Okanagan Culinary and Pastry Arts students Jessica Madinabeitia and Mariko Nagata prepare lunches for the OC Serves Up program.

Okanagan Culinary and Pastry Arts students Jessica Madinabeitia and Mariko Nagata prepare lunches for the OC Serves Up program.

Okanagan College serves up free healthy meals to students facing food insecurity

Students who are struggling financially have access to free healthy meals through the OC Serves Up initiative.

A new free lunch program at Okanagan College (OC) is helping students who are facing food insecurity.

Normally, students in the Culinary and Pastry Arts program would prepare customer meals at the College’s restaurant, Infusions, as part of their training.

Due to COVID-19, students were only back in the kitchens for physically-distanced training and Infusions was open for limited hours for take-out only.

The program leaders came up with the idea to use the students’ skills to prepare meals for those who are struggling financially.

The OC Serves Up initiative ran as a pilot program last year thanks to support from RBC Royal Bank of Canada, the Okanagan College Students’ Union and Sysco.

The program was a success, providing more than 4,000 healthy, wholesome lunches to students over five months.

Mariko Nagata, a mother of two, was laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave her the chance to return to school and enrol in the Culinary and Pastry Arts program.

As part of her studies, Nagata helps cook healthy meals that she gets to enjoy along with fellow students who are also facing food insecurity.

The program instructors also focus on limiting food waste, which is a skill Nagata has used at home to maximize her food budget.

While going back to school was a challenge, the meals she receives and cooks for others have been a welcome bright spot in the transition back to school as a mature student.

“I feel very supported,” says Nagata. “I’m really thankful to the sponsors and people who came up with this idea.”

A new study from the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) recently found that post-secondary students in the Okanagan are among the most food insecure in the country. Even before COVID-19, over 40 per cent of UBCO students experienced food insecurity, which is consistent with other universities and colleges across Canada.

READ MORE: UBCO students among most food insecure in Canada

Most of the food is made from scratch, from pizza dough and soups to stews and noodle dishes.

Thanks to the support of Valley First, a division of First West Credit Union, and the TELUS Friendly Future Foundation, OC Serves Up will continue until the fall serving up to 50 lunches per day. Valley First is donating $25,000 and Telus Friendly Future Foundation $15,000 to support the project along with ongoing in-kind support from Sysco and the Okanagan College Students’ Union.

“When students are trying to study and unable to concentrate due to a lack of proper nutrition, it can have a big impact on their ability to learn and retain knowledge. We’re proud to make an impact by supporting local food initiatives in the communities we serve,” Paulo Araujo, President of Valley First.

READ MORE: Food insecurity during COVID-19 pandemic linked to poor mental health

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