Sharing our Shared Journey: How Good Food Builds Healthy Neighbourhoods

Board_Jason_MarinJason Marin, Vice-Chair on Board of Directors at Access Alliance. His extensive volunteering with community agencies includes Eva’s Initiatives and Access Alliance. Jason currently works  in the Office of Governing Council at the University of Toronto.


As the images flickered across the screen and laughter poured through the speakers, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was Access Alliance’s 2010 Annual General Meeting, and the organization’s membership was watching a presentation about the Newcomer Cooking Class for Men program. I was there to be elected as a new member of the Board of Directors.

Over the course of 10 or 15 minutes, we watched how a group of newly arrived—and often single—male-identified immigrants and refugees of all ages and backgrounds learned how to dice and chop, cook and bake, and navigate Canadian grocery stores on a budget. The feeling of camaraderie and pride for what they had accomplished was palpable.

It is a truly amazing and unique program. Led by two incredibly talented and certified dietitians, participants are taught how to make healthy eating choices and prepare nutritious meals that are also culturally relevant. I recall that every participant presented a recipe from their home country for the group to make, and if I had been there, I would have brought a recipe for gallo pinto, a rice and beans dish that is popular in Costa Rica, where I was born and raised.

What I love about the program is that participants are empowered with tools and knowledge that have a direct effect on their health and well-being. And it is done in a culturally sensitive and relevant environment. Imagine moving to a new country with no family and learning how to feed yourself with food that you can afford and that makes you feel good about yourself. It’s an incredible experience.

Since I first heard the expression that Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, I have come to believe that we are truly blessed to have neighbours who appreciate culinary traditions from around the world. For example, just around the corner from Access Alliance’s office, there are restaurants that serve Ethiopian, Mexican, Italian, and Japanese food. Toronto’s newest ethnic restaurants adorn many cover pages for Toronto Life, The Grid, NOW Magazine, and are featured in write-ups for lots of newspapers.

Many of our neighbours, however, do not experience this world. Many of them do not have the opportunity to eat out at restaurants, buy nutritious food – or buy food at all. These neighbours experience food insecurity, which is one of Canada’s greatest challenges, and the reality for many families.

The CBC reported on February 6, 2014 that according to a researcher at the University of Toronto, “Food insecurity – lack of access to sufficient, health food – is either not getting any better or is getting worse in all parts of Canada”.
The report is based on Statistic Canada’s 2012 Community Health Survey which found that households with children had the highest rates of food insecurity, and that youth and women more likely to live in households with food insecurity.
And CTV reported on July 31, 2013 that “in 2012 the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food visited Canada and had “extremely severe” concerns about the ability for people who rely on social assistance to maintain healthy diets.”

This is why food insecurity is recognized as a Social Determinant of Health (SDOH), why Access Alliance believes in a model of care and well-being that is based on SDOH, and why the newcomers cooking program is so important. It plays a small but vital role to ensure that many of our neighbours, to the best of their ability, do not become food insecure and are able to make healthy, affordable and home-cooked meals. And healthy neighbours make healthy neighbourhoods.

Back at the AGM, everyone clapped vigorously as the credits for the movie rolled across the screen. It was a wonderful first glimpse to the kind of organization that Access Alliance is, and what it champions. Luckily, I was elected to the Board that afternoon, and have had the privilege and honouur to serve on the Board ever since.

Access Alliance is celebrating 25 years of service to newcomer populations in Toronto.  Our journey has been a collaboration between people sharing the vision of a society in which all of its people, whether born into citizenry or newcomers to Canada, have equal access to health services.  Today, we commemorate 25 years of helping newcomers achieve health with dignity and in finding a sense of belonging within an open and safe community. In recognition of this milestone, Newcomer Health Matters will host a special series of blog posts, each entry published on the 25th day of every month up until the end of the year. See previous posts in this series.

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