Back in high school, Tammara Soma was horrified at being singled out when it was revealed following weight measuring that she had the highest body weight index in the class.
“That was a harrowing experience,” Soma recalled. “Everybody was looking at me funny and it was just really hurtful.”
Soma says she had eating disorder issues going back to elementary school and was eventually clinically diagnosed with anorexia/bulimia. She faced ongoing bullying and teasing as a youngster.
It took years for her to develop, “a new relationship with food,” that was more positive and to understand food can be a source of joy beyond calorie-counting. “We are more than just the shell of our body,” the 39-year-old mother of three said.
Soma's experience helped with her current position as a food systems expert at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., where she is research director and co-founder of the Food Systems Lab and an assistant professor at the School of Resource and Environmental Management.
She is also co-writer and co-director--along with Edmonton-based independent filmmaker Brandy Yanchyk--of a new documentary called Food is my Teacher, premiering on CBC TV at the end of August.
The duo travelled across Alberta and B.C. to explore the spiritual, healing nature and cultural identity of food within various communities. The documentary includes segments with First Nations, Muslim, Asian, Sikh and Filipino community members, as they shop and prepare foods linked to their cultures.
“It took me a lot of time to reconnect with food, to realize food is not the enemy,” said Soma, who since emigrating from Indonesia with her family, lived in Toronto, North Carolina and Winnipeg before moving to B.C.
“Food has potential for healing, for bringing people together. But many of us have lost that connection. This documentary is a way to see how different cultures, different community members, are using the power of food to bring people together.”
On a broader scale, Soma’s research is focused on developing more equitable and sustainable food systems. She believes a world food crisis has unmet potential for feeding the poor.
“Wasting food should be unthinkable,” she said. “No Canadian should go to bed hungry.”
“It’s a documentary that has a lot of hope and shows we have more in common than we think we do,” film producer Yanchyk added. “This is an example of how things can be positive if you focus on something like food that brings people together. We are not a melting pot like in the United States; we celebrate our different cultures here."
The film explores other issues too. At a stop filmed in Alberta’s Bow Valley, Soma meets with Lauren Kepkiewicz, board director with the Bow Valley Food Alliance.
They discuss efforts involving the Filipino Organization in the Rocky Mountains (FORM) to provide culturally appropriate food relief hampers for Filipinos living in Banff and Canmore, many who were front-line workers in the service industry who lost jobs during the pandemic.
Another segment visits Harmony Garden at the Capilano Reserve in B.C., which helps the Indigenous community heal from the trauma of residential schools.
“Residential schools forced children to garden, but never fed them the food,” said garden co-ordinator T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss.
In a film segment from Calgary, Soma meets with Hanan Khmer Sobhi, an imam and missionary, at the Baitun Nur Mosque. They discuss Islamic spiritual connection with food and Qur’an teachings about food and healing.
And in Vancouver, the documentary sees Soma shopping with members of the Hua Foundation to buy traditional ingredients at a Chinese dry goods store. While cooking a Chinese soup, they divulge how youth are reconnecting with their Asian identities through food.
Food is My Teacher is streaming now on CBC Gem.
Here is a link to a 30-second promo for the documentary.