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52,950 meals in 10 weeks: How RRC Polytech culinary students helped the Solidarity Kitchens project feed those in need

October 14, 2021

L-R: Sharnell McDougall and Leona Monias are two of the students who worked on the Solidarity Kitchens project

For Sharnell McDougall, food insecurity isn’t a concept she’s had to learn about – it’s a reality that shaped her life and focused her plans for her future.

The 21-year-old Indigenous Culinary Skills student comes from Red Sucker Lake First Nation, a fly-in reservation where fresh, high-quality ingredients were hard to come by.

“Although we grew up on an isolated reserve, my family always made sure that we were well fed. My mom inspired me to cook and be resourceful with what’s available.”

That inspiration, mixed with a generous helping of Food Network cooking shows, served her well when Sharnell moved to Winnipeg at age 13 and began cooking meals for her grandmother.

“Those cooking shows taught me how to put ingredients together in ways that are exciting and nourishing,” she says. “My dream is to open my own restaurant that serves Indigenous comfort food.”

Last year, her dream led her to culinary school. Then came the pandemic, wreaking havoc on the food service industry and cutting off avenues for the co-operative education experience she was required to complete for her program.

This was a challenge Red River College Polytechnic (RRC Polytech) suddenly found itself facing on several fronts: how to provide co-operative education and work-integrated learning opportunities under rapidly changing health directives, and with a growing number of industry partners struggling to weather the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Part of the solution was to reallocate College facilities, equipment, and expertise in the service of community efforts to fight the pandemic. That presented an ideal opportunity for Chef Ben Kramer, who was then spearheading the Manitoba arm of the Solidarity Kitchens initiative.

Solidarity Kitchens, launched at the start of the pandemic by food insecurity charity La Tablée des Chefs, challenged suppliers, farmers, restaurants, hotels and other food service organizations across the country to donate food that would otherwise go to waste, and transform it into meals for those in need.

Chef Kramer’s goal was to produce 50,000 meals for Harvest Manitoba in 10 weeks. To reach that goal, he needed help processing mass quantities of ingredients into ready-to-eat meals. The College, impressed by Kramer’s experience leading similar initiatives, donated kitchen facilities and equipment from its culinary school. In turn, Kramer provided Sharnell and two other students the co-operative education experience and mentorship they needed to graduate.

“It wasn’t glamourous work, but it was important,” says Kramer, who is widely regarded as one of Winnipeg’s top chefs. “We were processing massive amounts of ingredients donated by local suppliers, so the student had to work fast.”

Sharnell admits it was overwhelming at first, “just in terms of the sheer number of meals we had to make. But then we fell into a rhythm. We learned how to organize, prevent spoilage, package the meals, work as a team – all the skills we need to work in kitchens or lead our own someday.”

In August, the team exceed their goal, producing a total 52,950 Spanish omelettes for Harvest Manitoba.

Ryan Whibbs, Chair of the School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts at RRC Polytech’s Paterson Global Foods Institute, says, “Partnerships like the Solidarity Kitchens project are incredibly valuable to RRC Polytech because they demonstrate how deeply we’re embedded in our community, and they help us connect with and serve our communities in new ways. They create opportunities to put students’ skills to work for those in need, when and where they’re needed most.”

Kramer’s goal was to go beyond basic culinary skills training and open students’ eyes to the role the food services industry can play in addressing food insecurity, a problem that continues to plague our society.

“We live in a precarious system, and the pandemic has given that system a huge shake. The drama and the excitement of what we see on Food Network competitions and reality shows is only one side of the story we can tell through culinary arts programs. By feeding the hungry and giving back, we have the power to transform our communities.”

Sharnell says she gained a lot from Chef Kramer’s insights, and valued “the experience of being part of the solution.” She’s heard directly from members of community support groups who have told her how much they enjoyed and appreciated the food provided by the project.

After the Solidarity Kitchens project wrapped up, Kramer connected Sharnell with a job opportunity as a line cook at the University of Winnipeg’s Diversity Food Services. She plans to return to RRC Polytech to continue her culinary studies – and pursue her dream of making food for the heart and soul.

“Learning how to make healthy and nutritious meals is something very important to me and I want to share that knowledge with my community.”

Whibbs says he hopes to see more partnerships like this in the future, and encourages College alumni and donors to support them because of the impact they can have on students and the community, especially through the creation of scholarships and awards that celebrate student success in working to address food insecurity.