Interview with Julie van Rosendaal
There were many people involved in picking up the pieces and filling in the gap to provide lunches to kids no longer in school. Julie Van Rosendaal, a well-known and much-loved cookbook writer and cook was uniquely positioned to step in and help.
This blog is the third in a series documenting the amazing work done by so many over the summer to provide lunches to thousands of kids throughout Calgary. While the snow is flying out there today, we wanted to present these interviews to you so you can learn more about what was happening behind the scenes. We also wanted to capture everyone’s thoughts before everything changed once schools re-opened. Many things were learned over the summer and through the lunch program and we hope these learnings will help future programs. Enjoy watching the interview with Julie or reading the transcript below.
Calgary’s Kitchen with Julie van Rosendaal
While the pandemic did a slow creep into most of our lives, March 16th, 2020 marked a full-stop for schoolchildren in Calgary. As school buildings were closed down, parents grappled with day care and were forced to adjust work schedules. But for families struggling to make ends meet, March 16th added another layer to their worries: with schools now closed, how would their children get any food? With more than 5,000 children in Calgary relying daily on various organizations for what is often their only meal of the day, their access was now entirely cut off.
There were many people involved in picking up the pieces and filling in the gap. Julie Van Rosendaal, a well-known and much-loved cookbook writer and cook was uniquely positioned to step in and help. With her vast network of restaurant owners and chefs and her connections to the city’s non-profits and media, Julie was uniquely positioned to bring everyone together in a collaboration that would help the kids, the restaurant owners and the catering companies who had lost all their business due to COVID-19. The Devour team interviewed Julie to find out how things happened and what needs to happen next.
How Did Calgary’s Kitchen Start?
I knew that a lot of kids across Calgary rely on school for their main meal of the day, whether it’s the breakfast programs or lunch programs. There’s a huge need in Calgary. So when schools closed, my first concern was that there were going to be thousands of kids who were separated not only from school but from rec centers and youth clubs and churches and libraries – all those safe spaces that kids previously had access to were suddenly closed.
A couple teachers that I know through my sister (a school principal) who work at Bowcroft school in Bowness, the day after schools closed, started distributing food, whatever food they had left in the school to kids and families in their community that they knew would need it. They had this little pop-up every day at noon.
At the same time, all the restaurants were closing. Places like the SAIT culinary arts school were closing, all these facilities were closing that had tons of food.
Having a lot of connections in the food and hospitality industry, I had chefs connecting with me and I started being contacted about surplus food. A lot of the agencies were getting bombarded with food and I was hearing that a lot of them were running out of fridge space for some of it. There was this instant concern to redirect food, but also to safely get food to the kids who need it.
Organizations and not-for-profits across the city were trying to restructure and come up with new systems under COVID protocol. The food banks shut down for a week to figure out how to use their volunteers and reopen. Other agencies that relied on volunteer groups coming through closed down to the volunteers and just did everything internally.
But there were some kitchens like The Alex community food center that had closed, the Brown Bagging (for Calgary’s Kids) kitchen downtown had closed. There wasn’t a steady supply of food through the same channels that there once was.
Initially I texted my friend Paul Rogalski at Rouge restaurant in Inglewood and I asked “Hey, can we open up your kitchen?”
We ended up going to Brown Bagging and emptying out their freezer and just getting a bunch of ingredients. We took them over to the Rouge kitchen and just started making lunches and distributing them through Bowness (Food Network). But then we heard other communities wanted to do the same thing and so it sort of grew. It was sort of very organic. It grew in all these different directions and it was great to see how people responded and helped each other and really paid attention to who in their community needed some food support.
Out of Adversity, Comes Creativity
At Rouge we started doing little pop-up markets out the side door because we’d get these ingredients – a lot of ingredients from chefs that were not necessarily ideal for lunches. The first time we tried this we had ingredients to make risotto, so we made this huge batch of risotto and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it. We sent some food over to the Y and I said “Let’s just tweet out that we’ll sell it out the side door.”
We started doing that every Friday, did this little pop-up with whatever. It was like a black box competition. We would get a call from the Leftovers Foundation or from a chef or from an oil company that had a cafeteria that fed their staff that had to close and they’d bring all these random ingredients. We’d have kimchi and blueberries and tons of tomato. It was so fun and the chefs – especially the SAIT culinary school chefs – asked “What are we gonna do with this?”
They would make giant vats of super sauces or pastas. We’d get some bison and greens that were on the way out so we’d use them right away.
Early on, we were looking for a more sustainable way to keep people fed. We had kitchens available, we had these empty restaurant kitchens. We had lots of people willing to volunteer, lots of chefs willing to volunteer. But who pays for all the ingredients? Everyone had lost their incomes, so how do we pay for the wrapping and the bread and the cheese and the fruit?
We were shopping almost every morning. We were at the wholesale club buying lunch ingredients because we were sending hundreds out every day. We started looking into grants. The government announced $100 million in relief funds going towards hunger relief. A lot of that was going to the food banks of course and then to other large agencies. Breakfast Clubs of Canada received a large amount from the government but they operate in schools and schools are closed. We applied for a lot of grants and ended up being connected with a team of public health doctors from Alberta Health Services who helped out with the grant writing. We got a grant from Breakfast Clubs of Canada. That was the only grant application that was successful.
Bowness Food Network
Teachers (from Bowcroft School) – Megan Dobchuk-Land and Tanya Bonham – spearheaded this whole lunch program. It’s now called the Bowness Food Network (click to watch their interview). They’ve got teachers and parents and community members, all these volunteers distributing 200 lunches a day from a little parking lot in Bowness.
They started a GoFundMe where they generated almost $25,000. The idea was to take some of these relief funds and funnel them through a restaurant kitchen or catering kitchen that had lost all their business and keep them afloat. I think that’s a key
to all this: tapping into that existing infrastructure in the hospitality industry that is in danger of just completely going under. I hoped that we would generate enough
funding that we could engage a kitchen like Devour (Catering). J’Val had messaged me early on because she had just seen what was happening and offered her kitchen and her help. Devour lost all their events, and as soon as the first grant came through, we talked and figured out how it worked and how many lunches Devour could make.
In June we moved the operation over (to Devour) and she was able to bring a bunch of her staff back part time. She was telling me some of them were almost in tears. They were so happy to be doing something and helping contribute to the community.
One unexpected outcome was the building of new relationships between all these people. This has been an amazing network of communities. All these people want to do what they can to make sure their communities are fed.
I think in terms of the pandemic overall, we’ve figured out a lot of things that we could do that we had been overthinking before. All these rules we could just change and react when we saw a need in our community. You want to feed them? You can just set up a table in front of the library and feed them. Planting those seeds and allowing those people to tap into those connections and those personal relationships between the teachers and the students and people in their church communities or community groups. People know where the members of their community are who might need some support.
Food For The Future
J’Val and I and my sister and a group of smart women I know, we’ve met a few times to come up with sort of a bigger picture solution for how to sustainably feed kids in school. There are a lot of organizations who address that need, but a lot of them rely on volunteers and all of them are struggling.
We have this idea that we’re hoping to roll out as a pilot test project. One of the biggest things for me in terms of feeding kids at school is knowing how many of them don’t want to be identified as kids who need lunch. I’ve heard from kids and I’ve heard from adults that they would rather be hungry than be identified in school as the kid who needs lunch.
The structure that we’ve been talking about is one that offers lunch to all kids. There could be subsidized lunches for families who can’t quite afford the whole fee. But I think it has to be a for-profit social enterprise in order for it to be sustainable. If we connected restaurants and catering kitchens with schools in their communities, we’d have more culturally diverse lunches.
Know Your Neighbours
Pay attention to the needs of the people around you in your communities, in your neighborhoods, at work and in your school. Sometimes need is not obvious. Ask the teachers and the principals what you can do to support schools. Last year, we started some ‘snack banks’ in schools that were just little bins that parents could drop snack foods into as a way to supplement kids who had no lunches or snacks.
People can act on needs that they see in their own communities. Every little bit helps. Keep your eyes open and ask questions and let people know that you care.