Joshna Maharaj is on a mission to redefine our relationship with food and the role it plays in our health and wellness. She describes her new book Take Back the Tray: Revolutionizing Food in Hospitals, Schools, and Other Institutions as a “rallying cry for anybody who’s been in the hospital; visited someone they love in the hospital; or dropped their kid off at university and took a look at what the dining hall had to offer.”
Most of us tend to accept that the food served at public institutions like hospitals and schools is and always will be subpar; but Maharaj believes that institutional kitchens can and should produce nourishing food and that doing so can improve outcomes for patients, students, and anyon else who accesses them.
“There’s a really compelling argument that says that when you focus on a truly just, sustainable, good food system, everything starts to fall into place”
Although she’s been a chef for over 15 years, Maharaj has spent little of her career in restaurant kitchens. “I’ve always been more interested in how people are eating when they’re not in restaurants and the role that a chef can play in supporting or connecting to that,” she says.
She cut her teeth working as a chef at the Stop Community Food Centre, which she says shaped her values around food and highlighted the difference good food can make in overall quality of life. This role led to subsequent projects that saw her overhauling the food programs at two Toronto hospitals, as well as Ryerson University.
“I think in public institutions, we spend so much time just putting out fires and putting band-aids on things and immediately solving problems, that we don’t ever get a chance to take a breath and actually think about the wonderful, nurturing ways that we can use food to support health and wellness,” says Maharaj.
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Amidst all of this intensity, my book arrived from the printer!! I’ve got 9 cases of these beauties to sign and send out to my beloved @kickstarter supporters. I think that sitting amongst the stacks, filling these inside covers with gratitude might be a great way to balance out the wildness of a pandemic. #blueprintforrevolution #takebackthetray #writingabook #authorlife #isolationgratitude #mybook #kickstarter
Take Back the Tray distills the lessons she learned from developing institutional food programs that are healthy, sustainable, and inclusive. While she hopes the book might inspire administrators to start rethinking the food their institutions are serving, she doesn’t intend for it to be a policy manual.
Instead, her goal is for the book to also motivate average Canadians to consider the power that healthy food has to transform our institutions and to support health, education, and rehabilitation in our communities.
“I’m really trying to push the idea that, to some degree, our public institutions are ours. They’re a reflection of who we are as a society,” says Maharaj. “There still has not been very much work into really looking at what it means to untangle institutional food systems.”
COVID-19 is underscoring the importance of her message. “If there’s one thing that this pandemic is teaching us, it’s that we need to be a little bit more connected to what the systems are that we built and how they’re taking care of us,” says Maharaj.
Maharaj believes that because food is a fundamental part of our existence, changing food systems can have far-reaching consequences beyond providing a more delicious meal. “There’s a really compelling argument that says that when you focus on a truly just, sustainable, good food system, everything starts to fall into place,” she says.
Take Back the Tray is currently available for pre-order and will be released on May 5.