Turning theory into tasty (and healthy) dishes at the Good Food Café

At lunchtime in Toronto’s St. Joseph’s College School, senior food and nutrition students from Ryerson cheerfully await with plenty of tasty dishes.

FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit organization that aims to deliver healthy food to communities and schools, has invited them to learn the ins and outs of working as food service providers in St. Joseph’s healthy cafeteria lunch program, the Good Food Café.

In July 2014, when large companies stopped providing cafeteria services to Toronto’s schools due to changes in Ontario’s nutrition standards, FoodShare stepped in to provide healthy and affordable food products to youth. However, they couldn’t do it alone. And so they approached Fiona Yeudall, an assistant professor of nutrition at Ryerson.

Students taking Yeudall’s introduction to dietetics practice class visit St. Joseph’s cafeteria one to two times every week to prepare and serve meals to the school’s students.

Cindy Pham, a fifth-year food and nutrition student who took the course last year, says working at the Good Food Café helps her and her peers put their theoretical knowledge of food service operations into action.

“Through the program, you learn about all these things, like how to properly sanitize kitchens or how to do food preparation,” said Pham, who has continued to volunteer at St. Joseph’s after completing the course. “But we have never really gone into that area and really experienced it for ourselves.”

The students are able to gain hands-on experience in a real kitchen, and apply creative methods to preparing meals, she said.

In the kitchen, Jesus Gomez, Good Food Café’s head chef, gives Ryerson students a basic menu of meals to prepare for the day. The students get to work and prepare various flavoursome dishes, which are sold at lunchtime for $1 to $3.

Yeudall says her course provides students with experiential learning opportunities, as some of them have never set foot in a commercial kitchen.

“They get a safe kind of exposure to [kitchen operations] and gain respect for the hard work that goes into food preparation and production,” she said. “It’s a bit of a reality check of what happens when you get out and you’re busy.”

Students can apply their creativity, understand and solve complex issues in a kitchen environment, and learn how to make food that’s tasty and affordable. “You learn by doing, not just by talking about it,” added Yeudall.

In conjunction with the hands-on experience, Yeudall’s students must research and understand the legislation that led to today’s nutrition standards for schools in Ontario, which consists of selling healthy food products across the board.

According to Pham, not only do students get to apply the theories they’ve learned, but they also get to explore a wide range of opportunities in the field. Being in the kitchen exposes students to inspiring and interesting tasks that go beyond just food science and dietetics.

“When I went in there and learned about the initiative, I became more interested in student nutrition and became more actively involved in the role, which is why I continued on,” said Pham.

While working at the café has helped Pham and her peers understand the reality of working in food service, they also find the experience rewarding by being able to give back to the community.

“You learn how to communicate with the youth and build a relationship with them through the serving,” said Pham.

Robyn Barefoot, a nutrition student from Western University who is taking Yeudall’s class to gain more experience, agrees and says serving the students is a rewarding experience.

“Working to prepare the meals and seeing the kids’ faces when they’re ordering is rewarding,” she said. “Some of the students even come back for seconds. That gives me the impression that [the food] tasted good and they enjoyed it.”

Most students see working at the Good Food Café as a valuable practical experience, but Barefoot doesn’t deny that there are challenges, such as working under a tight deadline with a small number of staff.

“It is easier when students from the school come to help,” she said. “Another challenge would be to keep your area organized when you’re so rushed and trying to prepare so much food for so many people.”  

Despite the challenges, Yeudall, Pham, and Barefoot agree that working at the Good Food Café has opened many doors for nutrition students specializing in dietetics. Several students, such as Pham, continue volunteering regularly for the café, even after they complete the course.

“It’s fortunate for me as a student to be able to go in and work with Foodshare…a big organization where a lot of students want to work,” said Pham. “To be able to go in and create relationships with people who work there and work with them hands-on in an initiative that is really pressing today, it’s like a dream come true.”

Featured image by Evelyn Thompson