Soup made with Pulses being scooped out of a pot at a soup kitchen

By Marisa Romano

I discovered pulses a long time ago. The dinner table of my Tuscan childhood, in fact, offered dishes with simple ingredients like bread, tomatoes and beans, like greens patiently unearthed from unfarmed fields and figs and blackberries picked from wild trees and bushes. The dinners prepared by my extended family were frugal but also satisfying, filled with flavours that I cherish and seek when I search for homey comfort. They stem from the history of the land and sustained generations during hard times. They countered food insecurity at a time when the term was yet to be invented.

What seems to alleviate food insecurity these days are the inexpensive and ubiquitous macaroni and cheese dinners or the cheap burgers available at the fast food place around the corner. Being aware that Canada is the world’s leading producer and exporter of pulses begs the question “how can we see more packages of nutritious lentils and beans in shopping carts?”

This was the question that I started asking a few years ago when, with the end of my working career in sight, I decided to make pulses my retirement project. The nomination of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYP) was the sign that I was on the right path and could actually accomplish something, aided by riding the “pulse wave”.

In 2016, lentils, peas, beans and chickpeas have been in the minds of many people here in Ottawa thanks to Pulse Canada’s effort to boost promotion and educate Canadians on how to improve their health with pulses. On the occasion of the IYP, Ottawa Public Health, an arms-length organization of the City of Ottawa gathered representatives of food banks and soup kitchens to encourage the distribution and use of pulses as part of its “Healthy Eating, Active Living Strategy”. The positive reaction of food bank representatives at the meeting was followed by the realization that the effectiveness of the message depends also on know-how in the kitchen, especially in the case of people not familiar with pulses. Some community kitchens here in Ottawa are working to address this gap in know-how.

At about the same time when the IYP was launched in Rome, I started volunteering in the kitchen of Centre 507, a drop-in centre and soup kitchen located close to my home. My primary interest, I disclosed to the Director of the Centre, was to increase the usage of pulses in the preparation of soups and sandwiches offered to the 80 to 160 people who visit the Centre daily. The idea has received full support by the Centre’s staff, and lentils and bean soups are now regular items on the menu.

In February, I started a regular column in the food section of our neighbourhood newspaper, The Glebe Report, a publication with a respectable monthly distribution of 7,000 copies. The topic: pulse recipes and stories linked to activities in the neighbourhood. It is through the feedback received by many readers who stopped me on the street that I discovered that people have actually embraced this special year; they have tried the suggested recipes, have passed on to me their favorite ones and have asked if I am willing to show them how to use pulses in the kitchen.

SHAD Valley International chose Food Security as the 2016 theme for its summer program. Participating high school students gathered at 13 universities across the country and worked for one month on potential solutions to improve food security for Canadians. When I received an invitation to speak a few words on the topic to the group based at Carleton University, I presented my volunteering work in the context of the IYP. One month later I was not too surprised to see that one of the teams had been working on a project that uses pulses to help improve nutrition of busy Canadian families.

The message that I am left with at the end of my year with pulses is that if a cause has merit, then just let people know “what” and show them “how” and they will embrace it with interest and conviction.

I know that the IYP is only the beginning of a movement that is expected to change the way many of us relate to peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas and for different reasons. I am planning to continue supporting a worthy movement and I am looking forward to see what the future has in store, possibly a bag of pulses in every grocery cart.