From insects to chopsticks — healthy eating programs in Southeast Rocky View County encourage youth to get curious about food

The Synergy Youth and Community Development Society received a ChooseWell Healthy Community Grant to bring nutritious snacks to their programs. The Chestermere-based charity opted for some snack options the rural youth hadn’t encountered before, with the goal of starting open conversations about food — and ultimately, building strong relationships. “It’s the importance of food and how it brings people together,” says Terry Gill, a senior program coordinator with Synergy.

By Anna Schmidt, 2023

Chopping, tasting, plating.

It’s not culinary pros in white aprons, but a group of kids in a small prairie city. They’re participants in an after-school program at Synergy Youth and Community Development Society in Chestermere, and it’s cooking challenge week.

“The joy, the smiles on their faces and the experience of them learning what works, what doesn’t — you just see a passion grow,” says Terry Gill, a senior program coordinator for Synergy and a Communities ChooseWell Champion. “It gives them the opportunity to forget about everything else and be present in that moment.”

Synergy recently received a $5,000 Healthy Community Grant from ChooseWell to help bring nutritious food options to their programs. Established in 2013, Synergy’s mission is to empower youth and community groups to build strong connections through relationships, education and leadership. Based in the fast-growing municipality of Chestermere just east of Calgary, Synergy’s free programs serve children and youth in the surrounding area, including the hamlet of Langdon and southeast Rockyview County.

Youth programs are especially important here, explains Terry, as nearly a third of the area’s residents are under the age of 20. Many also don’t have access to public transportation to reach activities outside of their community.

In the past, Synergy’s programs relied on donated snacks, which often meant chips, cookies and donuts. Staff wanted healthier options, especially as they noticed youth struggling to recover from the pandemic and dealing with anxiety around food and body image.

“Youth got comfortable staying at home throughout the pandemic. So they developed some unhealthy coping mechanisms — mental-health wise, eating-wise…And then there’s no shortage of bullying in school,” says Terry.

With support from the Healthy Community Grant, Synergy brought in more nutritious snacks, and started conversations about how food not only fuels the body, but supports mental health and improves academic performance.

They also used some of the funds to buy food and items many of the youth hadn’t encountered before, such as seaweed, flavoured insects and chopsticks for noodles. “For youth in rural areas, it’s things they’ve never been exposed to,” says Terry, explaining that the goal was to open conversations about approaching all food with respect and curiosity. This helps combat some of the negative attitudes towards food perpetuated by TV or social media, he adds.

“Our programs become a safe space for youth to ask questions that they can’t ask anywhere else. Online, there’s too much information and a lot of misinformation. But when you have that trusted person and a safe space, the minute they start talking about it, they’re processing their own feelings and they just feel better,” says Terry.

Ultimately, the food, and the resulting conversations around the table, develop strong social connections, he adds. And connected youth are resilient.

“Some of our youth graduate and then come back and tell us the impact later on,” says Terry. “It’s the importance of food and how it brings people together. It’s not just about it being nourishing — which it is — but how it can help build and solidify relationships.”