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Panelists at the Nov. 19 Jewish Heritage program titled “What’s for Dinner?” (l-r): Rabbi Yossi Benarroch, Head, Vaad Hakashrut; Valerie Burachynsky, Food Services Manager, Simkin Centre; Maxine Shuster, Manager, Schmoozers; Barb Reiss, Desserts Plus.

It was billed as a program devoted to a discussion of Jewish food, to be held in the Multipurpose Room of the Asper Campus the evening of November 19. But - the program turned into something far more than simply a discussion of favourite Jewish foods.
Titled “What’s for Dinner?” the evening was intended to introduce the latest project of the  Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.




As the program unfolded, there was a not-very-serious discussion of favourite Jewish foods, especially desserts, but  there was also a much serious  component to the evening – and it centered around the difficulty that adhering  to kashrut presents at a time when the cost of kosher meat has been skyrocketing.  
Of particular interest were remarks made by Valerie Burachynsky, food services manager at the Simkin Centre, who was refreshingly candid about the difficult situation she faces in her job. As a matter of fact, because Valerie was quite impassioned about the financial straits she and her co-workers at the Simkin Centre face in having to deal with an extremely tight food budget imposed upon by them by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, when I had a chance to ask a question of her, I wanted to make sure that I was quoting her correctly, so I read this quote out to Valerie: “When you add the complexity of providing kosher we cannot provide the kind of food that residents might like.” I asked her whether I was quoting her correctly because it was a rather frank admission she had made; she agreed that it was an accurate quote.

The context in which Valerie made that observation was her referencing the extremely limited daily food allowance that she has to work with when it comes to preparing meals for residents at the Simkin Centre. Can you believe that the entire amount provided to the Simkin Centre by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority for each resident there comes  to only $8.70 a day? That’s not $8.70 per meal. That’s $8.70 for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and any other special dietary needs that might come into play for any particular resident. (Apparently though, even the figure of $8.70/day is too high. As I later found out when I corresponded with a spokesperson for the WRHA, the actual figure is $8.40/resident/day.)

The frustration that Valerie communicated on November 19 was palpable. As she spoke of what are now her 42 years of having worked at both the former Sharon Home on Magnus and more recently the Simkin Centre, Valerie made some very interesting observations. Here is some of what she said:
“All cultures have a deep connection to food and therein lies the problem for all health care facilities…The resident (at the Simkin Centre) today is very different than the resident (at the Sharon Home) years ago. When I first started (at the Sharon Home) some of the residents had their own cars there.
“The demands we face today at the Simkin Centre are far more complex” than they used to be at the Sharon Home. “The cost of labour is enormous; we have to be more creative in how we prepare food.”
“The budget is inadequate…We haven’t received an increase in our food budget from the W.R.H.A. in five years.” Later, Simkin Centre CEO Irwin Corobow, who was in the audience, said that it’s been “nine years” since there has been an increase in the food budget from the W.R.H.A. Irwin also suggested that “In the future there’s going to be a breaking point and the community will have to decide whether it’s going to step up.” 

I just couldn’t believe that there hasn’t been an increase in allocations to personal care homes for nine years, so I asked a spokesperson for the WRHA whether that was true. Here is the response I received: “The last supply cost increase provided was back in 2011/12. This is also the last year that MHSAL (Manitoba Health) provided the WRHA with an increase for this type of allocation.  This supply cost increase was meant to target any and all areas of cost pressure (2% increase in supplies), including food.”

Valerie Burachynsy also noted that “the food we produce will never match what we do at home. We don’t provide deli meats for sandwiches. There are no smoked turkey sandwiches on our menu…corned beef sandwiches once a month.
“We would rather serve a vegetarian chili than serve a poor quality food,” Valerie suggested, but in response to a question from an audience member who said that he had a parent at another personal care home who did receive deli sandwiches on occasion for lunch, Valerie said that just can’t be the case at the Simkin Centre because of the high cost of kosher meat (including turkey and chicken).

In response, another questioner suggested that serving deli sandwiches to Simkin residents was likely not much of an issue as a good many of the residents would be eating “puréed” food.
To that, Valerie responded with some anger: “The majority of people in the Simkin Centre are not on a ‘textual’ menu. They could eat deli sandwiches if they were given them.”

Then, when I was shocked to learn that the Simkin Centre is limited to spending only $8.70/day per resident on food, it hit home even more how the cost of keeping kosher is severely affecting what that facility is able to provide to its residents.
I asked the spokesperson for the WRHA whether it is true that the WRHA provides only $8.70/day per resident for food at the Simkin Centre. Here. again,  is what I was told: “Based on reporting submitted by the personal care home sites as at March 31, 2018, I can confirm that Simkin Centre reported food costs of $8.40 (actual expenditures) compared to the average of  $6.99 across all other sites.  This does not include the cost of the staff to prepare and serve the meals, but represents the actual grocery costs only.” (That $8.40 is even less than what was reported at the November 19 meeting.)

I have argued in the past that the notion that kashrut is of prime importance here is simply not the case. Of course, organizations such as the Jewish Federation will continue to pay lip service to the idea that kashrut is a central tenet of Jewish identity here, as Federation President Laurel Malkin did when she responded to my suggestion that the Simkin Centre be allowed to operate both a non-kosher kitchen as well as a kosher kitchen. But, when it comes to coming up with the funds to support kashrut in Winnipeg, well, the Jewish Federation just doesn’t do that.
Within the past two months we have seen the following: BerMax Caffé and Desserts Plus have both gone non-kosher in their restaurants; and Carver’s Knife, the Transcona butcher shop that was bringing in fresh kosher meat, has decided to stop doing that. The Jewish Federation did not step in to help any of those establishments remain kosher, which was the right decision, but one might well ask how the Federation can insist that kashrut is an intrinsic part of what it means to be Jewish in Winnipeg if it is not prepared to back that up with financial support?


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