By Lilian Schaer
Connor Flynn is a chef turned high school culinary teacher in London, Ontario. He’s worked in restaurants of all kinds during his varied career, which has also included running a catering business and working and training as a cheese maker.
Flynn has long been passionate about teaching kids important life skills around food preparation, but it was experiences that started during the pandemic that have led him to also become one of Canada’s few Master Food Preservers and a strong advocate for developing official food preservation standards in the country.
“During the pandemic, what we saw was all of a sudden, people were wanting to start learning how to do things for themselves,” Flynn explains. “I canned with my grandma as a kid and did it as a hobby through restaurants I worked at, so we started teaching kids here (at the school) how to can, dehydrate, ferment and pressure-can food.”
Through a partnership with the London Food Coalition, Flynn has access to surplus produce to use in his classroom at John Paul II Secondary School and at times, he receives more than what can be used right away, which provides a perfect teaching opportunity in food preservation and waste reduction.
Once his interest in canning intensified, he set about looking to further his training and education in the field – which turned out to be much harder than he anticipated. Other than a couple of continuing education courses at George Brown College and the University of Guelph, he found there wasn’t much on offer.
Around the same time, about three years ago, a municipal health inspector visited his kitchen classroom and started asking questions about the canning processes. When the inspector expressed concerns around food safety and Flynn asked for recommendations on appropriate training that would satisfy those concerns, he discovered that such a thing didn’t really exist in Ontario – and also that there are no common or official standards for food preservation.
For someone with training in cheesemaking, which is highly regulated in Ontario through both the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, this came as a shock, Flynn notes.
“You can’t make cheese in Ontario without major inspections and regulation but there are no guidelines for canning or food preservation. You can literally make canned items at home and sell them at a farmer’s market without regulation,” he says. “It’s the wild west of canning and food preservation.”
It was retired York University professor Martha Rogers, who is now a Master Food Preserver and runs the Valley Preservery at Kimberley, ON north of Toronto, who pointed him to Cornell University cooperative extension and the three-day intensive Master Food Preserver program. Cornell is one of various U.S. universities who offer the program in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration.
“The designation teaches the science behind food preservation and comes with a mandate of community education and advocacy,” he says. “If you want to be certified, you have to not only take the course but also teach food preservation for 30 hours, log it and present a portfolio for approval.”
As one of only a few Master Food Preservers in Canada, Flynn has particularly embraced the education and outreach aspect of the role. He’s become a strong advocate for establishing formal and consistent safety standards for food preservation, raising awareness about the need for more and better training, and teaching the science behind the process.
“For example, different varieties of tomatoes have different levels of acidity, so the canning and preservation process requires you to achieve a standard level of acidity to maintain safety. That’s where the science comes in, so that we’re doing this safely,” he says. “I strongly believe this should be a mandatory course in a college level culinary program. We’ve seen a lot of chefs leaving the industry during the pandemic, so what better way for chefs to reassert their skillset than taking the lead on food preservation and becoming the experts?”
Thanks to Flynn’s efforts, London’s Fanshawe College is planning to run a pilot food preservation course this spring/summer in its adult education offering and is interested in including it in their culinary program. This past summer, he met with health inspectors at the local public health unit to offer training on food preservation safety, and he also gave a presentation on the topic at the Canadian Culinary Federation conference.
Interest in the canning and food preservation is definitely on the rise, judging by how often he is asked to teach on the subject. It’s not surprising, he notes, given the dramatic increases in food costs in recent years that have strained family budgets, combined with a desire for people to eat healthier and know what’s in their food. The biggest limitation, however, is the lack of available community kitchen space.
“The need for it is there as families are stretched and people want to make things themselves and feel pride in what they’re doing. Pride is especially important for kids,” he says. “If I had a community kitchen, I could do this full-time. My big dream is a food education centre with gardens, a teaching kitchen and an event space so you can create real connections between farmers and people who are eating.”
In the short term, though, he’s focusing his efforts on making canning and food preservation training part of culinary education. He’d also love to see his high school food course become a mandatory part of the school curriculum.
“Kids don’t know how to cook and it’s not nutritious to just depend on takeout,” he believes. “We have to change education to see food, food preservation, health and nutrition as one and the same. Convincing society of that; that’s a big goal for me.”