Hot Yam! Creating Community around Sustainable, Local and Vegan Meals
by Emily Kellogg
On Thursday July 7, the lineup went out the door as students waited eagerly for a meal of lentil soup, ginger baby-beet salad, rosemary-roasted potatoes and strawberry crumble. Even on one of the hottest days of the year students packed into the front dining room of the Cumberland House and sprawled across the front lawn with their dishes, completely occupying the shaded portion of the yard. For many undergraduate students, trying to eat healthy and maintain an active lifestyle is a challenge. But for Hot Yam!
, a completely volunteer-run vegan food collective, it’s a way of life.
“It can be really hard to find a fresh vegetarian option on campus,” says Simon McKay, a second year student studying Life Sciences. “I usually come [to Hot Yam!] every week even if there’s a long line. I think it’s worth it.”
With the help of some 200 student volunteers, Hot Yam! serves up a vegan, organic and local meal every Thursday from 12:00-2:00 p.m. at the Cumberland House
, charging only $4 for a main entrée, two side dishes, a dessert and tea.
“Each week we usually feed around 200 paying customers,” explains Jon Pipitone, a long-time volunteer who is currently pursuing his PhD in Computer Science. “Part of our mandate is to be local and organic… We have strong relationships with local farmers, and it can be really exciting to learn where your food actually comes from — to actually see it growing, or to grow it yourself.”
Hot Yam! has forged close ties with local farms as well as campus growers since its conception in early 2006.
“Hot Yam! began in the 2005-2006 academic year. The organizers spent the first semester planning and launched [it] in January,” says Pipitone. The collective had received a grant from University of Toronto Environmental Research Network
, which they used to pay for supplies for their first meal. They used the money they made on their first meal for their second meal, and continued on in that vein for five years, before earning levy status from University of Toronto’s Student Union
. They still buy exclusively organic ingredients from local farmers.
“We have a good relationship with Kawartha Ecological Growers,” Pipitone explains. “They’re a network of small, sustainable farms that drops off their goods in front of the GSU
. They’re great at telling us which product is really good or really cheap that week and we often plan our meals around that advice!”
Hot Yam! also buys from Food Cycles, a farm and food-share project in Downsview Park
; University of Toronto’s very own Hart House Farm
; and from U of T’s Sky Garden
Pipitone explains that it can be hard to stay true to Hot Yam!’s mandate of using solely local and organic foods when things like lettuce and tomatoes go out of season. Still, he says, it’s exciting to see the creativity of Hot Yam!’s “extreme foodies” during the winter months.
“Every week two or three volunteers come up with a menu,” he explains. “It’s kind of this wonderful chaos. They plan the menu and how it’s going to be executed in the kitchen. Our volunteers go shopping on Wednesday afternoon, prep on Thursday morning, and then we serve that afternoon. In the winter, we have to get really inventive with our ingredients. What I’ve really learned from Hot Yam! is how to make meals no matter what — and how to get creative using what’s at hand!”
Pipitone got involved with the Hot Yam! by simply showing up for lunch four years ago and still remembers the first meal that he ever orchestrated. “I just sort of jumped in,” he laughs. “I really had no idea what I was doing. I made a Moroccan vegetable stew with a pilaf and coleslaw. It was a pretty wholesome meal.”
He stresses that one of his favourite parts of Hot Yam! is talking to other members about the green initiatives that they’re involved with.
“There’s a lot of crossover. We have an especially good relationship with Dig In! Campus Agriculture
,” he explains. “They’re really active in growing projects on the University of Toronto campus. As a group that likes to cook using local and sustainable products, we like working together. We recently helped fund a new greenhouse attached to the back of the anthropology building to help create a space to grow food and seedlings.”
Hot Yam! is committed to remaining accessible to all students. They currently rotate responsibility of the organization and planning of their weekly meals and their various other educational events and workshops. They believe that the best way to educate other students about healthy and sustainable food options is by creating community through weekly meals.
“Students can either get involved by showing up and talking to us, or emailing email@example.com,” says Pipitone. “But the thing I should emphasize is that if someone wants to do something with us, or has an idea, we’ll love it. We want you to get involved! You don’t have to worry about having a ‘position’ or ‘seniority.’ If you’re interested in helping, please help! We can always use the help.”
Visit the Hot Yam!'s website.
Emily Kellogg is the 2011 Communications Intern with the Office of Student Life, St. George Campus.
Photograph of cookies by Jonathan Lung heresjono.com