It’s Not Just About the Food!

Like many new immigrants, Aya* found the process of adjusting to her new life in Vancouver difficult and lonely.

That is, until she found her way to the Cooking Club program at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House (MPNH). Through participation in these peer-run cooking workshops, Aya found a new way to engage with her community, make new friends, and lift herself out of her isolation.

Aya is not the only person in Vancouver who has struggled with loneliness. According to the Vancouver Foundation, one third of people in our city find it difficult to make friends. Of people living in our country for 5 years or less, 42% count 3 people or fewer in their network of close friends. That’s why MPNH programs like the Multicultural Cooking Club are such an important part of fostering social networks, relieving isolation, and supporting the mental wellbeing of those who call this city home.

According to MPNH’s recently released survey and report It’s Not Just About the Food: Exploring the Impact of Cooking Programs, this social and mental health support is a common benefit shared by many participants in the cooking club and other nutrition programs like Food Skills for Families.

Beyond offering Mount Pleasant residents the opportunity to try new culinary tastes and techniques on a regular basis, these peer-led programs give members of this community a way to connect and build relationships based on something we all have in common—an appetite. The Neighbourhood House provides a “home away from home” for speakers of more than 40 first languages. The research findings of the MPNH leadership team show just how important food is when it comes to creating a place where people feel connected, accepted, and welcomed.

The basis of MPNH’s food programs is the teaching and preparation of healthy and nutritious meals. But because they involve participation in a shared common activity, these programs also feed new social networks. As one mother in the Food Skills for Families program puts it, “we built friendships and we are all very close, thanks to the cooking class. We call each other, [and say] ‘Hey, let’s go out for dinner.’”

For Aya, MPNH was “el punto de partide (a point of departure) to try new things, to be more comfortable with people. It took me out of my depression, the loneliness I felt,” she explains. “Now I feel useful, I feel happy and I feel more connected.”

This sense of connection is especially helpful for newcomers struggling to meet new people while mastering a second language. Of people surveyed in this report, nearlly 78% state that the food programs have helped them improve their English language skills, crediting the “practical, hands-on training” they receive from instructors and peer-leaders in the program.

In fact, peer leadership plays a major role in the success of MPNH’s food programs. With numerous opportunities to take active roles in the workshops, many people who begin as participants soon develop the confidence to take on facilitator positions. One woman told interviewers that “the program helps me by seeing other immigrants tak[e] charge and shar[e] despite their language skills are not as good as mine. I am now more engaged and I have two or three volunteer opportunities.”

Among those surveyed, 88% reported that they had mentored or otherwise supported someone in learning new skills, with 68% actually facilitating and leading a class. Others mentioned finding new career opportunities as a direct result of their involvement in the food program—both in terms of building food industry connections, and by gaining paid employment.

New opportunities to meet people and make friends paired with increased confidence with language and cooking skills create the perfect recipe for better, long lasting mental health. As another immigrant woman explains, this community, like a meal, is easy to share: “Talking to [other participants] during meal prep and eating food helped me to be more confident,” she says. “I am not in as bad a spot—I can help others.”

A long-term food program participant sums up how the food programs give him the freedom to be himself: “You feel like you are home, you can ask questions, you don’t feel judged.”

MPNH’s food programs are just one way to get involved in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of yourself and your neighbours. Please visit our food programs page to find other ways that you can make your mark in your community.

*A pseudonym. All participants surveyed remained anonymous.

Story by Liz Goode