'Food is one of the only comforts that people have when they are away from home," says Allan Bedard, manager of Windigo Ventures and Catering.

And he is someone who knows, as his company supplies, plans and prepares nutritious and tasty food to feed and comfort FIFO (fly in fly out) workers at mining camps like Goldcorp's camp at Musselwhite.

FIFO lifestyle is an occupational reality for many workers in the mining industry who are flown in on a rotational basis from various parts of Northwestern Ontario and other parts of Canada.

And attracting and retaining workers who are facing being away from their families for two weeks at a time can be a challenge. Many FIFO workers will say that when they are away, their co-workers and the people who provide support services at the mine, become their second family. And families generally eat together. This is a dynamic that Bedard understands well.

"It fosters a sense of community when we live with people and share food," he says.

The enjoyment of that food is an equally important part of the recipe for creating a family like atmosphere and Bedard and his staff strives to provide meals that are an equal balance of nutrition and taste.

Nutrition, of course, is a critical factor in meal planning at the mine site and Bedard explains that his company has the budget to provide high quality food on a regular basis.

Prime rib is a staple for the Tuesday entree and the menu also provides meals for any and all special needs or tastes that have been identified by employees at the time of hiring.

The more common specialty meals are vegetarian, vegan and gluten free but chefs will also provide meals for employees who are lacto-ovo vegetarian (vegetarians who eat dairy products) and pesco-vegetarian (vegetarians who eat fish and seafood).

Culture and ethnic traditions are also an important factor in creating a sense of community around food. Meals that celebrate ethnic holidays and festivals, such as traditional First Nations food, are provided on a regular basis. In addition, food and meat that is blessed by a rabbi for employees of the Jewish faith as well as halal, food that is permissible under Islamic law, is also available.

And although one might not associate such exotic fare as pad tai, sushi and curry with a mining camp cafeteria, the chefs at Windigo serve it up with a smile.

All of Windigo's chefs are Red Seal certified and they must complete 6,000 hours of training and demonstrate 185 competencies in order to receive that certification. And kitchen safety is taken very seriously. Because mining is so regulated and strict, the same stringent standards and procedures are applied to the kitchen.

Kitchen and housekeeping staff participate in daily safety meetings and meticulous temperature logs are kept for items that require refrigeration. Food allergies and sensitivities, especially those that are potentially life threatening, are taken very seriously. Because the mine is so far away from medical services, Bedard points out that his company has what he believes is the only shellfish policy in Canada.

Staff are required to post any time they cook with shellfish or nuts, and someone monitors the storage, preparation and cleanup of those specific foods to ensure that they don't come in contact with anything else.

At home, you would be able to pop into your kitchen any time of the day or night for a nibble or late-night snack and the mining camp is no different. Because mining staff work 12-hour shifts, the cafeteria is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week so workers can access cold foods, such as a sandwich bar, when meals are not being served.

Main meals are carefully considered and Bedard points out that menus will always consist of three hot proteins, salad bar and grilled chicken, two vegetables and two to three starches. Healthy food is always available but workers don't have to do without comfort foods that their taste buds might be craving. In order to capture both shifts, the kitchen offers two wing nights every 17 days. And, although they might not be a nutritional superstar, french fries and gravy are available every night, otherwise "some guys would starve," Bedard adds wryly.

Comfortable and clean accommodations are also an important factor in the FIFO lifestyle. The camp site is well maintained and Windigo Catering cleans the office buildings, recreational areas and the camp rooms are cleaned and sanitized daily.

Laundry services are also available but Bedard has observed that many of the workers like to do their own laundry.

There is also a small commissary to provide workers with basic amenities such as non-prescription medications, tobacco and soft drinks.

Food services staffs at mining companies work a rotating shift of two weeks in and two weeks out so they are also living the FIFO lifestyle and are part of the community that they cook for. And because they are interacting regularly with mining staff and demonstrating their ability to adapt to the FIFO lifestyle, as well as their transferable skill set, some of the food services staff go on into comparable or higher-paying positions with the company.

Mining and other resource based industries are major players in Northwestern Ontario's economy and the remoteness of the region necessitates that many of the workers in the industry will be FIFO workers for some or all of their career. And as John Mason, mining services project manager at CEDC, observes "Employees are the lifeblood of a mining company, it is critical to attract and retain quality workers."

And it's not easy.

No matter how well-paid workers are, they are not likely to stay in a career where they feel isolated, stressed and lonely. Since the beginning of time, human beings have "broken bread" together as tribes, families and communities. Food nurtures and sustains our bodies and when shared with others, feeds our spirit.

Companies like Windigo recognize the importance of good food not only for its nutritional value but for its social and cultural value. And as a result, camp life for FIFO workers is enhanced and the industry is strengthened.

Maureen Arges Nadin is a Thunder Bay-based freelance writer. This is part of a series looking at the mining sector in Northwestern Ontario and the Ring of Fire development. The column is published periodically throughout the year.

Recommended for you