A Personal Note from Dana Lahey
This spring marks eleven years for me working with youth in Canada’s good food movement and my fourth anniversary at Meal Exchange, and I’m feeling the time is right for me to shift my energy to new pursuits. I’ve just had my 30th birthday, and I will be taking some time to travel before I go back to school.
I wanted to take this opportunity, as I look back and prepare to step away, to share some perspectives on the organization’s journey, and my personal one. Since I’m going back to school to study psychotherapy, I thought it fitting that I organize these reflections by the emotions that I am feeling as I write. Memories and emotions that I invite you to share with me, members of the Meal Exchange family, colleagues and friends.
I went to university with the goal of studying how social change happens, and how we, as individuals, could influence it. My courses in anthropology and sociology provided useful context, but my involvement in student activism was equally important for my learning, if not more, than my time in the classroom.
The culture I found as I started organizing focused on Us, the students demanding change, and Them, the administrators, the foodservice companies, who represented the system that we were trying to change. However, as I continued to work towards getting more local, sustainable food onto campus cafeterias, I started to get to know Them and their perspective. I started to feel that we didn’t need to be on opposing teams, that we had a shared interest in solving problems that none of us had the answers or power to change alone, that we were all part of the system we wanted to change.
When I graduated, this experience led me to join Meal Exchange, and another national youth-focused nonprofit, the Sierra Youth Coalition, to help campuses across Canada achieve similar breakthroughs on their campuses. Our model was simple: support students to bring together the people -- administrators, professors, foodservice staff, and community organizations -- needed to figure out how to get better food onto campus. Our goal: help shift the focus from Us against Them, to shared challenges and opportunities.
Looking back over the seven years of experiments and projects that have followed, I feel proud of the students who have played leadership roles in changing and creating food contracts, policies, and curriculum across the country with our support. Proud of how they’ve influenced the way tens of millions worth of food is purchased every year, and how they’ve set the foundation to go much bigger.
I’m proud about how our organization has continued to evolve its analysis of the role of power and privilege in our work. From developing a focus on collective power through the Good Food Challenge campaign and Campus Food Report Card, to shining a light on the root causes of student food insecurity, to beginning to explore how our work on campus can support reconciliation and indigenous food sovereignty, I’m so glad to have been part of an organization that is taking a critical look at both the personal and the systemic transformations that are needed for a more just future.
As I look back, I’m also feeling a lot of gratitude for how much I’m taking from my time at Meal Exchange. From having the opportunity to fundraise for, develop, implement, evaluate, and iterate innovative programs; to learning to manage national teams and budgets; to negotiating complex contracts and partnerships, Meal Exchange has provided an incredible container for me to grow professionally and personally. Above all, it has provided me with community, both within our organization and across the movement, I have found the most caring, passionate, and friendly group of colleagues I could have asked for.
If I was to summarize my experience at McGill and Meal Exchange into a theme, it would be that systems are made up of people, and trying to change systems takes working with people. My curiosity now, is around how we work best with people, people who have been deeply shaped by the economic, cultural, and family systems that they are a part of? How are the disconnects and destruction caused by these systems created by, and creating, the disconnects and damage in ourselves? What is involved when these patterns transform in us, or when they stay stuck? How can our paths to individual and collective healing work together, rather than be in opposition? These questions have taken me back to school to study psychotherapy, starting at the Gestalt Institute of Toronto, and to explore my own mindfulness practice and spirituality.
As I finish this letter, I'm feeling a lot of hope for the year that Meal Exchange has ahead, and the impact that can be achieved by the strong new programs that Meal Exchange is launching. I’m also hopeful that this isn’t a goodbye forever for me, that my path will continue to intertwine with Meal Exchange and the food movement.
Finally, I’m feeling hopeful knowing that you all reading this are out there, that you will continue to feel and work alongside me and Meal Exchange, working to shift towards justice and sustainability, the systems that we together, create.