TORONTO – The notion of trekking to a farmer’s market and labouring over a stove to prepare an evening feast may tempt some people to dial their nearest takeout joint, but a dinner prepared the old-fashioned way is Stephanie Kolk’s idea of a happy meal.
The 23-year-old revels in the labour associated with producing quality food, particularly when she can be involved at every step of the process.
For Kolk, collecting homegrown tomatoes from a local greenhouse, dicing them for a caprese salad or simmering and seasoning them to turn them into the perfect pomodoro sauce are all part of the joy of cooking. It’s a pleasure she fears too many members of her generation are missing out on as they stand in line to buy a sandwich or reheat the contents of a package bought at a supermarket.
Kolk hopes to lure her peers back into the kitchen by plugging them into Canada’s “slow food” movement, an initiative meant to promote sustainable food production and foster stronger communities.
“We need to educate ourselves so we can educate the next generation,” Kolk said in a telephone interview from Calgary.
“Food has gotten so broken down. Almost nobody lives on farms anymore. It’s gotten out of fashion to grow your own food. Without some training and education, the next generation could have some serious troubles with the food system.”
Kolk — along with a few like-minded youthful foodies — is in the process of launching a Slow Food “convivium” geared specifically towards young people in southern Alberta.
Participants will take part in events that further the understanding of how food is grown and prepared. Farm tours and market excursions will be on the agenda, but Kolk said the primary focus will be on building a community.
The convivium’s inaugural event — scheduled for later this month — will be a simple “eat in” where guests bring ingredients and collaborate to produce a meal.
The youth chapter will be the latest addition to a movement that’s been steadily gaining traction since 1989 when Slow Food International was founded.
The Italy-based organization, which now has chapters in 150 countries, says its primary goal is to promote environmental and community awareness through the pleasures of good food.
Paul DeCampo, who headed up Toronto’s Slow Food chapter for nearly five years, said youth engagement has been a rising focus of Canadian participants.
He laments the loss of home-cooking skills, which dwindle as harried parents increasingly reach for simple mealtime solutions.
As culinary skills disappear, cultural roots and community supports go with them, he said.
DeCampo is optimistic that the Slow Food movement may catch on, particularly in the wake of “Occupy” protests that raised awareness of the impact big business has on everyday life.
“We have a population of youth who are questioning the intrusion of corporate power into all aspects of life, and Slow Food is certainly about addressing and pushing back on the corporate control of our food system,” DeCampo said. “I think there’s an alignment of ethics there.”
Michael Howell, a chef based in Wolfville, N.S., recognized the importance of mobilizing youth to take charge of the food supply long before the tents were pitched in Zuccotti Park. Fearing the influence of slick marketing campaigns and misleading packaging, he joined forces with educational institutions in the province to expose students of all ages to Slow Food values.
The first campus convivium was launched at Acadia University and is slated to expand to Dalhousie in the coming months, he said.
Students at Dr. Arthur Hines Elementary School in Summerville, N.S., meanwhile, take part in a garden program that ties into many facets of school life, he said. Students grow food in the garden, allowing them to acquire key scientific and nutritional knowledge. That food is then harvested and served in the school’s cafeteria.
Howell believes schools are ideal targets for food intervention, since they represent pre-established communities of young people with both physical and intellectual hungers to satisfy.
“It seems not just apropos but really important for slow food to come together in an area where food production is part of everybody’s life,” he said.
Kolk acknowledges there are inherent challenges for youth who want to get away from mass-market food, which is generally priced to conform to a student-friendly budget and easily accessible for those who don’t have the means of travelling farther afield to shop.
She believes, however, that solutions exist for those who take the time to educate themselves. Canning and pickling fresh produce purchased in the summer can save time and money through the winter months, she said, adding youth can also stretch their dollars further by teaming up with friends to share more expensive food resources.
Such efforts play naturally to the social engagement that drives so many of Canada’s young people, she said, adding some will be surprised by how inclusive a movement it can be.
“Slow Food isn’t an activist group,” she said. “We’re not standing around with signs yelling at people. It’s about connecting lives and food. It’s about creating a community.”
“It’s great fun and it’s awesome and there’s more benefits to it than just organic vegetables.”