​“It just fills my heart. It’s a wonderful program.”

Those are the words of Tammy Wilson, program facilitator for the Food for Thought program, which celebrated 20 years of programming on September 29.

From the large crowd of people who filled the West Winds Primary Health Centre room that morning to celebrate the anniversary, it is obvious that many people are passionate about Food for Thought. Former participants, peer leaders, current participants and community partners were all on hand to mark this important milestone.

Food for Thought anniversary cake

Food for Thought celebrated its 20th anniversary with a ceremony at West Winds Primary Health Centre on September 29.

Food for Thought is a support program designed for pre- and post-natal women and their children living with issues of poverty, social isolation, poor housing, illiteracy, family violence, substance use or mental health issues, lack of medical care or women who are new immigrants. Every program year, 125 women participate in Food for Thought, which is funded through the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program and Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and is sponsored by Saskatoon Health Region.

“Past and ongoing evaluations have consistently recognized Food for Thought in its ability to improve health and birth outcomes for pregnant women and their infants,” said Jacki Veregin, Manager of Westwinds Primary Health.

“This incredible program that focuses on cooking low-cost nutritious food to take home to be shared with their families, where women come together and have an opportunity to share ideas, make friends, and talk about issues they may be dealing with, then talk more formally about pregnancy, nutrition, mental health, relationships, family planning, you name it, all with a strong influential peer leader component has fostered ownership, improved health of women and children, grown leaders and community commitment,” Veregin continued.

1.Participants in the Food for Thought program prepare food at one of their regular sessions.

Participants in the Food for Thought program prepare food at one of their regular sessions.

The key to the success of this program is the overarching value of respect, Veregin noted, and the way each facilitator creates a friendly, non-threatening environment in which participants meet other individuals with similar issues and freely discuss concerns.

“Each and every woman who comes to Food For Thought has incredible gifts, and the team approaches them individually in a strength-based way to help them see that they are the experts on how to bring about change in their life, and to discover the power they possess within themselves,” she said.

Interested past participants have been provided with ongoing training and support to develop leadership skills to become Peer Leaders. These women assist in program development and delivery, and act as positive role models, encouraging healthy choices among their peers and fostering community involvement. Several of the Peer Leaders have gone on to further their education and acquire other employment as a result of skills gained through their involvement with Food for Thought.

Veregin shared the stories of two Peer Leaders, Courtney and Rabia, at the event.

“A huge part of what made Food for Thought feel like a safe place was the Peer Leaders,” said Courtney in a written statement that Veregin read. “I still remember looking at them in awe and admiration. They had all been through similar hardships and difficulties . . . and they were volunteering and helping out and providing a bridge for me to talk to and relate to, and I figured if they were trusting of the staff members, I might be able to trust the staff, too.”

“I really liked that everybody’s equal and respected in this program. Everyone’s ideas and suggestions are welcome. The support through pregnancy was very helpful for me because I recently moved to Saskatoon and in those days, I had no friends and family members here. Food for Thought was and is like a second family for me,” Rabia wrote.

Information booth set up at anniversary celebration.

Information about Food for Thought was available for those present at the 20th anniversary celebrations last week.

The program provides on-site childcare, giving participants’ children opportunities to play with others and to be involved with a range of early learning activities. Food for Thought will also provide transportation for participants, which supports the attendance of all women who are interested.

The origins of Food for Thought can be traced back to July of 1994, when the federal government announced the creation of the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program. The vision for this initiative was to provide communities with funding for projects that focused on giving vulnerable children the best possible start in life. Food for Thought was first piloted in three high schools, and because of its success and community need, in 1995, the program found permanent community venues and funding.

Programs are offered at West Winds Primary Health Centre throughout the months of September to June. There are many other community partners that provide in-kind support and services such as Saskatoon Open Door Society, Saskatoon Health Region Community Mental Health and Addictions, as well as a variety of services offered at the West Winds Primary Health Centre.

“If anyone of you asks the question, ‘What is primary health care?’…. This is it,” said Sheila Achilles, director of Primary Health Care and Chronic Disease Management. “Just look around you and you will see that working with the community, working with our families, consulting with the community and improving access to care for everybody – in this case, mothers and families and babies – is primary health care.”

The Food for Thought program has had many proud moments over the years, and has been recognized both locally and nationally for its success.