The lower level meeting room near the gymnasium was abuzz with activity at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in Mississauga, Ontario. A group of 10 women had been informed by their caseworker that the Meals with Love youth would be visiting them for a presentation on healthy eating and will be handing out hampers of locally-grown produce. For the women congregating at the YMCA hall, fresh food was a luxury - the very reason the caseworker had chosen them for this unique gesture.
Meals with Love is the brainchild of Amita Pande, 18, Sunil Sunichura, 18, Shreya Bhandari, 15, Anya Lin, 16, Mona Jia, 15, and Zarmina Khan, 15. The idea came from a youth leadership programme, Shape the Future, which Pande, Khan and Bhandari had attended last year. The girls got together there and when, at the end of the programme, they were asked to start a community stewardship project, with the help of their friends, they thought up of Meals with Love.
As part of the project, the group gives out nutritious food to those who find it hard to access it but need it the most - like single mothers, marginalised seniors as well as abused women. This year, Meals with Love ran its second annual drive for three days in mid-August and distributed 50 food hampers. This was similar to last year's achievement of distributing 50 hampers.
The packages contained a week's supply of rations. Green and yellow vegetables and fruits - including peaches, green peppers, carrots, onions and tomatoes - were part of the selection this time around. Brown rice was included instead of white rice "as it has more fibre and is healthier," Khan explains. With health at the top of the selection criteria for the hamper, brown whole wheat bread, instead of the regular white bread, was put in.
"We also chose to put canola oil instead of vegetable oil or butter because the latter has no cholesterol. However, we did put in chocolate because there is room for a little treat even when you are eating healthy," Khan adds with a smile. Another little treat that made it to the package was a $5 grocery gift card to buy milk. And all this came along with a healthy eating tip sheet based on Canada's Food Guide, the official rulebook on healthy eating published by the government, which gives information on eating right and a balanced diet. Among the many recommendations in the tip sheet was eating at least one dark green and one orange vegetable each day. "So representing the two food groups we put green peppers and carrots in the hamper," says Bhandari.
"This year our target was to distribute 50 hampers. We gave out the packs to families of single parents, seniors and people suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes. We wanted to share the food and the message of healthy eating with them," explains Pande, the project leader.
But merely presenting the hampers was not the idea. They wanted the packages to look "professional" and their presentation to be useful and effective. So they got a banner and T-shirts printed with the Meals with Love logo. The tag line was particularly apt: From Our Heart To Yours. To make the presentation on healthy eating interesting, the teens even prepared a skit. Explains Pande, "It's about this guy who goes to a fast food joint and makes very unhealthy choices. Then through our play-acting we talk about how he could replace his extra large, greasy order of burger and fries with something far healthier made from fresh vegetables." Of course, the money for all this came from a grant of CA$2,000 provided by the United Way of Peel Region, a local community organisation.
Healthy and green seemed to be the mantra adopted by the youth even while they purchased the food for the hamper. Fresh produce was sourced directly from a local farm. Last year, they had gone to the farmers market but this time around they decided to cut the middlemen and chose a nearby farm. In fact, during the presentation, the teens made a point of mentioning that the tomatoes in the hamper were farm fresh and had been picked the day before by a local farmer. "The size of the tomatoes was small because they were organically grown and no fertilisers were used to grow them," notes Bhandari. Where farmers could not provide them with the goods, they chose grocery store items that were home grown or produced.
Keeping to their environment-friendly approach, through the Meals with Love project the youth also wanted to offset the carbon footprint caused by food transportation. They were aware of the fact that food transportation causes high GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions that are leading to climate change. According to the report 'Fighting Global Warming at Farmer's Market', published by Toronto-based not-for-profit group FoodShare, food transport is a significant contributor to high GHG emissions. It also added that imported food items are sometimes transported from 81 times further than the local items. For instance, when carrots are transported from California to Toronto they travel 59 times further than carrots sourced from a nearby farm in Hamilton, Ontario.
Another reason for the Meals with Love project focusing on local farm produce was the high nutritional value in such food. Foods begin to lose nutrients quickly after being picked, so buying food that has been brought to market locally has a higher chance of containing more nutrients.
The growing awareness of eating local is now resonating with more and more households preferring to pick up their groceries from the farmers markets that offer locally grown produce at prices that match those of large grocery stores. And while earlier markets were few and were run as independent operations, now there is a move to organise them to make them more accessible to people, with initiatives like Greenbeltfresh.ca - a user-friendly website directory to find local food markets. By simply entering postal codes on to the site people can identify their nearest farmers market.
The Meals with Love project has shown that the idea of environment-friendly, healthy food has a resonance with the young, who are ready to promote it as a workable concept. In fact, Bhandari says, many of his friends were interested in the project and wanted to be a part of it. He hopes to include them in the next phase.
At the end of the presentation at YMCA, Shawna, a single mother of a four-year-old said, "Your presentation brought a smile on my face. I will always remember that though super-sized fast food meals might be cheaper they are not as nutritious and as fresh as green fruits and vegetables." Observed Guriqbal Singh, who was part of a seniors group that saw the presentation, "I could not write everything they were saying. The Meals with Love group needs to come again to give us more information on the right kind of food to eat."
The children and their parents too are happy with their hard work. Says Bhandari, "My parents are proud of me because I am helping the community." Adds Sunichura with a smile, "And mine loved how creative our project is."