It’s a rite of passage for dietetics students in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ BSc in Nutritional Sciences program: plan and execute a banquet-like soirée during their second year. During the fall semester, as part of the NUTR 345 course, the students develop their food service systems management skills (including menu development, food costing and purchasing, marketing and staffing) by working with a real-world client. Then comes the winter semester follow-up, NUTR 346, when the students see all that planning to fruition by preparing and serving the meal to their client.
For the 2020-2021 student cohort, this big project was supposed to be a lunch-and-learn event for the Baie d’Urfé community: an informational lecture on nutrition, followed by a meal that illustrates the topic of the lecture. But the pandemic’s curfew and do-not-congregate guidelines put a screeching halt to those plans.
Time to pivot
The students weren’t ready to throw in the dishtowel. And neither was Paul-Guy Duhamel, a dietetics lecturer in the School of Human Nutrition and the manager of the Mac campus’ Food and Nutrition Laboratories, the high-performance industry-standard facility where the students hone their culinary and management skills.
“I was fortunate enough to find someone who told me a food bank would be happy to have our help,” said Duhamel.
The Depot Community Food Centre in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce stepped in and graciously accepted meals that the students would prepare.
The Depot’s various services and programs address issues of food security in NDG and neighbouring areas. It provides food baskets for community members who struggle to afford groceries, sells baskets of fresh, seasonal items at low prices, and offers healthy snacks to school-age children. It also operates community and collective gardens and presents cooking and nutrition workshops. Its Boîte à Lunch after-school program teaches kids to make healthy meals and snacks.
An ice idea
This year, the dietetics students’ project isn’t the usual sit-down event. “Instead of cooking, preparing a meal and selling it, the students [prepared] frozen meals for the Depot to distribute,” noted Duhamel.
Four teams of six students each prepared 400 meals in all, 100 portions of one recipe per team: a curried lentil soup, a lentil lasagna, a black-bean and quinoa burrito and a vegetarian enchilada.
Jennifer Brennan, the Depot’s nutrition and food skills manager, said that despite the havoc COVID-19 wrought on the schedule, the meals have all been delivered – personally by Duhamel – and distributed to recipients in emergency food baskets. There’s even been an early review (“delicious lasagna”) by one grateful beneficiary.
“It went great,” said Brennan. “The students are excellent communicators and worked very well with James [Barrington, the Depot’s head chef]. Even with the delays, they did a great job of communicating and staying in touch.”
“Some of the meals went to seniors in subsidized housing, so the whole thing was definitely a great support for us.”
All in all? “A great experience.”
“Although it was not easy to coordinate and execute a project like this in these unprecedented times, it was nonetheless very needed in our community,” said Wira Alkozai, one of the 24 students who cooked the frozen meals.
More aware of food security issues
“Le Dépôt provides more than just food for those in need,” Alkozai added. “They promote education and foster a sense of community, and we could not have hoped for a better opportunity to put our knowledge into practice. This project made us more aware of the food insecurity issue in Montreal, and how we can help fight hunger in our community.”
“It was meaningful to us as future dietitians because we learned the value of preparedness, the necessity of effective communication, and the advantageousness of having the flexibility to adapt. We also learned to be resilient and collaborative. We honed our skills of collaboration and teamwork by completing each step of the meal event together as a team. Each of us brought our strengths to the project, even if done so solely remotely, and we are proud that our collective efforts culminated in a successful meal event.”
Student Lauren Rotholz said she was “grateful to have been able to work with Le Dépôt on this community initiative. This project gave us the opportunity to help those in need during these challenging times, by providing them with nutritious meals.”
Another student, Michelle St-Jacques, added: “We were very enthusiastic to pair up with such an incredible company as the Dépôt. It was easy to align our mission[s]… to produce a comforting meal.”
Duhamel said that the episode served to teach students how to live with sudden change and uncertainty – and praised them for showing such leadership.
“The whole purpose is to learn how to plan and to make things happen, but also – and this is very important these days – how to adapt to ever-changing situations. Students are used to environments that are very clear and very certain. You do A, then B, then C. Nowadays, it’s more like you plan for B, but D is happening. It’s all about acceptance, not what you want to do.”