How Toronto students are helping women eat healthier at drop-in shelters

A team of University of Toronto students teamed up with Sistering drop-in centre to develop a meal-planning tool for the centre's chefs to make the best use of donated food — and help make balanced, healthy meals.

University of Toronto students teamed up with Sistering drop-in centre to develop meal-planning tool

The team behind the project included (left to right) Courtney McAskile, Sarah Kassel, Etienne Nemanishen and Hazel Fernandez. (University of Toronto)

Picture being a chef, with an ingredient supply that's all based on donations. That could mean piles of kale one day, dozens of canned goods the next. Your goal? To serve up hundreds of interesting meals a day, all to a vulnerable population of homeless or low-income women with complicated health needs.

It's a daunting task — and the daily reality for staff at womens' drop-in centres across the city.

But a group of University of Toronto students is hoping to make that process a bit easier through a new meal-planning tool.

Developed by four women from the university's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the guide was initially designed to help chefs at Sistering drop-in centre in Toronto's west-end, which serves up to 250 meals a day to homeless, under-housed, low income or marginalized women.

"Our ultimate aim was just to make the jobs of the chefs in the kitchen a lot easier, and really provide nutritious meals that meet all of the nutritional requirements of their clients," said Courtney McAskile, who worked on the project alongside fellow students Sarah Kassel, Etienne Nemanishen and Hazel Fernandez.

A little meal planning goes a long way at Sistering drop-in centre. (Sistering)

McAskile said many women who come to centres like Sistering are often coping with chronic diseases like hypertension or diabetes, which means a hearty, healthy meal is even more important.

"You eat at home, and you know what you're getting, but a lot of these women can only eat at shelters or drop-ins, so we have to make sure they're getting nutritional value as well as enjoyable food when they're here," said Patricia Beard, food coordinator at Sisters' Kitchen at Sistering.

How it works

The guide works by providing recipes focusing on different donated foods and based around a dietitian-designed plate guide for drop-in centres, which is geared towards meeting an adult's total nutritional requirements.

And while it sounds like something out of a trendy health app, McAskile's team took an old-school approach — printed pages in a binder — to meet the unique requirements of drop-in centres, which don't always have much computer access.

Beard said the guide provides all the different names for allergen information, like the many different names for egg or mustard seed, along with examples of food or products that may contain soy or milk products. 

Impressed by the quality of the guide, she pushed for it to be used more broadly in Toronto.

"I thought, every drop-in should be using it," said Beard, who is part of the advisory board for Creating Health Plus, a partnership between the city and food sources such as the Daily Bread Food Bank.

McAskile said her team will eventually be rolling out the guide to 29 more drop-in centres throughout the city.