This Hillsburg, Ont.-based chef is making changes with the new global food market: Andrew Coppolino

For Pam Fenjoy, the distance between social work and a professional restaurant kitchen is relatively small, but still a great opportunity to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Fanjoy recently launched Fanjoy Cooking Up Change, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing support and opportunities for a range of stakeholders, including women and non-binary food entrepreneurs, particularly in rural areas.

Part of the project includes the new Foods of the World market, which is open every Saturday in Hillsburg, Ont., from now until Oct. 1.

“This is our first non-profit initiative for those interested in starting or growing their own food business using local food,” Fanjoy said.

Fanjoy Cooking Up Change is a multi-faceted organization committed to addressing what it calls the nexus of food security, employment, mental health and homelessness. It is funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency of Southern Ontario.

It also focuses on youth and young adults aged 14 to 22 and is designed to fill the gaps in social services that have become apparent in the wake of COVID-19.

Fanjoy said she uses both of her careers to “create space” for people in the food industry: As a social worker before she started cooking, her interest in working with the LGBTQ community has always been there.

“The gender challenges and experiences faced by women, non-binary people and transgender people were glaringly obvious to me. As a gay business owner and chef, being in the community has really helped me create a safe space and safer conversations with people who are in the industry but don’t know how to approach these issues.”

Uniting communities

Every week at the market, people can try different foods and learn about different cultures, like this Mediterranean salad. (Submitted by Pam Fenjoy)

Youth are also the focus of the non-profit organization, which develops from her experience in social work helping children with autism; Fanjoy said rural communities struggle with support systems, a fact laid bare by the pandemic.

As the chef-owner of her restaurant in Hillsburg for five years, Fanjoy witnessed the challenges facing rural businesses, including transportation difficulties and poor Internet access, but she also saw people living alone without social contact.

“People who live in rural areas, farmers and young people experience more mental health problems that we can directly attribute to this social isolation,” Fanjoy said.

Nonprofit projects, like the marketplace, seek to help people communicate. A variety of programs offered will utilize food and nutrition education, interactive cooking classes, junior chef programs, supper clubs and job training programs that focus on developing life skills for youth, especially youth with autism.

“When any community or individual is marginalized, their chances of having additional mental health problems on top of their disability are greatly increased,” Fanjoy said.

Hands-on cooking programs, she added, are therapeutic while also addressing some of the systemic issues people face. Many programs for mental health services and day programs for youth with autism have been significantly cut during the pandemic.

A man and a woman in bright orange t-shirts cook different meats on a large grill.
Pam Fenjoy (right) at the grill during a community barbecue. Fanjoy also runs junior chef programs that combine cooking classes with therapeutic goals and life skills training for youth and young adults with mental health issues, autism and other social challenges. (Submitted by Pam Fenjoy)

With local food as a touchstone, the general public can sample different foods and experience different cultures each week at the market, Fanjoy said, with a recent example being a visit from a chef with a Métis background.

“The market project is about exposing people to food customs and rituals from around the world to build community,” Fanjoy said.

Foods of the World Market is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 100 Trafalgar Road, Hillsburgh, Ont. It is the former location of Fan/Joy Restaurant. Applications are still being accepted.

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