Food for Thought: Highlights from the West End Food Festival

The West End Food Festival recently marked an important milestone on Vancouver’s community calendar. Over four days in early October, this inaugural event celebrated and explored sustainable food culture in the West End. And at its heart was the partnership developed between Gordon Neighbourhood House (GNH) and the West End Neighbourhood Food Network.

The Festival kicked off on Friday, October 4th at dinnertime, as an enthusiastic crowd gathered in the park in front of Gordon Neighbourhood House. The area quickly buzzed with activity. Amidst the display tables and Judy Kenzie’s colourful Strathcona 1890 Truck Farm (a pick-up truck with a mini vegetable garden flourishing in its back!), friends and neighbours mingled while passersby stopped to chat. Everyone eagerly lined up to try the mouth-watering treats generously contributed by local food vendors.

Food samples included savoury pulled-pork pretzels from Shamrock Alley; creamy squash curry from Whole Foods; and tasty appetizers from Seventeen89. Visitors could also check out displays from Strathcona 1890 Urban Seed Collection and Costco. And in the background, Drew Sexsmith’s blend of folksy mandolin warmed the crowd.

With the goal of building awareness about local food issues, a rich variety of activities continued throughout the weekend. Head chef and food security coordinator at GNH, Andrew Christie, spoke passionately about the success of Saturday’s Community Kitchen event:

“We had a fantastic turn-out of diverse participants from our community, ranging in age from their 20s to 70s. About half didn’t speak English. At times the kitchen was a tight squeeze but it was all a huge success.”

It was truly a highlight when these community cooks sat down together to share the delicious meal they had learned to cook from scratch: nutritious vegetarian and meat-based chili and home-made corn bread. And as planned, they had also made enough to serve the public later that day at the Tin Pan Chef Competition.

On Saturday night, the community room at GNH steamed and sizzled in friendly competition. Over 40 attendees dropped by to watch the Tin Pan Chef cook-off between two community teams, made up of chefs Dixie Pidgeon and Monica Ghosh, and their assistants Devon Gregoire and Ewa Gersin. Their challenge was to create an appealing and tasty meal in just one hour from the unknown contents of a sealed box donated by the Vancouver Food Bank.

It was humbling to watch what came out of the Food Bank box; and what these talented teams created. As the minutes ticked off, excitement mounted while the chefs sweated and coped with the unexpected (including a brief power outage for one team!). Finally, community volunteers on the judging panel had their own challenge of declaring a winner. It was almost too close to call as both teams cooked up amazing creations that included tuna burgers, vegetable soup, coleslaw, veggie cakes, latkes and fritters.

Events continued through Sunday, October 6th and included a Community Potluck. On Monday evening, the Festival wrapped up with an insightful Community Panel Discussion on Food Insecurity. Speakers on the diverse panel included Dr. Graham Riches, Professor Emeritus of UBC School of Social Work; Jean Swanson, author and social justice activist; Pardeep Khrod, Marketing Manager of Quest food exchange; Fraser Stuart, welfare recipient; and Jennifer Allan, founder of Jen’s Kitchen.

With the importance of community and food issues high on his list of priorities, Gordon Neighbourhood House’s Executive Director, Paul Taylor, neatly summarized the Festival’s concluding event:

“Gordon Neighbourhood House is pleased to bring our friends and neighbours in the community together to participate in discussions around barriers to accessing food and nutritional vulnerability. The evening’s discussion also focused on the roles individuals, groups/organizations and the government can play in challenging food insecurity.”

Reflecting on the success of the first annual West End Food Festival, community members can celebrate knowing how much was achieved in just a short time. The Festival was a great opportunity for fostering broader neighbourhood participation and dialogue on important food security and sustainability issues.  It’s inspiring to know that here in the West End, by working together, those community discussions are already starting to happen.

Written by Anita Miettunen 

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Tin Pan Chef participants Monica Ghosh and Dixie Pidgeon are all smiles after an hour of hard work.
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Photos courtesy of Florence Hwang