Cooking up a storm at Iqaluit’s Qajuqturvik Food Centre
Old soup kitchen now billing itself as a community hub where residents can learn culinary skills
The sound of pots banging, food sizzling on a grill and laughter fill the large open space of the Qajuqturvik Food Centre in Iqaluit, bouncing off the high ceilings.
The aroma of cumin wafts all around you, while about a dozen people work and talk. It’s Mexican food night: Iqalungmiut fry beans and corn, dice onions and make guacamole.
The food centre has gone through a lot of changes in recent months, the centre’s executive director, Wade Thorhaug, told Nunatsiaq News recently. It’s become a community hub where residents can pick up cooking skills, learn new recipes, build healthy habits and feel good about their relationship with food.
The weekly drop-in cooking sessions, which are open to the public, have included recipes of Sri Lankan, Mauritian, Zimbabwean, Fillipino, Italian and southwestern American food, Thorhaug said.
“You can make pretty much anything that’s delicious, even a bit exotic, in an affordable way with ingredients you can find in town,” Thorhaug said.
“You can always find a substitute in town, based on the flavour profile of your dish.”
This is only one of a number of new programs offered by Qajuqturvik, said Thorhaug.
Since the fall of 2018, the centre has partnered with employers such as Baffinland Iron Mines to train residents for jobs as cooks. So far about 50 people have gone through the program, most of whom have found employment afterwards, Thorhaug said.
“We recruit people who face barriers to employment, the biggest barriers being addictions, housing and education. We like to recruit as much as possible from those who already use our services.”
For the last couple of years, the food centre has consistently served 80 restaurant-quality meals seven days a week, and about 150 meals per day in total with second helpings and delivery, he added.
Thanks to funding from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the employment training program offered by Qajuqturvik is also open to Inuit across Nunavut, who can be relocated to Iqaluit to participate.
And there’s other new programming too.
The kids’ cooking program for students at Nakasuk Elementary School has been a huge success, said Thorhaug. And with more volunteers, the program can be expanded to include even more kids.
“There was definitely a need in the community for programming like this. There’s not a lot of spaces in the community with activities that don’t cost participants anything,” Thorhaug said.
And starting on March 7, Qajuqturvik is partnering with the local group IqalEATS, which organizes healthy food boxes for sale and delivery. That program is in need of some more volunteers, too.
All of this new programming, and more planned in the future, is aimed at expanding cooperation among the food centre, other organizations with overlapping goals and the wider Nunavut public, Thorhaug said.
There are a lot of non-governmental organizations in Nunavut whose staff and volunteers burn out. But by combining efforts with like-minded groups, everyone stands to benefit, said Thorhaug.
Qajuqturvik’s expanded programming and outreach have been in part due to the support of Community Food Centres Canada.
That’s an organization that aims to address food insecurity in low-income communities by empowering people in their relationship with and access to healthy food, according to their website.
The CFCC helped Qajuqturvik, which has adopted the national organization’s model and philosophy, with its organizational structure, operations and funding, Thorhaug said.
But changing the public’s perception of the food centre is still an uphill battle, he said.
Thorhaug has been making efforts to change Nunavummiut’s perceptions away from the idea of a soup kitchen and closer to that of a community food hub.
“People will still probably call it the ‘old soup kitchen’ for a while,” he said.
The term “soup kitchen” often makes people think of long lines of down-and-out individuals waiting for a “measly soup and sandwich,” he said.
That image stigmatizes people with poverty and does nothing to empower them, Thorhaug said.
Nor does the soup kitchen model address the underlying systemic factors of food insecurity, he added.
That’s why Qajuqturvik is focusing its efforts on education, empowerment and advocacy through food-oriented programming and outreach to the public and sympathetic organizations, said Thorhaug.
“The food centre is a community asset and there are some people who haven’t stepped foot in here. We’d like to change that.”
Qajuqturvik has received much attention from local media and visiting notables alike in recent years. New funding in 2018 allowed the centre to hire a full-time permanent executive director. Now, they have four full-time staff, three part-time staff and pay participants in the employment training program a wage, said Thorhaug.
“In five years’ time I hope we can have sustainable funding, providing a wide range of programming, a strong volunteer base and even more close connections with organizations,” he said.
“I hope the food centre can be a central spoke in the community.”