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EY Alumni Spotlight: Pam Farrell

By EY Canada - Apr 5. 2022 How did your career aspirations take shape as you were growing up?

Pam Farrell

My family was responsible for helping me shape my career early on. I grew up in Switzerland, where you are expected to make educational decisions at a very young age as to what path and career you want to take. My dad was an accountant, and my sister was in business, which also led me to enroll in business school at the age of 16 in downtown Zurich, Switzerland.

My dad had the biggest influence on me as he was adamant that I complete my internship with EY in Zurich because of its global presence and professional reputation. I was 16 when I started my three-year paid internship. At that time, I didn’t have a clear destination, but it evolved over time and with various roles. EY provided a strong foundation that inspired me to become a changemaker. I never thought my career would lead me to teaching, research and community advocacy.

Tell us about your current role and what makes it most energizing or challenging.

I am currently a fourth-year doctoral candidate at the University of Calgary as well as the founder and volunteer executive director of GROW, the first community food literacy centre in Canada. My research interests are in the area of food literacy, and my goals are to advance our understanding of the sociocultural factors that inform and influence food literacies.

The pandemic put a spotlight on the systemic inequalities in our current food system, and the challenges and concerns that are captured in my work around food deserts, food insecurity and sustainability.

Along with a team of 25 dedicated volunteers, I work on the front lines with marginalized community members to address food system challenges to ensure vulnerable Canadians have access to healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods. What makes my current role most energizing is that I am putting the latest research into practice and it’s making a huge impact on low-income community members in Niagara Falls. The challenging part of my role is highlighting and bringing awareness around what impact traditional food charity programs have on food insecurity and overall health. Research shows that only 25% of food insecure households access foods banks for a variety of reasons, including stigma, mental health, dietary restrictions, and lack of fresh and culturally appropriate foods. Yet as a society we continue to rely on food banks to address food insecurity and there are no alternatives for low-income members in our community to access good food. This system is failing the people it is intended to serve. Looking at it from a business perspective, this model would never get off the ground.

What was the culture like at the firm 20 years ago?

The culture at EY was very progressive and people centred. The biggest impact for me was learning about diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). Personally, this was instrumental in my career path and laid the foundation for the community work I do now and the research I engage in. I was part of an HR team that was responsible for rolling out a national diversity and inclusion program and I became completely immersed in it. EY was a leader in DE&I initiatives during that time. Now, 20 years later, I am seeing that universities and colleges are making it mandatory for students to complete a DE&I course.

During my time at EY, I learned so much about myself, different cultures, equity issues and systemic barriers in the workplace. Having that lens of diversity, inclusion and equity is what laid the foundation for what GROW is doing now, which is levelling the playing field for people with low incomes to access good food in the same way that EY was levelling the playing field for women with their women’s mentoring programs, hiring policies and procedures. EY also offered courses on intercultural communication, which for me, coming from Switzerland, was very valuable as a participant and a coordinator of the program.

Overall, my time at EY in Zurich and Toronto was an amazing learning and growth opportunity. I had the privilege to work with and learn from two exceptional woman leaders, Lynn Wilson and Jeannine Pereira, who mentored and encouraged me to follow my goals and passion. The firm was very supportive of my professional development and fostered lifelong learning through financial assistance while accommodating my work-life balance.

What was the culture like at the firm 20 years ago?

The culture at EY was very progressive and people centred. The biggest impact for me was learning about diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). Personally, this was instrumental in my career path and laid the foundation for the community work I do now and the research I engage in. I was part of an HR team that was responsible for rolling out a national diversity and inclusion program and I became completely immersed in it. EY was a leader in DE&I initiatives during that time. Now, 20 years later, I am seeing that universities and colleges are making it mandatory for students to complete a DE&I course.

During my time at EY, I learned so much about myself, different cultures, equity issues and systemic barriers in the workplace. Having that lens of diversity, inclusion and equity is what laid the foundation for what GROW is doing now, which is levelling the playing field for people with low incomes to access good food in the same way that EY was levelling the playing field for women with their women’s mentoring programs, hiring policies and procedures. EY also offered courses on intercultural communication, which for me, coming from Switzerland, was very valuable as a participant and a coordinator of the program.

Overall, my time at EY in Zurich and Toronto was an amazing learning and growth opportunity. I had the privilege to work with and learn from two exceptional woman leaders, Lynn Wilson and Jeannine Pereira, who mentored and encouraged me to follow my goals and passion. The firm was very supportive of my professional development and fostered lifelong learning through financial assistance while accommodating my work-life balance.

The work you’re doing with GROW Community Food Literacy Centre is so inspiring. As you said, it’s surprising and unfortunate that the Niagara Falls region is a food desert when it’s located in one of the most bountiful places in Canada, literally surrounded by hundreds of farms and orchards. What do you think is the solution to addressing that kind of disparity in one of the world’s wealthiest nations and bringing food security to more communities, while empowering people rather than giving them handouts?

The solution to the inequitable access to good food needs to address the structural problems that contribute to and perpetuate food insecurity. One in eight households in Canada are food insecure and food insecurity disproportionally affects Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, as well as people with disabilities. The root cause of food insecurity is poverty. Addressing poverty requires a systemic change, which is a long and winding road that many poverty reduction advocacy organizations have been working on for many years. However, with our weekly subsidized market, which offers fresh, affordable and culturally relevant food, we’re stretching the budgets of low-income individuals and families. It’s similar to subsidized housing, which is designed to help people with low incomes have a more financially stable life. The end goal is to reduce the impact of barriers to healthy eating in a dignified and welcoming manner.

Society spends an inordinate amount on health care costs related to chronic diseases that are directly related to dietary income, such as diabetes. Traditional food charity programs perpetuate the cycle of poor health by dispensing high-fat, high-sodium and high-sugar foods. Preventable chronic diseases place a substantial burden on our health care system — more than $3.8 billion annually in health care costs. It’s clear that we must invest in preventative models that allow people to access healthy and nutritious food in the first place. We must move away from standalone emergency food services to long-term, community-wide strategies that address the core causes of food insecurity.

The work you do with GROW is focused on the local community, where you’re making an immense difference. EY, on the other hand, is a globally integrated organization that has an impact not only on local communities, but on markets the world over. How do you see small, local initiatives like GROW interacting with larger, multinational organizations to make a positive impact on social justice issues and build a better working world?

EY has an immense global presence, and what first comes to mind is the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards. Maybe there is an opportunity to expand the program to recognize grassroots nonprofit organizations that are making a difference in their communities and in turn create a better working world. This would help strengthen communities and shine a spotlight on these organizations and the innovative work they’re doing to address some of society’s most important challenges.

What’s the biggest hurdle you faced in starting GROW? My biggest hurdle has been advocating for a different approach in addressing food insecurity. The traditional charity-driven food model is ingrained in our society as the one and only way to help people meet their basic food needs. Changing people’s mindset and the ways in which we offer food programs to low-income individuals and families has been a challenge. As the first community food literacy centre in Canada, and the first subsidized market in Niagara, GROW has charted the path forward as a unique model in addressing food insecurity. The GROW Market strengthens the local food environment to be resilient, community focused and sustainable. This allows members in the at-risk population to access safe, nutritious and culturally relevant foods on a weekly basis. GROW Market not only provides much-needed access to fresh food, but has and will continue to help reduce and prevent chronic illness, improve mental health and reduce anxiety while building community and creating a socially just local food system. GROW’s innovative model has garnered local, national and international attention and has been featured in numerous articles, podcasts, university lectures and community speaking events.



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