By Ben Forrest | Dec. 20, 2023Print | PDF
Food security is a basic human need — a foundational requirement of healthy, thriving and sustainable communities; and yet for many Canadians, it is firmly out of reach.
Rising grocery bills, a lack of affordable housing, crippling debt, geopolitical uncertainty, supply chain issues and general inflation are hindering many Canadians — including some in Waterloo Region — in search of healthy, affordable and sustainable food.
At the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University, exemplary students and faculty are leveraging their knowledge, academic training, professional networks and fundraising abilities to promote food security in Waterloo, the Laurier student community, and remote Northern communities, and beyond.
Here are a few key initiatives from the Lazaridis School making a difference in the fight against hunger.
Laurier marketing professor Shirley Lichti had a great idea, one she thought could make a lasting difference in the food security of people living in Waterloo Region.
All she needed was her not-for-profit client’s permission to run with it.
“You don’t need to do anything other than say yes,” Lichti recalls telling Dan Driedger, a former client and executive director of the Beyond Housing charity in Kitchener, Ont.
“I could run this project. I would do absolutely everything else.”
The project in question provided a donated freezer, free of charge, to any resident of a new 48-unit Beyond Housing apartment complex at 544 Bridgeport Road East in Kitchener.
Anyone who accepted a freezer was required to complete a six-month program that included 12 online culinary classes (half of them compulsory) from Red Seal chefs.
Tenants could watch and participate in the classes from their own kitchens, using their own equipment, and ask questions along the way. Videos of each class were available afterward to replay as often as the students wished.
After a session on culinary knife skills, they learned an array of money-saving techniques — including how to carve up a whole chicken instead of paying for packaged chicken breasts and thighs — and learned palate-pleasing recipes for everything from jambalaya to cauliflower mac and cheese.
The new freezers made it possible to buy meat, dairy products and other produce when it’s on sale, and preserve it for later use. And of course, they could also freeze their leftovers. The result is lower grocery bills, less food waste, and culinary skills that can be applied to many other dishes.
Lichti modeled the program after a similar initiative in the United Kingdom, thinking it fit perfectly within the recent Beyond Housing rebrand. (The organization was previously called MennoHomes, a nod to its Mennonite roots.)
“You go beyond just a roof over your head,” she said, summarizing the new Beyond Housing brand concept.
“You do something more. And I just thought I could do it. So I put up my hand and said, ‘Let's run with this.’ ”
A few phone calls later, Lichti secured everything they needed. Danby Appliances donated freezers to 19 participating residents.
Chefs Jody O’Malley and Kirstie Herbstreit from The Culinary Studio offered to run the cooking classes, and the Foodland outlet in Ayr, Ont., provided groceries.
By the end of the project, Lichti had a transferrable model that could work in most urban communities across the country, and Foodland’s head office was eager to replicate it in other markets.
“A lot of people said, ‘Wow, that's amazing,’ ” says Lichti. “And you know, it's not so amazing. It's one idea … even doing something relatively small can make a huge difference in the lives of other people.”
It began as a run-of-the-mill debate within the Lazaridis School economics department about five years ago.
At the time, several community groups organized food drives to help people living with food insecurity. Would their dollars go farther if they stopped paying retail prices for donated goods and simply raised funds for food banks instead?
“As economists, we're always trying to think of how to allocate resources to get as much as you possibly can,” says Tammy Schirle, a labour economist and professor at the Lazaridis School.
“I usually frame it in my classes as trying to get as much happiness in the world as we possibly can with the dollars that we have.”
Schirle and her colleagues settled on the idea that money went farther than food. With cash, food banks can buy food from wholesalers at discounted rates and spend it on the items they need most.
In return, donors would get tax receipts, which they can use to free up more of their earnings at tax time, stretching their dollars a bit farther.
So, the Laurier economics faculty launched the Economics Fund Drive, an annual campaign to collect donations for The Food Bank of Waterloo Region.
In their first year, they raised nearly $2,000 and kept building. Last year’s initiative raised over $7,000 and this year to date they’ve raised more than $6,200 (with lots of time left to donate).
“I have the pleasure of working with a group of really good people who do genuinely care about what's going on in our community and everybody around them,” said Schirle.“When we see opportunities to use the resources we have available to easily help out some other folks, then why not do it?”
After finishing his Master of Business Administration at Laurier, David Gillespie (MBA, ’22) paired his world-class business training with his background as a chef to help improve food security in the Northwest Territories.
By plane, he set out for the Sambaa K’e, a small settlement of about 100 people in the Dehcho region, where Laurier assistant professor Andrew Spring and his team have worked with the local First Nation for several years.
The village has a 15,000-square-foot garden that grows about 80,000 pounds of produce a year, but finding ways to maximize its crops is challenging. Many community members still rely on traditional foods like moose and fish, and didn’t know how to cook cabbage, zucchini or squash.
So Gillespie set up a food stand outside the local school and served free meals with local ingredients to families on the way home, along with recipes.
“Many people really embraced it and would come back and tell me they had already used the recipe at home,” he says.
The braised cabbage, zucchini bread, pumpkin muffins, spaghetti squash, caldo verde and several other dishes caught on quickly. Gillespie also gathered information and feedback to help the First Nation with federal grant applications.
“I used every skill I was taught in my MBA,” he says. “I went through financial statements, made capital budgets, compared return on investments, conducted stakeholder analyses, and strategized with the senior administrator and the chief. It was the perfect experience after completing my schooling.”
His efforts made an immediate impact and energized him to do more.
“These kids will not only be able to help themselves, but other people and their First Nation,” he says. “The hope is we can export this model to other communities and empower even more young people.”
Imagine a Canada where no one goes hungry.
That’s the vision of Food Banks Canada, a national charity where Laurier business school alumnus Tony Chow (BBA ’97) serves on the board of directors.
“The high and rising cost of living is pushing many Canadians toward food insecurity,” said Chow, who is also president of Kellanova Canada (formerly Kellogg Canada).
“It’s a reality we’re seeing at food banks across the country, affecting people from all walks of life.”
Still, he firmly believes the fight against hunger is winnable, with help from Canadian business leaders — many of them trained at Laurier — willing to do their part.
“The fight against hunger relies on the generosity of conscientious donors and enterprising fundraisers, including many from Laurier,” he said. “I’m proud to be part of a community of graduates who leverage our business training and industry expertise to make a difference in the lives of Canadians who are struggling in these very difficult times.”
Both on and off campus Laurier students are making a huge impact in the food security of peers who may be struggling to make ends meet.
The Mini Market, inside Veritas Café on the Waterloo campus, provides groceries, prepared meals and hygiene products with a pay-what-you-can model. Staff and faculty pay full price, but students can pay as little as $1 for a basket of groceries.
“There is no limit to how many times a student can shop at the market,” says Jeremy Wagner, president of the Laurier Graduate Students Association and founder of the Mini Market.
“Some schools offer at-cost grocery services for students, but as far as we know, the Mini Market is the first pay-what-you-can grocery store for students.”
Other food security supports include the Students’ Union Food Bank, Dean of Students’ Grocery Gift Card Program, and the Free Weekly Distro.
The latter program is an initiative of the Laurier Students’ Public Interest Research Group (LSPIRG) and Martin Luther University College, providing fresh and non-perishable food and other essential items free to any student who needs them.
Veritas Café also offers online cooking classes for students, and the Grad Student Cookbook offers great recipes for students trying to eat nutritious food on a budget.
These are just a few of the long list of supports students, faculty and alumni have established in the drive toward universal food security.
“We have a community of care mindset at Laurier,” says Wagner, “so this just feels like an obvious thing to do.”