Over 5,000 meals and 10,000 snacks are served each week by the sixteen daycares of Eeyou Istchee’s nine communities. That’s enough to feed 1200 children, who need meals that are safe, nutritious, and, of course, tasty. Since 2007, Cree Health Board nutritionist Lilian Kandiliotis has been devising ways to meet these needs by improving daycare food quality and safety.
“Our goal is to control fat content, increase grains and fibres, include more fruit and vegetables, and generally make sure kids are eating well,” says Kandiliotis. This necessitates some innovative steps, such as developing an ordering system to ensure food security. “If ‘food security’ means that everyone has access to safe, affordable food, then we don’t see that up north. We have ‘food insecurity’ instead.” In markets where two liters of milk can cost $8 and three bags of groceries can approach $100, parents are challenged to feed their children healthy meals. Especially when junk food is much less expensive – you can find two-for-one sales on soft drinks more easily than for fruit juices, after all. So Kandiliotis and her team, including cooks and dieticians, have pre-screened all ingredients needed for their daycare menu, paying special attention to nutritional value, potential food allergies and levels of trans fats. Then, working with a local wholesaler, they created a system for ordering those ingredients that passed the screening process. “It was a lot of work, but ensures that we’ll have the foods we need at a reasonable price,” she says. In addition, the system will also block the daycares from purchasing junk foods and potentially dangerous allergens such as peanuts. “We want to guarantee that kids in the daycare are eating two healthy snacks and a good lunch every day,” Kandiliotis says.
The new system reflects Cree Public Health’s regional nutrition policy and diabetes-prevention initiatives. In addition, cooks are being trained in food-safety concerns, from proper storage and hygiene to healthy cooking techniques. To this end, the Cree Regional Authority supported a two-day training session in Montreal last summer, in which daycare chefs were trained not only in the basics of food preparation but also in more complex issues around food allergies, including how to use an epipen. This education is in line with new Quebec accreditation criteria that at least ten percent of staff – including managers and cooks – pass a food-safety training course.
Traditional Cree diet
In addition to ensuring that daycare food is nutritious and safe, Kandiliotis also wants the menu to reflect a traditional Cree diet. “Cree food is the best for the Cree population – so long as it is healthily prepared, and not deep fried. Only the hospital in Chiasasibi is licensed to serve traditional Cree foods currently, but we are working with elders and the government to extend this license to other facilities, including elder homes, day centres, group homes, reception centres, and, of course, daycares,” she says. And she is adamant on this point. “Food is tradition: it makes you who you are and shapes your cultural identity,” she stresses. “I wouldn’t be the person I am without all the Greek and Ukrainian food I ate growing up. So I really want to have our daycares serving traditional Cree foods. That’s a priority on my agenda now.”