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Cook, taste, connect: the power of food in supporting student well-being

Thanks to donor support, a unique initiative on campus is helping students build community by cooking and eating together.

The novel experience that university is for many, while exciting can also bring challenges. Finding a group of people who welcome and understand you can make a world of difference, especially for those far from home.

Lucie Shaw, an exchange student visiting from France, found community and connection while attending the University of Victoria’s Belonging Dinners. “Belonging Dinners have given me a special place and a community to share anecdotes about our cultures and experiences with food, bringing back a lot of nice childhood memories with family," she says. For three hours every two weeks during term time, students’ bodies, minds and hearts are nourished with wholesome cultural foods that they learn to cook from volunteer chefs and then enjoy together.

In Lucie's words, these dinners are about more than just food; they provide a sanctuary where participants are enveloped in a "special little bubble." She notes that the organizers have created a safe space that radiates kindness and care, offering a break from the challenges of student life. While each meal is different, the welcoming atmosphere and invitation for students to bring their whole selves is constant. Participants are encouraged to take part in the meal preparation. These tasks help to break the ice and foster laughter and conversation among the group. By the time they sit down to eat and share stories around the table, it’s impossible to tell who is a regular attendee or there for the first time. For some, the importance of these dinners is connection. As one participant disclosed, “this is the only meal I can guarantee I won’t be eating alone.”

A grid of four images. Clockwise starting upper left, bannock, kimchi, cabbage rolls, and sadza.
Some of the food that was prepared and enjoyed last semester. Clockwise starting upper left, bannock, kimchi, cabbage rolls, and sadza.

The inclusive atmosphere is also built through the menu selection and cooking process. Volunteer chefs teach students how to cook culturally significant dishes while sharing stories about that food and its history. Last semester, students learned to cook kimchi, miso soup, bibimbap, cabbage rolls, sadza, dal and kadhai paneer, ending the term with a multicultural potluck.

One of the most popular sessions was a bannock-making class led by Indigenous Elder Edith Louie from Alert Bay. Edith taught without measurements, just as her grandmother showed her. She encouraged participants to be mindful and get a feel for the dough at its various stages while infusing it with love. “When we think about the people who are going to be eating our food and how much we care for them as we are preparing it, we season the food with our love and those receiving it are able to feel that” says Edith.

Donor-funded programs to support student wellness

Belonging Dinners launched in Fall 2023 as part of the Student Wellness and Multifaith programming at the university. Hosted by Min-Goo Kang, and UVic students Skye G.B. and Emily M.S., these dinners are facilitated by Campus United, a ministry network in the United Church of Canada, and are supported by donors. The Student Wellness Centre exists to help address students’ physical, mental and spiritual health needs. The centre offers a wide range of services including counselling and medical care, as well as a variety of complementary programs through the Multifaith Centre that promote student well-being. During the school year, students can attend free events like the Pet Café, laughter meditation, and yoga for meditation, among many others. Last year, approximately 14,000 students attended these programs. 

Offering these programs on campus, consistently throughout the year, at zero cost for students, keeps them as accessible as possible. The Student Wellness Centre fund was created to help meet the uptick in demand for student wellness programs, and $16,012 was raised for this priority fund on Giving Tuesday 2023. Thanks to donor support, Lucie and many other UVic students can continue to cherish this campus community-building activity.

“Having places on campus with people who care about your wellbeing is so special.” – Lucie Shaw, UVic exchange student

Learn more about the Student Wellness Centre
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