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Cooking with Care: Nutrition at YWCA Toronto’s Early Learning Centre

YWCA Toronto
YWCA Toronto
January 19, 2021
Categories: Child Care 

Wren Pragg interviewing Sarah Blea 


As our child care staff continue to provide thoughtful care to young ones in our community, I was excited to chat with Sarah Blea, the Cook and Kitchen Administrator at our Early Learning Centre (ELC). Sarah has designed a nutrition program to provide food with the utmost dignity to our smallest participants. The result is a dynamic program filled with warm flavours and heartfelt caregiving.


What brought you to YWCA Toronto?

I was pursuing new employment and there it was, the most beautiful job posting! I had worked for transitional housing services of York region that provides emergency housing for our homeless. This was the absolute best work I had ever done. As I was looking at YWCA Toronto’s posting, it was a combination of the core values that I possessed which matched the organization’s values. It’s nice to finally work somewhere that thinks like me!


How did you get interested in the culinary arts?

I grew up in the arts. I have been dancing since the age of three. I attended a performing arts high school. When it was time to move on to college, my parents suggested staying in the arts. George Brown College offered one of the best Culinary Arts programs -- it was there that I began my journey. Culinary arts literally means the art of skillfully preparing and cooking foods using both theoretical and practical techniques. 


The art of food is the ability to make it visually appealing. We are required to have a knowledge of food science and an understanding of food and nutrition. The link between the two art forms, dance and culinary arts, is that the syllabus in each art was French-based, this worked well for me as French became my second language when I came to Canada. Food was an interest that became a career. I really had no idea how much I was going to enjoy it.


What can you tell me about the ELC program at Bergamot?

I can tell you that our managers, Karen & Edlinda, are a dream team. The teachers are seasoned (no pun intended!) and very good at their craft. The curriculum is current and progressive. The environment is warm and welcoming, the children are happy and the Centre has a great energy. The staff respect the children in their care, which emanates throughout the program.


Can you please describe the Culinary Nutrition Program and your philosophy behind it?

Our program at the ELC asks that we deliver a certain level of customer service while providing quality and nutritionally sound meals and snacks to children. We have to adhere to the Early Years Act, The Canada Food Guide, The Dieticians Association, Compliance, and Public Health. Every day we have to meet the expectations of all major parties’ rules and regulations. It takes practice to cover all the bases. Everything from making sure a Registered Dietician has approved your work, that Public Health has given you a ‘Pass’ to operate, that compliance has approved your record keeping, all the while meeting your organization’s needs. It’s a big deal all day, every day.


My personal philosophy is that food is a language of its own and that we can connect and cross barriers with food. Like I always say, "to know food is to know culture.” We deliver a product that is high end, using culinary techniques both practical and theoretical, most of all kid-friendly. 

When you are cooking for our most vulnerable there is an ethical obligation to do this with elegance, colour, nutrition and a smile because it is truly an honour. It can't just be food in a dish, it has to be served as if you were still working for a five-star restaurant. I apply this method to my work.


Why do you think good nutrition is important for children?

I think nutrition is where it starts. It is imperative. Nutrition contains the building blocks to good health.


What do you think the program teaches the kids about food and nutrition?

I think the program teaches the children the basics all the way up! For example, how to sit at the table, how to use different forms of cutlery, how to understand different dishes with different textures and tastes, how to develop a palette and, finally, how to enjoy the experience of eating wholeheartedly! 


What is the connection between food and poverty?

For me the connection is insecurity. When we don't have access to food we feel unsafe. It is such an awful and unnecessary experience as in a wealthy country such as Canada, there is definitely enough food to go around. It is my everlasting goal to always help people by feeding them.


What is some of the feedback you have received from children and their parents? From staff?

The feedback I have received is positive, which I am thankful for. The teachers and parents are feeling heard in their requests, and they are pleased with the level of diversity we are incorporating in our menus. I am very international in creating culturally-diverse and nutritious meals. For example: Quebecoise tourtiere served with potatoes dauphinois served with French green beans; Bajan fish tacos served with Bajan rice, garnished with lettuce tomato & cheese; yogurt with berries & hemp hearts banana loaf; apple & oat crumble; and, root vegetable chips served with a crudité platter. I find this very motivating. Most of all the children are excited, which makes me happy.


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As Virginia Woolf said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

As we all continue to look for opportunities for comfort, wellness and care during the ongoing pandemic, we hope to provide the best for all participants and residents. Children are adjusting and processing change and uncertainty along with their communities. We cannot continue our care for them without the skill and commitment of our dedicated staff.


To support the work of our programs, including the ELC, please donate today.
Image by Naomi Shi.