Aug. 14, 2023

A food justice strategy: Cultivate relationships, feed families

Werklund grad student Anita Chowdhury brings extensive experience from the non-profit sector as she fights food insecurity
Werklund School of Education graduate student Anita Chowdhury developed an interest in food justice as a high school student.
Werklund School of Education graduate student Anita Chowdhury developed an interest in food justice as a high school student. Courtesy Anita Chowdhury

The seeds of Anita Chowdhury’s passion for food justice and community activism were planted at an early age growing up in British Columbia

The award-winning University of Calgary graduate student says that the rich community gardening culture there made a big impression on her. Later, while in Grade 12 here in Alberta – her family having relocated when she was 14 – Chowdhury, BEd'22, was awarded a Rotary International sponsorship to attend a world affairs seminar in Wisconsin where the theme was world hunger.

“Basically, since high school I started kind of cultivating an interest in food justice and, through Soil Camp, I was able to kind of propel that, because, when you study soil, you really do focus on food justice and sustainability,” says Chowdhury, referring to the transdisciplinary land-based learning opportunity for refugee children led by Werklund School of Education (WSE) associate professor Dr. Miwa Takeuchi, PhD.

Studying the power of arts in food justice and sustainability

Chowdhury, who previously completed a degree in art history at Carleton University, was pursuing her Bachelor of Education at UCalgary when she became involved in Soil Camp. The experience inspired her to continue her studies at WSE at the graduate level. She is examining the power of arts in food justice and sustainability through her master of arts work in learning sciences, with Takeuchi as her graduate supervisor.

You would be right in thinking she had more than a full plate with her studies and Soil Camp, especially given that she is also the mother of two young children (with a third due this September). But Chowdhury thrives on maximum community engagement.

Drawing on her experience co-ordinating programs for the Canadian Red Cross and volunteering for the likes of Big Brothers Big Sisters, she became involved with the anti-poverty not-for-profit Mamas for Mamas. Through her role there, Chowdhury secured funding from the Calgary Flames Foundation to establish a Sustainable Nourishment Program that was recently amplified by a $35,000 donation from furniture retailer Ashley Canada.

Seeking local partnerships to meet growing need 

“We're trying to partner with local produce people, farmers and agricultural co-ops in order to start the program and get it running this summer," Chowdhury says. "We have a budget to purchase a fridge and a freezer, but we need to partner with local people in the city so we can purchase things at cost.” Chowdhury adds that, once they see what response is like to the pilot program, they will have a better sense of the annual funding needed to sustain the program.

Unfortunately, demand will likely be high, given that existing programs such as the Calgary Food Bank have been operating beyond capacity for some time now.

“I work directly with families that come through our doors, and currently we provide non-perishable food items and pantry goods. But, oftentimes, those families are still really struggling to access things like fresh produce or protein and other sources of food.”

“We can make direct referrals to surpass lines for the Food Bank through our (in-house) social worker, but, even then, the Food Bank has a two-week wait. Even if you are in desperate need of food, you won't get it immediately, which I think is the most troubling thing for most families right now.”

Be part of the solution

With the extraordinary rise in grocery prices, compounded by economic uncertainty for many Calgary families, there is no immediate end in sight to this crisis. But it is a fair bet that you will find Chowdhury aiming to be part of the solution in whatever way she can.

“As a graduate student, I’ve carried out research alongside refugee youth and families and community partners, and I want to continue those partnerships; my work in the non-profit world has a very similar means of relationship-cultivation," she says. "So, at the end of the day, I love to build relationships with the families that come to the doors (of Mamas for Mamas), with the youth that I work with, with the people at Werklund, and other people in the community.

“That's kind of where my passion and my heart lie. I see myself continuing to work at the community level, whether it's through education or through gardening or through the visual arts. I feel there's a lot of transdisciplinary work that is involved in what I do, and, because I get to work in a few different fields that are interconnected, I feel that I’ll continue to just grow and thrive.”

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