Updated: Dec 10, 2021
For Kula Foods owner and vegan chef Asha Wheeldon, healthy meals, family and community are all connected. Food is a way to bring people together, and feeding people with healthy food is akin to feeding the soul.
My journey began in Kenya where sharing food with our community was an important part of every day. I migrated to Toronto as a young teenager where I was introduced to West African, Caribbean, and middle Eastern cuisine and culture. After moving to Vancouver I was inspired to create something unique that is reflective of my experiences by connecting people to their food and community.
– Asha Wheeldon, founder of Kula Foods
Asha recently spent some time with Hogan Alley Society’s Community Planner Lama Mugabo to chat about how her Kenyan roots have inspired her delicious meals, and to show him how to prepare chapatis, a flatbread similar to roti. Through the course of their conversation, Asha also busted a few myths about what it means to be vegan, including misconceptions about improper nutrition and how costly it can be.
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Myth: one has to be really knowledgeable about veganism before changing their diet, in order to make sure they’re eating “properly.”
Fact: it is more than possible to make the switch without knowing everything about veganism.
Lama and Asha talked about how familiar someone needs to be with vegan foods before trying a plant-based diet. “You don’t have to be well versed in nutrition and where everything comes from,” says Asha. “You could easily survive without being the most knowledgeable vegan or plant-based person.”
At its foundation, eating a vegan diet is about avoiding any product or ingredient that has come from an animal, instead focusing on foods made from plants. This includes fruits and vegetables; legumes such as peas, beans and lentils; nuts and seeds; breads, rice and pasta; dairy alternatives like coconut milk, almond milk and soy milk; and vegetable oils.
If and when a person wants to transition to veganism, it’s more a matter of breaking old food habits and patterns. “You’re shaking up your system,” Asha says. The initial step of changing your diet is changing something that your parents and family introduced you to.”
Myth: it is impossible to get all of the nutrients a person needs by eliminating meat from their diet.
Fact: whether an omnivore or vegan, everyone should be aiming to making healthy food choices to ensure they take in all of the nutrients they need.
A healthy diet is about choice, regardless of the type of diet one eats. If one person eats hamburgers every day, too much animal fat can be dangerous for their heart health. If another is vegan but eats nothing but sugary treats and junk food, that’s not good, either.
Asha explained to Lama that when humans adopt a vegan diet, they are really drawing from the source – the nutrients come from the plants themselves, versus secondarily through animal products.
“Nutrients like iron are actually coming from green, leafy vegetables,” says Asha. “Collared greens, sukuma wiki, have really high nutrients.”
Asha talked about her experiences with low iron, and having to take supplements when she was younger but not after adopting a vegan diet. “I never liked red meat, but I ate it because I thought that that’s what I needed to get my iron. It didn’t work; I took supplements most of my life. It was only after I went plant-based that I don’t take supplements anymore.”
Myth: dairy is good for you.
Fact: not only are many people lactose intolerant, dairy can actually inhibit the body from absorbing vital nutrients, like iron, from other foods.
Many people may not realize that certain foods can block the ability for the body to take in essential nutrients like iron; dairy is a big culprit in this regard. “Dairy will actually block iron from being sustained in your body,” explains Asha. “Even if you eat all the greens or beef you want, dairy’s a blocker. If that’s in your diet, you’re not getting those nutrients.”
When preparing green and leafy vegetables, Asha describes the use of citrus to help the body take in the iron that is in those foods. “You learn to use citrus to make sure that it absorbs and gets into your system. I always like to cook it with a little bit of lemon to finish. It really allows for the iron to activate.”
Further, the mass-produced nature of milk creates poor, cramped conditions for dairy cows. “Animals are suffering. Cows are separated from their children at birth, when their babies need the milk. It’s not healthy for anyone, in any way,” says Asha. Eliminating dairy from one’s diet means no longer being complicit in a cruel and horrible industry. As Asha explains, “The dairy industry is probably the worst of all. If I can tell anyone anything, cut out dairy.”
Myth: being vegan is costly and expensive.
Fact: it is possible to be vegan in an affordable and accessible way.
With new companies catering to the vegan market popping up all of the time and so many unique products now available to consumers – everything from plant-based meat alternatives like Beyond Meat, Lightlife and Impossible Burgers, to artisanal non-dairy cakes and nut-based cheeses – it is true that veganism can be an expensive way to eat. But it doesn’t have to be. When speaking to Lama, Asha offers that, “Lentils and vegetables can be and are accessible. With a lot of our ingredients, we want to introduce more affordable food.”
Asha enjoys offering delicious and accessible meals for those in the community, particularly in this time of COVID-19. “I had this real need to offer more affordable food, but also be connected right to the community. The main goal is to make sure that it’s accessible to more people – so we offer deliveries, and it’s affordable. With our ‘family share’ meals, you can enjoy [them] either by yourself, or share with your family and loved ones.”
Staying connected to her roots
As “Kula” means “eat” in Swahili, it should come as no surprise that Asha is passionate about creating nutritious and satisfying meals that connect back to her Kenyan roots. She explains that one day, she would love to see the Kula brand in the international aisle of the grocery store, representing the history of where the food and ingredients originated. For herself and other Afro-centric food producers, she describes an innate hope: “To see where the people that created the brand can speak to how they were inspired, and their roots – creating authentic experiences and ingredients and food that our community can enjoy. There’s a difference when you get that connection back to the person whose family is connected to what they’re bringing out.
I hope to be considered a household brand that is creating that solution for more plant-based options. I’d love to see us globally, and really connecting back to where the inspiration comes from. Our ultimate goal is to get as many people [as possible] to enjoy plant-based foods.”
Asha’s food can be found locally through Kula’s various partners across Vancouver as well as online at kulakitchen.ca.
December 28, 2020 Written by: Angie Natingor