Activist chef Tess White in blue jean jacket and yellow blouse before stove

Photograph By Jenna Marie Wakani for Sprig Creative

How Tessa White turns donated food into nutritious meals

This Parkdale Activity-Recreational Centre chef’s mission? To feed a community in need

Tessa White knows the value of a home-cooked meal.

White is head chef at the Parkdale Activity-Recreational Centre (PARC), a United Way-supported community centre in Toronto’s west end that provides services for individuals dealing with mental health issues, financial struggles, food insecurity or a combination of the three. Her goal there is to offer food she’d be proud to serve to her family—made from scratch whenever possible.

“Too often, people [think] that because these folks don’t have a lot of money and don’t have a lot of people looking out for them, they’re not as deserving of good food,” she says. “I cannot agree.”

Serving up that good food can be a challenge, though. PARC operates like a large restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch to more than 350 people a day, six days a week. And White has to rely on whatever ingredients become available through donations, which means creating the menu can be a tricky, improvisational task. Sometimes there’s not quite enough protein, for example, or deliveries may contain too many similar items, which makes it harder to plan well-balanced, nutritious meals.

“It’s more valuable to donate money if you can,” she says. “We get items [from] Second Harvest and Daily Bread, but a lot of times, items donated by the public come in the forms of canned goods.” She makes sure that every donation gets used, but it can take some culinary creativity.

Another obstacle? Staffing. Although White does have a few part-time employees, she depends on the help of volunteers—and there aren’t always enough hands on deck.

But these are hurdles White is used to managing. She has worked in community kitchens for a decade: before PARC, she ran Second Harvest’s Harvest Kitchen at the East Scarborough Boys & Girls Club.

And despite the challenges, she finds real satisfaction in her role. More importantly, she is constantly trying to find ways to do more for the community. Right now, for instance, she’s working with the Parkdale Food Bank, which is in the basement of PARC, to provide cooking lessons, so that people can use the items they receive from the food bank to their fullest potential.

“It’s very fulfilling for me to do what I’m doing here. I know I’m giving with my heart and I feel appreciated for what I do,” she says. “When members come up and are thankful for what you have done for them, there’s no better feeling.”

Tess White's Ham and Cheese bread pudding on black plate

Photograph By Matt Gibson for Sprig Creative

Ham and Cheese Bread Pudding

A delicious way to use up bread that’s a little stale, this bread pudding makes a satisfying dinner. The recipe is flexible, too: switch up the ingredients with other veggies, cheddar instead of mozzarella or cooked chicken instead of ham if that’s what you have on hand.

5 cups cubed day-old bread
1/2 sweet yellow pepper, seeded and diced
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup diced ham
1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1-1/2 cups milk
2 eggs
Pinch salt
1/4 tsp pepper

1. Lightly grease an 11-by-7-inch ovenproof dish. Scatter half the bread into the dish. Top with half each of the yellow pepper, onion, ham and cheese. Top with remaining bread. Scatter remaining pepper, onion and ham overtop.

2. In bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, salt and pepper until combined. Pour mixture over bread, pressing with back of spoon to make sure bread absorbs liquid.

3. Top with remaining cheese. Bake in 350°F oven until puffed and golden, about 25 minutes. 

(Food and prop styling by Sprig Creative)

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