinquishing whatever facade of control we are clinging to so much that we are willing to go on believing we can control nature and the future?

While I believe all of the 'isms' created by humans have and/or are destined to implode on themselves, it is Capitalism which I am most familiar with and it is Capitalism which I believe holds the greatest threat to the current and future inhabitants of this planet. And when I speak of Capitalism, I am referring to the current incarnations of Capitalism. As I have already noted, I do not believe any human-created system can trump Mother Nature, but I do believe that if we embrace nature's self-sustaining systems, we can find ways to not only live in harmony but to also enhance these systems.

The flaws of capitalism are evident in various facets of life, but I think that it is the inter-relationship between capitalism and food that best illustrates the limitations of this human-created system and the unsustainable practices that capitalism encourages in its thirst for the almighty and immediate dollar.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Kitchen Makeover - Part 2 of 2

My kitchen has been transformed! It took a little longer than I had hoped it would, but apparently I prioritize work, sleep, studying, and trips to Moncton over cleaning out my fridge and freezer. This past week, however, under pressure to clean apartment before arrival of Mr. Wonderful for more than a couple of days, I finally tackled my fridge and freezer. I had anticipated that this wouldn't take nearly as long as cleaning my pantry out had taken, and I was correct!

The goal of my Kitchen Makeover is, ultimately, to remove most of the 'bad' foods from my kitchen, so as to have minimal temptations on my journey towards better eating and living. Unsurprisingly, most of the 'bad' foods in my kitchen were baking supplies and random chocolate treats. My distaste for processed and prepackaged foods meant that neither my fridge or freezer had many culprits that needed confiscation. There were, nevertheless, some items that ended up in the bin, including long past due jars and cartons of food in my fridge, freezer-burned fish, and random cookies and squares that I'd tossed in the freezer in an attempt to avoid immediate consumption, but clearly was not ready or willing to part with forever. In addition to cleaning out my fridge and freezer, I also attempted to clean my countertops and find homes for all my kitchen appliances, including my new blender, spice rack and smoothie mixer.

Here are some pictures of my kitchen post-makeover!

Now. my freezer is filled with packages of meat (mostly lamb from the market), salmon, frozen berries, bacon, and single-servings of breakfast casserole and salmon loaf, which I made in advance for lunches. What isn't in my freezer is more telling though - there are no microwave meals or frozen pizzas (there never have been), no tubs of ice cream, no breaded fish pieces or french fries (ew), and none of those cookies or squares that I had squirreled away. My fridge has fresh food, mostly of the vegetable variety, along with eggs, condiments, and cartons of milk and almond milk. Overall, I'm pretty happy with the contents of my fridge and freezer. I also love that I finally have a spice rack and am back in the business of blending!!

Now that my kitchen is devoid of 'bad' foods, my challenge is going to be to keep it that way and to make sure I minimize my out-of-home consumption of 'bad' foods that can be found at work, at the grocery store and at restaurants. The more I delve into my nutrition book, the more I become aware of the many, many ways in which foods can be detrimental to our health OR the best preventive medicine we could ever take. I shall endeavour to make my kitchen serve as my medicine cabinet, and what tasty medicines it shall be stocked with!!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Body Image, Compassoin and Self-Love

Apparently this is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I don't have enough knowledge of specific eating disorders to write a post of any depth or insight on the subject, but this seems a fitting time to serve up some of thoughts on body image, compassion, and self-love.

Body Image

I think it's safe to say that most of us have, at one time or another, suffered from some insecurities about our body, whether it be shape, size, lack of muscle, excess of fat, etc. It's nearly impossible in this day and age to avoid feeling 'skinny', 'fat', 'flabby', 'out of shape', or some other such descriptor that we choose to label ourselves with.

Society seems to have taught us that it is, in fact, what's on the outside, that matters most. By and large (no pun intended), we've bought into the idea that we 'should' look a certain way, have a certain sized waist, weigh a certain amount, have a certain amount of body fat and be muscular (or not 'too' muscular if you're a woman).

I've been my own worst enemy with regards to criticizing my own body in the past. Interestingly, these critiques didn't start until I was in university and more routinely surrounded by girls talking about (complaining about) their weight. Growing up I never had any insecurities about my body (save for my bust size, which my sister liked to make fun of on occasion), but by the time I was about 22 I'd amassed quite a list of things that were 'wrong' with my body.

As I write this, I still find myself tethered to some insecurities about my body, but that little voice that shouts them out at me is getting fainter and fainter. This is not so much because my body shape has changed dramatically, but rather because I've come to the learn the very hard way, that self-criticism is destructive on so many levels it's right up there with sugar and smoking in terms of its hazards to your health, both physical and mental.

Now I try to stand in front of the mirror naked and admire the things about my body that I love, or at least like. I try to thank my body after it gets me through a long day of work and play. I try to focus on the things about myself that are awesome (and there are a lot of them).

It's not an easy process to move from a poor body image to a good one, but it does seem to be getting easier with every year that passes. The less I care about what other people think of me, the more I find myself liking who I am in this very moment.


There is not enough compassion in the world. There is too much fear and insecurity within most of us and when we unleash that unto the world, it simply perpetuates other people's fears and insecurities.We judge ourselves silently and try to put on a confident face to the world. At the same time we let ourselves make judgements about those around us - whether they be strangers, friends or family. Often these judgements remain contained within our thoughts, but certainly there are many times where we use words, laughter, or rejection in an effort to build up our own fragile ego by tearing someone else's down. It's as if we're trying to rid ourselves of all the negative and dislike we have for ourselves by placing it on others.

I am tired of seeing people labeled and judged simply for the shape of their body - from 'fat and lazy' to 'crazy, skinny chick'. It seems that unless you are of an 'average' size, it's open season for others to make judgements about who you are based on your size. Yes, maybe some people who are fat are, indeed, lazy, but there are plenty of lazy, average-sized and skinny people too. These divisions based on size serve no purpose. I read this blog post entitled 'Fat Phobia, Thin Privilege and Eat a Sandwich. and while I can appreciate some of the points made by the author, I'm mostly disappointed that there are now labels to highlight the perceived or real differences in the way people are treated based on their size.