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Inside Covenant House Vancouver’s Food Services: Nourishing Bodies, Nurturing Souls

Food sits at the heart of so much of human life and experience – if not fundamentally as a source of survival, then as a simple opportunity for joy. Be that through the time-honoured act of “breaking bread” and sharing each other’s company over a meal, or by expressing our cultural identities through the scintillating array of flavours and ingredients our planet has to offer. 

Reflecting the diversity of the young people we work with, our incredible Food Services team continues to amaze with the range of balanced, nutritious meals they cook every day hailing from every corner of our global cultural menu. 

We had the opportunity to catch up with Mirabel Umali, our Assistant Manager of Food Services, to find out more about how they operate and to try and understand how it is that the dining area always smells so incredibly tasty. 

For readers who are new to Covenant House Vancouver and what we do, can you tell us a little about your department and how it operates? 
We are the Food Services Department of Covenant House Vancouver. Our staff members come from multicultural and diverse backgrounds as well as culinary work experiences in the food industry. We are a team of chefs and food service workers who have a passion in serving at-risk and homeless youth. Our food service operations serve all Covenant House Vancouver youth programs located in three buildings, and open 365 days a year. We work with kitchen volunteers who are committed and assist in serving our young people’s needs. 

What developments have you seen in the past year – in terms of amount of food and meals you’re serving, and the type of food that is being served? 
The Food Services Department offers nutritious meals, snacks, and beverages throughout the day. All hot meals include proteins, starch, vegetables as well as soup, salads and desserts. Our daily breakfasts include delights such as house-made pancakes, French toasts, egg variations, breakfast meats, and even congee! As the youth come from diverse backgrounds, we cook lunches like chicken tacos, lentil masala, bao sandwiches, veg quesadillas, Asian noodles, as well as dinners like roast beef, barbeque chicken, salmon, rice dishes, paneer and pasta. Our soup is fresh and made every day! Aside from main meals, we also provide healthy night snacks like fruit platters and vegetable and cheese platters and treats like cookies and pastries. We also offer brief services where whole fruit and Cobbs pastries are available at the front desk. 

We celebrate multiculturalism by preparing food for Lunar New Year, Shrove Tuesday, Eid Mubarak (end of Ramadan), St. Patrick’s Day, Vaisakhi, Diwali, Nowruz, and traditional meals for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. We collaborate with our Lead Spiritual Practitioner Kadee Smedley for religious and cultural celebrations including Hannukah, Nowruz, Passover, and Moon Festival and all festivities involving the youth and food. 

We provide bagged meals for youth who are studying and working and save them meals when they do not make it in time at the cafeteria. We also give them food needed for outdoor activities like hiking and skiing.   

As Covenant House Vancouver continues to grow, our kitchen production has increased to serve not only the increase in number of youth across programs but also changing needs and diet preferences. We cater to vegetarians, religious restrictions, allergies and doctor- recommended diets. There has also been an increase in vegetarian diets so we have added more plant-based recipes to our menu like ratatouille, veg casseroles, veggie burgers and plant-based breakfast meats.  

How has the affordability crisis and rising cost of food continued to affect Food Services? 
Rising food prices has affected our operations greatly, but we remain committed to serving nutritious and healthy meals to the youth. As a non-profit kitchen, we receive food donations from Vancouver Food Runners who send us rescued food from hotels and restaurants and food shops. Lazy Gourmet, one of the premier Vancouver catering companies, sends their rescued food to our kitchen and the youth always enjoy. Our breads are donated by Cobbs Bread and cakes by the Cakerie. We get dropped-off canned donations from individuals that can cover some of the needs of Covey’s Cupboard, an in-house pantry filled with healthy food options, perishables, and kitchen stapes that youth can access through our Drop-In and Rights of Passage programs. 

What plans do the Food Services team have for future – any changes coming to the menus and ways you operate? 
We look forward to the future as we continue to increase the number of youth we are serving across all programs. Volunteer participation in our kitchens will increase and our operations will be busier than ever. Our menus will be geared toward changing needs and we will always serve balanced meals for nutrition and well-being. We will continue to establish new partnerships with food rescue organizations and find ways to add to our food supply in collaboration with our Gift-In-Kind team. 

Has there been a favourite moment you remember – or moments – in the past year making and serving food for young people in CHV’s programs? 
Food is an integral part in the life of a Covenant House Vancouver youth and all at-risk and homeless youth. Our services have removed food insecurity as they are assured three meals a day. When youth are nourished, they start the day energized and ready to tackle challenges that will come their way. They do not need to worry where the next meal will come from.  

Aside from the regular meals that we serve, youth are touched when they encounter favourite foods from their childhood or from their native countries. As we have youth from 16 to 24 years old, they get excited when they see treats like hamburgers with cheese and home fries as well as occasional treats from donors like pizzas and ice-cream sandwiches.    

When we get a thumbs up or shout-outs of thanks and amazement from the youth after meals, our kitchen staff considers those words and gestures as the greatest reward that we can receive in this job.  

Thank you to Mirabel and everyone involved in the incredible Food Services team for delivering such amazing food all year round, setting up young people to succeed in everything they are working on while in program with us. 

If you are interested in getting involved and giving back, the Food Services department is looking for volunteers who can assist with food preparation and general kitchen operations. They are looking for assistance during morning, afternoon, and evening meal times throughout the week and on weekends. Please visit us here for me information.