For the second year in a row, Muslims celebrated the holy month of Ramadan during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this month, Muslims typically gather to strengthen their faith and beliefs alongside the members of their communities. Still, unfortunately, due to the lockdowns and safety regulations enforced on worship centers and public gatherings, many Muslims were restricted from getting together to celebrate. As Ramadan is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims found alternative methods to participate in communal worship, offer charity, and keep the spirit of the holy month of Ramadan alive.
Ramadan is a month-long holiday where Muslims celebrate abstaining from worldly desires such as food, water, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset, in addition to refraining from committing immoral acts and sins and using vulgar language. During this holy time, Muslims focus on strengthening their faith through charity, worship, reflection, and obtaining more knowledge about their religion and beliefs.
During previous years, many Muslims gravitated towards Mosques to pray and break their fasts together, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns, this was no longer possible for the duration of the holy month in 2021. Although challenging, Muslims developed alternative methods to stay close and in touch with other members of their communities for worship and prayer. Mosque executives and volunteers created and organized programs and events and scheduled prayers through video streaming applications such as zoom and YouTube, which allowed people to join and participate virtually. Although it wasn’t exactly the same, these types of programs proved beneficial as they allowed individuals to feel connected to their communities and as if they belonged to something greater than themselves. Some Mosques even opted to schedule informational seminars on self-care and healthy diets, in addition to topics relating to Islamic history and practices, to ensure the well-being of the community.
During this month, Muslims would normally donate and offer charity by preparing food for their community and then distributing it at Mosques. As the COVID-19 restrictions prevented Muslims from gathering to break their fasts together, families decided to either independently prepare food or just order meals from restaurants and then deliver them to their friends’ and families’ houses before sunset. In fact, some Mosques had even developed a program where people could donate money, and Mosque executives and volunteers would in turn purchase pre-made meals from restaurants at a discounted price. Volunteers would then deliver and distribute the meals to members of the community for families to enjoy after they break their fast.
Ramadan is a month where Muslims appreciate gathering with their community to strengthen and reinforce their faith and beliefs. Although the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the public from celebrating together, Muslims persevered and established programs and systems that allowed them to maintain a strong sense of community to keep the spirit of Ramadan alive.
Written By: Maryam Namazifard
Maryam is going into her fourth year studying Nutrition and Dietetics at Brescia University College, and enjoys gardening, baking, and exploring new cities! She has a strong belief that comprehensive nutritional literacy skills promote the development of healthy dietary habits, and therefore works with elementary schools to create workshops that allow young students to gain valuable food literacy skills. Additionally, Maryam contributes to researching the impacts of COVID-19 on the food sector, and examines the effects of subsequent government policies and support programs available for food retail businesses. Maryam has been a volunteer with the MLFPC since March 2021, and hopes to use her skills for the development and advancement of the community!
Did you know that Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program?
MLFPC is proud to show its support for a national school food program as part of the 2021 Great Big Crunch on March 11. It’s an opportunity to show solidarity with educators and families advocating for robust student nutrition programs. This work couldn’t be more important for Canadian families and communities.
It is oddly uncharacteristic for Canada not to have a strong national school food program. We are noted for having equitable health care, yet we’re missing key components to a safe and flourishing childhood, which is just as much of an equity issue with similarly long-lasting benefits. And the intersections between access to fresh and nutritious food, physical and mental health, and the capacity to learn, are well-known (The Coalition for Healthy School Food’s website provides an overview of this issue). And given our commitment to good governance and effective, value-producing investment, it is strange that we have not yet created a robust system of school nutrition programs that will help lay a foundation for flourishing families and communities. Canada could be—and should be—a leader in this field.
Instead, we find ourselves 37th among the wealthiest 41 countries pursuing Sustainable Development Goal 2 “Zero Hunger” according to UNICEF Canada’s 2017 analysis. The most recent data on this topic, the World Food Program’s State of School Feeding Worldwide 2020 (published on 24 February 2021) clearly shows how “school feeding programmes provide the world’s most extensive safety net” (196) and contribute directly to a community’s resiliency and ability to respond to and weather emergencies. It is well-known how COVID-19 has exacerbated existing food insecurities and significantly increased the need for emergency hunger relief. The absence of a national school food program has hampered Canada’s ability to respond to this food crisis, and its continued absence will inhibit our response to crises in the future.
Even during “normal times,” school food programs are effective investments and provide exceptionally good value for their money. Well-managed programs, return approximately $9 of value for every $1 invested according to a recent (2018) World Bank analysis. It is difficult to identify other investments that would benefit our communities with a 900% rate of return. In addition, school food programs are often drivers of increased jobs and economic activity, especially when they are coupled with local procurement policies as MLFPC advocates. According to some estimates, school food programs directly create approximately 2000 jobs for every 100 000 children fed, which is approximately the number of students within the Thames Valley region. At the same time, with only 30% of school food purchases currently being made locally, it is estimated that a national school food program built on local procurement could contribute $4.8 billion to Canadian agriculture by 2029.
Canada is one of the leading agricultural producers in the world and Southwestern Ontario is one of the most productive and diverse agricultural regions in Canada. Imagine how much economic vitality local procurement for a national school food program would contribute to our London Middlesex community. Now imagine how much that fresh, local, nutritious food would contribute to our community’s students and families.
Join MLFPC on March 11 for a special virtual Great Big Crunch event. Check our FB page for details. For more information on the national school food program, check out the Coalition for Healthy School Food website.
The second segment of our food and culture series features Heenal Rajani, co-founder of Reimagine Co. Once a temporary pop-up shop, Reimagine Co has planted its roots within North Talbot’s neighbourhood with the recent reveal of their package-free grocery store. While Reimagine Co remains a local staple of the Middlesex-London community, the story of its creation has much deeper international roots.
After leaving England in 2009, Heenal travelled the globe before devoting his time to leading volunteer trips to build bottle schools in Guatemala. It was on those trips that Heenal met his partner and Reimagine Co co-founder Kara Rijnen. After volunteering together, the duo established a long-distance relationship when Heenal relocated to India. Heenal and Kara reconnected in Canada and set out to live a package-free lifestyle as their New Year’s resolution for 2017. While Heenal transitioned to life in Canada, Kara spent time on maternity leave, which allowed her to make multiple stops to stick to their package-free resolution. Able to shop at various grocers during this period, the couple soon discovered how difficult it was to do all their shopping in a single stop for others, not in their position. With a shared passion for the environment combined with Heenal’s background in community development and Kara’s in business, they set out to open a small shop in early 2018 at the historic Novack’s store site. The venture blossomed, and within three years and help from the local community, Reimagine Co arrived at 206 Piccadilly Street, their current location.
Reimagine Co’s story is one of both a community-led grassroots organization and commitment to teaching about local food systems. “Part of what we’re trying to do with Reimagine Co is reimagine that shopping experience,” Heenal remarked during the initial moments of our discussion. Reimagine Co doesn’t just offer a progressive and eco-friendly shopping experience; there are also additional workshops and outreach programs that Heenal and Kara have committed to since establishing Reimagine Co. When discussing the more than 50 free workshops that have been hosted by Reimagine Co Heenal went on to say, “we are trying to get away from that transactional nature, this is supposed to be a gift for the community.” The community has been a large driver of Reimagine Co’s success. While their biggest demographic is persons in their 40’s, Heenal remarked that their customers often come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Each customer embarks on their own unique adventure, whether it’s a newcomer’s first journey into a more sustainable lifestyle or a long-time customer stopping by for a routine shop.
Although Heenal and Kara are focused on the present, he offered some insight into the future of the store and their participation within the Middlesex-London food system. “We’re both the same; we’re kind of more go with the flow type people,” Heenal added before sharing a few plans for the future. Not only do these plans include expanding the offers at their store, including more international selections, but they also include several community development initiatives, including the creation of a “Thing Library” in partnership with TREA and support of the City of London. Another endeavour is pursuing grants for collaborative food security projects such as urban agriculture. Given the ongoing pandemic and its threat to local food systems, Heenal commented that their main goal is still to ensure the store’s stability. “Right now, we are trying to break even; it’s not easy to run a business like this, especially in the middle of a pandemic. It’s difficult, very, very difficult,” he said as we neared the ending of our discussion.
Written by Matthew Moncrieffe: Matthew Moncrieffe is a volunteer with the MLFPC. He graduated from Western University (King’s University College) with an Honours Specialization in Political Science and is presently pursuing an MSc in Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph. He has held positions in both the foodservice industry as well as food distribution centres. He currently focuses his efforts on understanding food deserts; accessible food for regional and national communities; empowering and mobilizing both restaurateurs and food producers through utilizing social media; and supporting, contextualizing and developing interactions between Indigenous communities and local food systems.
For this first segment of our food and culture project, we will be interviewing the owner and chef of Momos at the Market, Yam Gurung. Momo’s at the market serves healthy but delicious traditional Nepalese food at the London Food Incubator and the Western Fair’s Farmers Market. Specializing in Momos (meat or vegetable-filled dumplings), this restaurant has been serving London locals for over 12 years.
Yam, born and raised in Nepal started his culinary journey around the age of 8-9 years old. By age 12, he had left home to start cooking in restaurants and has worked in the food industry ever since. After working in multiple restaurants, Yam felt inspired and motivated to help fellow new immigrants get situated comfortably in Canada. Upon reflection on his own experiences, he wanted to provide new immigrants opportunities that are not always readily available. One essential value for Yam in creating Momos at the market was providing new immigrants with training and adding to their skillset in preparation for future employment. Yam has made it a point to treat his employees with respect, regardless of their cultural background or duration of time in Canada, including fair payment of employees.
Yam’s food philosophy is simple: sell what you eat. He would not sell food that he doesn’t find delicious, meaning you’ll always be in for a treat at Momos. In addition, Yam finds importance in connecting with the community and purchasing ingredients from local producers. Being located at the Western Fair Market and the London Food Incubator has helped Yam connect further with the community. When he began his journey at the Western Fair market, Yam indicated that he didn’t know anyone in the food industry. No one was there to teach him the ropes about the restaurant business. However, through perseverance in pursuit of bringing his homeland’s cuisine to London, he pressed on, and thus we see the Momos at the market we have today.
When asked why it is crucial to learn about other people’s food and culture, Yam replied that that’s how you get to know people. Food in itself is a language, and by trying and understanding people’s food and culture, you build community. At the time of this interview, one dish that Yam was interested in learning is the art of sushi making. We are happy to report Momo’s at the Market is now selling sushi trays for New Years!
As for the future of Momos at the Market, Yam hopes to expand to other markets shortly. The beauty of these markets is that they’re able to display various types of food and cultures. Everyone who sells gets a chance to show and share their food with multiple people who may have never tried these cuisines. Although there might seem like a competition between vendors within these markets, everyone brings something new and unique to the table.
Yam’s stories about Momos at the market are inspiring and highlight the importance of supporting local vendors and the plentitude of Markets within the Middlesex-London community. The food industry has been hit immensely due to the pandemic. Markets are not only sources of food distribution and foodservice, but they often serve as community centers, education opportunities and, in general, a place of connection. We strongly urge you to show love and support for your local market and vendors as these places keep our community healthy. For a list of markets within the area, you can view our food directory here.
Our goal at MLFPC is to create a just and sustainable food system that serves all the residents in our community. We take this commitment very seriously—every member, every volunteer, and every supporter of the Council wants to see our food system working for our entire community and is dedicating their time, energy, and hard work in pursuit of this goal. But we also want to be working with the community as a whole—we want to fully include every voice and every perspective on what constitutes a just, equitable, and sustainable food system and on how best to achieve it.
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police has spotlighted the systemic racism entrenched in our legal and social institutions, Canada not excepted. At the MLFPC, we want to do more for this movement rather than primarily drafting and releasing statements of solidarity. We are committed to acknowledging Middlesex-London’s BIPOC communities in ways that are valuable to them while correlating with our mission, vision and values.
We’re working towards specific actions that break down institutionalized racism and lead to improved DEI within our operations and sphere of influence. Acknowledging that food has been used as a weapon and tool of oppression and that the Canadian food system has long been, and continues to be, infected by structural racism and inequities, is the first step, but only a first step. We welcome suggestions and comments from you of actions that we can take to continue down that pathway.
Here in this blog series, we would like to offer a collection of interviews with local BIPOC community leaders and food activists, chefs and restauranteurs, and farmers and foodservice professionals discussing food, our local food system, and the ways that a more just, equitable, and sustainable food system within our community may be achieved. We hope that by showcasing their voices and work, more will rally behind their leadership and that we all can move closer to achieving the food system we aspire to have. We’re delighted to get to know these members of our community better and to join them in building a better society. We hope that you will enjoy reading and following this series as much as we have in bringing it to you.
Are you interested in being a part of food system change in Middlesex London? Then the Middlesex London Food Policy Council needs you.
The Middlesex London Food Policy Council was established in November 2017.
We are a group of dedicated volunteers working towards a local, sustainable and accessible food system in London and Middlesex County.
We are now seeking applications for the January 2021 – December 2023 term.
Please share this post with your networks or individuals who you think might be interested.
Applications are due by November 30, 2020
Benjamin Hill, Chair
Middlesex London Food Policy Council
Of the many ways Covid has made our relationship with the world more complicated, none is more constant than the way we think about our food. We want to eat, in a way that brings sustenance and pleasure with minimal risk and the spectrum of normal food habits, in our pre-Covid lives was very broad. Now that we have had time to consider our feelings about UberEats vs baking bread, it may be prudent to implement a regime to optimize our health potential and try to support one another.
An overview of some recent changes, to our personal food gathering, will hopefully offer a positive direction, to lead future decisions. Food habits, in the pre-Covid times, may have been shaped by convenience and indulgence. Many of our ‘old ways’ were not healthy as evidenced by our lifestyle diseases, such as metabolic syndrome and the obesity epidemic, contributing to chronic health issues like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer. Not to mention the enormous amount of single use plastic waste we generate from convenience foods and the food service industry. These may be two good reasons to reassess, was normal really optimal?
Shopping for food at grocery stores has changed. From lineups to enter the store, a multitude of signage, directional arrows and the plexiglass all remind us that shopping requires awareness, should be done alone and if possible, at non peak times. Some stores were offering seniors hours as an added amenity. Grocery delivery and curbside pickup required a level of technical savvy that was a challenge to some and an asset to many. Apart from produce and perishables, which people like to pick out on their own, these services can be very helpful. A throwback to 40 years ago, when green grocers and butchers had an urban market share for weekly shopping and the dry goods were purchased in bulk, less frequently. May be a consideration as the horizon stretches out.
As Phase 1 of the Provincial opening, farmers markets were allowed to open, which was excellent but the plight of the migrant workers that farmers depend on, was a source of numerous issues from Covid safety to workers’ rights, those issues will need to be dealt with, since these skilled workers are essential to the ability to produce and harvest food locally.
The early part of lockdown saw an increase in the consumption of overly processed food and comfort eating by some, leading to the Covid 8.6 kg weight gain. Cooking at home was somewhere between a novelty and a necessity. The abundance of time, for some, gave way to the baking phenomena resulting in shortages of flour, yeast, and eggs. People were seeing food as finite and meal planning at home emerged, based on what was available and what needed to be used up. Home meal preparation does not need to be complicated. Simple, unprocessed items identified in Canada’s Food Guide as vegetable and fruit, whole grains and proteins should be the staples, prepared in ways that are manageable.
Covid has forced our relationship with retail food services from an, anywhere, anytime, to a homebody economy and retailers who can rebound, reboot, and reinvent according to Nielsen, may be better suited to hold a bigger segment of the market share. So, what do customers value? People want to make purchases that will boost their local economy. Local brands were identified as an accelerator for decision making, as was food that had a healthy, potentially protective, or immune enhancing property. The Food Retail Environment Study for Health and Economic Resiliency (FRESHER), at UWO “is a pilot study of the effects of COVID-19 on restaurants, fast food outlets, grocery stores, cafes, bars, pubs, and alcohol retail stores in Ontario, across all types of communities”. Using interviews and surveys they will be able to influence policies going forward.
So where do we go from here? Shop wisely, using all the public health guidelines related to reducing droplet transmission. Respect and embrace the simple domestic art of home meal preparation, using locally sourced ingredients, where possible and meal plan to avoid waste. Consider how you can help support a local business, while minimizing extra plastic waste. Where restaurants have had some benefit with outdoor patios, this will not be the case in the coming months and it will be difficult to serve on site, possibly making takeout more favorable. Above all, we must continue to be vigilant and stay well, self-care through excellent nutrition is a good place to start. Winter is coming and once again, the times are changing.
About the author: Susan Smith is a volunteer at the MLFPC with long-standing expertise in nutrition. She graduated from UWO, Brescia University College in 1995 and has been a clinical dietitian at the London Health Science Center for almost 25 years! Susan has a keen interest in sustainable food systems that create a harmonious urban-rural relationship with a focus on community health and a minimal carbon footprint.
The London-Middlesex Restaurant Support Fund has been created in partnership with Club House for Chefs and McCormick Canada, the Middlesex London Food Policy Council, Pillar Nonprofit Network,rTraction, Tourism London and the Western Fair District. The fund awards eligible, independent restaurant operators with grants of $1,000 to support their businesses to open or remain open through the difficult times caused by COVID-19.
For this interview, we had the pleasure of speaking with Cara Finn, Director of Economic Development for Middlesex County. Middlesex County is one of the generous contributors to the London Middlesex Restaurant Support Fund. Middlesex County received a grant from the Federal Government with the sole purpose of providing relief and recovery for tourism operators in Middlesex County, and so they were excited to use this to partner in this project.
When asked why she thought it was important to support local restaurants during this time, Cara responded, “These people work so hard, and I can tell you within the first couple of days of COVID-19, many of the questions I had from restaurant operators in the county and in London was not, ‘what are we going to do’ or you know, ‘my business is going to fail’, it was ‘how can we help?’, ‘how can we help our staff that we may have to do temporary layoffs for?’, ‘how can we connect with other employers in the region such as those in agriculture that are maybe ramping up their season while we have to go into this period of flux and pivoting?’ It was incredible.” “They are so deserving of our support.” It’s great to hear of the sense of community that occurs in this industry.
Cara also mentioned that the fund helps our local restaurants by validating the hard work that is happening. “It validates the effort that they’ve placed into making sure that we’re taken care of, making sure that we are healthy and safe, and allows them just a small smidgen of financial backing to be able to do what they’re already doing, which is go one step beyond.”
Creative solutions are continuing to emerge, such as the four additional pop-up patios in the Strathroy downtown core that allow for more dining space, and the extension of market seasons such as with the Komoka Market, which will now be able to extend its season until Thanksgiving.
Middlesex County, together with the Middlesex London Health Unit, Middlesex London Food Policy Council, Middlesex Federation of Agriculture, Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, and with help from the Federal Economic Development Association of Southern Ontario, recently launched the Middlesex County Culinary Guide, which is available online at https://www.visitmiddlesex.ca/plan/maps-guides/middlesex-county-culinary-guide, as well as in print this week. The Middlesex County Culinary Guide showcases restaurants in the Middlesex community, along with markets, and food producers, that all work together to make things happen for our community.
With one last message for our local restaurants, Cara emphasizes the appreciation that is held for our hard-working restaurant community. “At Middlesex County our whole message for economic development is really one of appreciating the businesses that invest in our community. That’s the message I want to give people. It doesn’t go unnoticed. We know how hard people are working. We know the stresses, both financial and emotional that are happening for each of us as individuals, but then add that tenfold if you are trying to operate a business in this climate. The main message is that we see them, we know how much work they have put into it, and we’re here to support them.”
The London-Middlesex Restaurant Support Fund has has already awarded grants to twenty-seven restaurants and is continuing to look for local enterprises to step up and support the fund. To apply to this fund or to make a contribution, please visit lmrsf.ca.