How a Thunder Bay high school is changing lives through healthy food

At this all-Indigenous high school, chef Mandi O’Connor and her students are building community one meal at a time
By Jon Thompson - Published on October 22, 2018
a student chopping vegetables in a school kitchen
Sixteen-year-old Nano Kakep-ness Angeconeb chops vegetables in Mandi O’Connor’s food lab at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. (Jon Thompson)

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THUNDER BAY — The scent of fresh meatballs wafts through the hallway at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School — for Mandi O’Connor, it’s bait to lure students into the new food lab.

The sign next to O’Connor’s kitchen says “fairy godmother,” as well as “chef.” A sixth-generation cook and baker, the catering coordinator provides the students with hot meals, desserts, and a comfortable space, during school hours and after. Students poke their heads through the door and offer the same greeting: “Smells good. What are you cooking today?”

All 120 teenagers who attend DFC are Indigenous. They’ve moved to Thunder Bay from remote First Nations to attend high school because secondary education isn’t available in their home communities.

O’Connor tells TVO.org that between 18 and 20 per cent of those students have diabetes — compared with less than 1 per cent of 12-to-17-year-olds nationwide, according to Statistics Canada. O’Connor wants to change that. Her goal is to make DFC the first public school in Ontario to banish processed and prepackaged foods.           

This fall, she launched after-school cooking and baking clubs. She is recruiting the keenest members for the catering team, which will cook for and serve meals at meetings held by Indigenous organizations at the school. Students’ favourite recipes will appear on a revamped cafeteria menu, which will be unveiled in January.

Early next year, O’Connor has arranged for Indigenous chef David Wolfman — host of the TV show Cooking With the Wolfman — to officiate an event in which two teams of DFC student chefs will compete for the title of “Kitchen Warrior.” The school is arranging for a live video stream so that families in remote communities can cheer their children on.

It’s an ambitious timetable, but O’Connor says she’s encouraged by the strides her young cooks have made in less than two months.

Sixteen-year-old Nano Kakep-ness Angeconeb is one of them. She transferred to DFC this fall, having lived most of her life in Sioux Lookout. The food available to her there was mostly salad, burgers, and frozen and canned foods.

Since moving to the city, Nano has become a fixture in O’Connor’s kitchen. “I never took a cooking class before I moved here. I can make friends now — I can actually talk,” she says. “Mandi makes it good, so I actually eat it. It feels like you’re loved, in a way. When it’s actually made, and it’s not gross stuff, it’s actually food.”

Nola Meekis, a 15-year-old DFC student, says she wanders into the food lab about four times a day. She was raised in Deer Lake First Nation on a steady diet of wild game before moving 700 kilometres southeast to attend school in Thunder Bay. Her father, a fisher and band councillor, would frequently travel outside their remote community and return with fresh fruits and vegetables — items that were far more costly at the on-reserve grocery store.

In Thunder Bay, Nola ate fast-food cheeseburgers and ice cream for the first time. She found them “greasy and fake.” But she says the meals at O’Connor’s food lab remind her of dishes her mother used to make back home. The skills Nola has been honing have given her the confidence to make her own food and avoid easy frozen options. “You can buy it from the store,” she says, “but you can’t make it your own way.”

Nola ​​​​​​​hopes future students will take advantage of the program she and her classmates are helping to create. Her advice to them: “It’s going to be different, and it’s going to be weird to have a change in your diet — but it’s still good for you. It’s healthy for you.”

In recent years, student deaths at DFC — five since 2000 — have made headlines. So has alleged institutional racism against Indigenous people in Thunder Bay. O’Connor hopes programs such as hers will help her school and her city heal.

“If something has the ability to heal a community, it’s food,” O’Connor says. “It’s starting. Having them here and doing these programs is how we’re going to do that.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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