How this Thunder Bay mom inspires kids to become “food literate”

Rachel Globensky with her daughter, Georgia.

Food is both political and highly personal. It’s a way to feed our bodies and our souls, to sustain families and communities. Rachel Globensky is a self-described “certified foodie,” single mom to a nine-year-old daughter, and (after one too many run-ins with angry grizzly bears) a reformed forester who now serves as coordinator of the Thunder Bay District Health Unit’s Northern Fruit & Vegetable Program as a member of the Healthy Schools team. She’s passionate about teaching kids (and their families) about healthy eating and learning to prepare their own food.

We asked Rachel about how her personal and professional passions for food intersect, about alleviating the guilt that comes with juggling parenthood, school, and work, and why it’s crucial that communities find ways to engage with local food production.

Tell me about your career path: you have a geography degree and a diploma in integrated forest resource management. And you’ve also been to culinary school and worked as a chef. You recently received your diploma in Food Services and Nutrition Management after three years of online studies. Does it feel like your current job is the logical convergence of these paths?

In hindsight, maybe! I went into geography mainly because my friends were doing it, which isn’t a great reason — but I also knew I had a connection to the outdoors and the physical landscape. From there, forest management accreditation seemed like a logical step: the forestry industry was booming and I knew I could get a job straight out of school. Which I did: I worked in a lot of bush camps, mapping and surveying. After I had a few too many experiences with angry grizzly bears — I worked in Virginia Hills, Alberta, for six months, where they relocated so-called “problem bears” from Jasper and Banff National Parks — I knew I needed to switch paths. And I also realized that my favourite part of the gig was hanging out at base camp with the cook, and volunteering to help out with the meals.

So I moved to Fernie, British Columbia, and started cooking. I worked at a friend’s café for a while and then approached the chef at a local, luxury resort. I said, “I don’t have any formal training, but I’m willing to work hard and learn if you’ll take me on.” And he did.

From there, I went to culinary school here in my hometown of Thunder Bay and worked in restaurants. But a chef’s hours aren’t conducive to parenting. When I became a mom — even more so when I became a single mom — I needed to find work that fit with daycare schedules. So I began my studies in food services and nutrition management and started working in food services at a local nursing home. That was tough: I felt guilty because I was already working long hours and leaving my daughter with my parents. And then, on top of that, I was studying and learning online, so even when I was with Georgia, I was often on the computer when what I really wanted to do was play with her or just hang out. But I really craved the opportunity to make a difference using my culinary skills, so I pushed through. I was thrilled to get my current position at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, where I coordinate the Northern Fruit & Vegetable Program.

What do you do in your current job?

I’ve been setting up the new program in Thunder Bay and the surrounding district, working on creating engagement. The NFVP focuses on getting kids in Northern Ontario access to fresh fruits and vegetables. One of the best offshoots of my job is helping lead the “Cooking with Kids” program, which has me going into fifth-grade classrooms — in urban schools and on First Nations — to teach kids how to cook for themselves. The goal isn’t to teach them to be gourmet chefs; it’s to get them to be “food literate,” to understand a little bit more about how food works, where it comes from, and that they have the skills and knowledge to make their own with the right resources.

We teach really easy recipes they can make at home and show their parents: a broccoli egg cup, which is pretty much just chopped broccoli, a beaten egg, salt, pepper, and grated cheese — baked in a muffin tin. One of our recipes is a pizza roll-up, which is half a whole-wheat tortilla, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and some spinach. They microwave it for 30 seconds and roll it up and eat it. So many kids are getting off the bus after school and going home, and we want to give them the skills to make a simple, healthy after-school snack that’s as easy as — and tastes better than — opening a bag of Doritos.

That sounds really rewarding.

It’s amazing. I’m a foodie, and I love watching people get excited about food. I love watching that switch go on in kids’ eyes when they take a bite of the broccoli cup and realize that, (A) it tastes really good, and (B) they can make it themselves. I love that we can teach them something they can take back to their families. We ask kids at the end of the session if they feel like they’ve learned something and if they will share it with their families, and their hands always shoot up in excitement.

How have you tailored the program toward First Nations classrooms and communities?

People living on First Nations, especially in remote locations, can find it difficult to access healthy, fresh food at a reasonable price.

I was up at the Eabametoong First Nation in March, and a Butterball-brand frozen turkey was $114; four litres of milk was $16. Those are real concerns, and part of being food literate when you may not have as much access to — or as much money for — food means learning how to adapt.

How can you teach First Nations kids food resiliency when food prices on reserves can be astronomical?

So our CWK program will focus on frozen fruits and vegetables, which are somewhat more accessible. We’ll make substitutions: if you don’t have a tortilla, can you take a rolling pin and flatten a piece of whole-wheat bread? These aren’t perfect solutions, but they are a start. Obviously, food insecurity on First Nations and anywhere is a much larger problem that requires more sustainable solutions, but this is a baby step as we work towards those answers. We hope we’re teaching kids and their families food resiliency: how can you make something healthier given the resources you have?

What’s exciting is that we also get to include traditional foods in the First Nations CWK program: things like fish, moose, berries, and other local game. I’ll be travelling to the Aroland First Nation for their Fall harvest in a few months. Kids from neighbouring towns are invited to participate and learn about things like cleaning a grouse or stretching a moose hide. I can’t wait, and I’m going to bring my daughter along, too.

How do you engage your daughter in healthy eating? What kinds of things do you like to cook at home?

I’m not a fancy chef. I mean, I certainly appreciate when someone makes a sauce that has 15 amazing ingredients, but I tend to cook pretty simple dishes on my own. I love cooks like Michael Smith and Jamie Oliver because they make food and cooking really approachable.

We’re all busy, and tired, and overwhelmed, and sometimes it can be hard to cook, and easier to pick up the rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. So be it. I admit it: there are nights when my daughter’s with her dad and I’ll have wine and popcorn for dinner, and that’s fine. When I’m with Georgia, we have a whiteboard on the fridge and we figure at the day’s activities and how we can work dinner into the mix. She has certain favourites: veggie omelettes with feta and Parmesan, pasta with roasted broccoli and salmon, Caesar salad — I’ll make the dressing with Greek yogurt as a base. And I batch-cook a lot: on the days when I’m too tired or busy to cook something from scratch, I can pull soup out of the freezer.

Like most kids, Georgia can be a picky eater, although she’s expanding her food repertoire. I have a two-bite rule, but I never force her to clean her plate, or say things like “You have to eat everything on your plate before you can have dessert.” Instead of using treats as a reward, we try to focus on mindfulness: we don’t read at the table or watch TV, because then we can focus on each other and the food and how it makes our bodies feel. I’ll encourage her to put her fork down between mouthfuls, to check in with her body to see if she’s had enough.

How else have you witnessed the power of engaging with local food to create change?

As a leader of my daughter’s Girl Guide troupe, we talk about the benefits of eating nutritious foods. With friends, I regularly coordinate and cook dinner at Shelter House, a local homeless shelter. I write a regular food column with recipes for The Walleye, Thunder Bay’s local arts and culture magazine, and promote local producers and food systems when I can.

In 2013, I worked with a local organization, Roots to Harvest, to write recipes for their “Farm to Caf” program (now known as “Get Fresh Café”), which taught high-school kids to cook and serve local foods in their own school cafeterias. The kids loved it. Students in the food class would do the bulk of the preparation, with cafeteria staff helping out. Each month during the school year, each of the four local high schools in the public board had a Farm to Caf day. We’d prepare 80 meals. On those days, students and staff would line up and we would sell out within 15 or 20 minutes. These were dishes like wild-rice and pork casserole with micro greens, or butternut squash and apple soup. The students could have left the school and picked up fast food, but they chose to stay and pay $5 for a healthy, delicious meal made with local ingredients. That makes me so happy.

We’ve got kids and teenagers becoming food literate and learning marketable skills. We’re supporting local farmers and growers. We’re cutting down on the fossil fuels and energy required to ship food long distances, and the waste of fast-food packaging. And we’re feeding people — well.

SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.

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