Food for Thought

Natural Goodness

Local couple set to open Vancouver Island’s first artisan yogurt plant this spring.

Survivors of the 1980s aerobics craze are likely to tell you being a healthy, order fit woman is a challenge.  Not only were the high-impact classes of yesteryear hard on the body, they came with an image of how the female body should look and move that most women just couldn’t keep up with (and were often discouraged by).  Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John, anyone?

Yet, women’s bodies are designed to move, and the health benefits of aerobic exercise are undeniable.  Lower cancer rates, better quality of life and improved mental health are just a few of the things we know regular exercise does for us.  And it doesn’t matter how we look doing it, or what our bodies end up looking like.  It’s the doing it that counts.

That’s the whole point of BellyFit, a growing holistic fitness system for women developed by Alice Bracegirdle in Victoria, BC in 2003.  Her unique program blends Cultural Dance, aerobic fitness, body philosophy and deeply motivational and inspirational ethno-electronica in a sort of fitness fusion intended to promote health through movement, empower women, and create a positive body image—all the while having fun.

Leanne Zdebiak-Eni is the Comox Valley’s first BellyFit Instructor, and has been offering classes through her fitness studio Island Fitness Pilates (IFP) since 2008. As owner and operator of IFP, she’s seen the impact the classes have had on her clients over the past three years.  And now she has partnered with local DJ em.ash (who goes by the name Michael Holding when he isn’t playing music) to create a community fundraising event that shows just what women can do when they move.

“A friend emailed me and said ‘You’ve got to try this!’” says Zdebiak-Eni when asked how she learned about BellyFit.  At the time, Bracegirdle and her partner Rowan Sentesy were conducting their first instructor training courses as part of their effort to grow BellyFit as a business, and the pair made the trip up Island to put on a demonstration class.

“I was totally sold after that,” says Zdebiak-Eni.  The classes certainly came at a good time. Zdebiak had recently moved her studio from Comox to a much larger space on Cliffe Avenue in Courtenay.  The move afforded her the opportunity to go back to her roots as a group fitness instructor after years of teaching just Pilates.  There was finally the space to have a room full of moving people.

What attracted Zdebiak-Eni to BellyFit was the holistic qualities of the classes.  “It’s a total mind/body exercise—and that doesn’t always happen when women are exercising. They’re not always aware of their feelings and emotions,” she says.  “Women and young girls are presented with so many opportunities for a negative self-image that anything that encourages women to feel good about themselves is wonderful.

“And it gives women permission to move their bodies in ways our culture doesn’t always encourage,” continues Zdebiak-Eni.  A typical BellyFit class includes shoulder shimmies, hip sways, and the sort of all-round jiggling most women are embarrassed to do.  However, that’s the appeal.

“The first time someone does BellyFit, they are totally blown away,” says Zdebiak-Eni.  “One woman said it’s aerobics with soul.”

That soulful quality might explain how Zdebiak-Eni eventually found herself organizing a BellyFit fundraiser for Jennifer Zahavich, the young Comox Valley mother diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and who passed away in 2011 at the age of 31. Despite a short remission in 2009 after successful radiation and chemotherapy treatment, Zahavich’s cancer re-emerged in 2010.  Because of the nature of the new cancer, doctors told her there was nothing they could do.  Zahavich sought naturopathic treatment rather than give up, and many in the community rallied around her to raise funds to cover costs of the alternative care.  Zdebiak-Eni is one of the people who offered help, making her studio and class time available to raise funds.  The offer turned into a heartfelt event that raised $1,200 for Zahavich.

“That spawned for me the importance of community and how important BellyFit can be,” says Zdebiak-Eni.  “It really showed me that we can do important stuff with this.

“I’ve been looking for a long time as a business owner to be involved in the community,” she adds. “But it had to come from the heart.”

Enter BellyFit Live classes, where a BellyFit instructor teams up with a DJ to create an interactive fitness experiences.  The Live events have always been a part of the BellyFit experience as a way for groups of women to come together and celebrate the two most important parts of BellyFit—music and movement.  The live music adds a cooperative element to the class, where DJ, instructor and participants work together to create the experience.  Zdebiak-Eni decided these live events were the right vehicle to share what she felt when supporting Zahavich with the larger community, all the while raising funds for various community organizations.

As luck would have it, there were a couple of local DJs nearby—literally downstairs from IFP at Sure Copy and Design Centre.  Owner Adil Amlani is a local music producer and DJ who introduced Zdebiak-Eni to his employee and fellow music producer and DJ em.ash (aka Holding).  The two talked about BellyFit and what Zdebiak-Eni hoped to accomplish, and Holding decided a live community fundraiser was just the sort of thing he wanted to be a part of.

“I’ve been finding my motivation going more and more toward benefiting other people,” says Holding, when asked what attracted him to BellyFit.  DJing a women’s fitness class doesn’t seem like the sort of thing he might have dreamed about when he started composing music 16 years ago on his bedroom computer, or even where he thought he’d be when he started DJing more than eight years ago.  “I’m getting closer to fulfilling the goal of my music and what I want to do with my life.”

In fact, the goals of BellyFit match well with the electronic music culture of the Comox Valley—which, if you didn’t know, has been thriving in the Valley for nearly 20 years. Holding insists the electronic music scene has the hottest dance floor in the Valley (check out the Mexx on Friday nights, he says).  What makes it hot is its two basic principles—respect and safety.  That means respect for who you are or whoever you want to be, and the safety to feel whatever it is you need to feel to dance.

“Smiling faces on the dance floor is my only goal,” says Holding. “I play what moves me, so it’s more of an energetic/spiritual relationship for me.  If it makes me dance, everyone will dance to it.”

And he has absolutely no problems with being the only man in a room full of dancing women.  Nor for that matter, do the women have a problem with him.  His tendency to dance along with the participants is much appreciated, and his attentiveness to the mood of the crowd make for a great music experience, even if electronic music doesn’t seem to be your thing.  Though the person who appreciates him the most is Zdebiak-Eni:   “It’s the dream of every fitness instructor to have a DJ!”

“I view it as a service, something I can do to promote a positive ideal and support my community,” says Holding.  “It’s about finding a way to communicate through my music the positive, healing energy that I feel [making music] and making a difference. I’m trying to provide an open, positive space where people are safe and respected.  I’m there because I want to be.”

With a DJ on board, Zdebiak-Eni started planning the first Comox Valley BellyFit Live Community Celebration.  Keeping with the women, girls and fitness theme, the first event raised money for Girls on the Move, a program run through the LINC Youth Centre that helps girls get fit and make health nutritional choices.  Comox Valley’s first BellyFit Live was held at the Native Sons Hall, and raised $577.

Beyond the actual dollar amount, the experience also kicked off the sort of community support Zdebiak-Eni wants to see.  The Courtenay Recreation Association (which runs the LINC program) was impressed enough to offer the Native Sons Hall up for use if Zdebiak-Eni wanted to continue the Live events. And local business Lotuswear came onboard as event sponsor, opening the door to other businesses to offer door prizes for participants.

So in December Zdebiak-Eni, with music support from Holding, held a fundraiser for the Comox Valley Christmas Hamper fund, raising $376.  And in January, the event was for True Colors Youth Company of Performing Arts, the only pre-professional dance troupe on Northern Vancouver Island. That event raised $413 for the troupe and 200 pounds of food for the Food Bank.  The next event will be held March 11 in support of YANA, and will run from 11:30 to 1:00 pm at the Native Sons Hall.  Entry is by donation, and participants are asked to wear indoor running shoes.

The variety of charities and non-profit groups add a different character to each of the BellyFit Live events, however, the motivation stays the same.

“The charity has a way of opening its supporter’s eyes to an interactive event,” says Holding. “People always want to support, and unless they’re given a reason they don’t necessarily know how to support.”

“Something like this needs to be an event, a happening,” adds Holding.  “It has to have a reason, a purpose. Hey this is your time to come out, have fun, support your community, get fit, laugh and dance.”

And that is what women can do when they move.

For more information about BellyFit, BellyFit Live and Island Fitness Pilates go to:

To hear DJ em.ash’s music go to:
Agriculture is the foundation on which the Comox Valley was built.  Today, medicine
local farmers and producers work hard to keep the tradition of locally grown food alive.  The Valley is home to many farmers offering a variety of food basics.  There is also a growing sector of specialty producers supplying artisan products from cheese to wine using the agricultural wealth of the Valley.

Scott DiGuistini and Merissa Myles will join that group of specialty producers in April when they open Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt, shop the first artisan yogurt plant on Vancouver Island.  They recently acquired property on the Island Highway in Royston and are waiting for the formal paperwork to be processed and their dairy licence to be issued before beginning renovations to turn the property’s pre-existing building into a new dairy plant.

The wait is the latest step in an entrepreneurial dream that has taken the pair down an unexpected path into yogurt making.

“We began with the vision to create BC’s best tasting yogurt,” says Merissa Myles, who operatesTree Island Gourmet Yogurt with husband Scott DiGuistini. “And we’re focused on making a fresh, non-industrial processed milk product.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

DiGuistini and Myles’s story is not that different from a lot of young families in the Comox Valley.  They were based in Vancouver—DiGuistini as a PhD student in microbiology at the University of British Columbia, Myles as a development manager with the YWCA—when their first child was born four years ago.  The changes that inevitably come with starting a family kicked off a conversation about what they wanted to do as a family and what their priorities were.  They agreed they wanted to experience life outside of the city, and to start a business.  Where to live, and what the business would be, were up in the air.

Only after DiGuistini submitted his dissertation for defence, however, were they able to hit the road and explore different communities in BC.

“We decided the Comox Valley was the place we wanted to try and live,” says DiGuistini.  So they bought a home in Royston and made the move.  Both were still working their old jobs, though.  DiGuistini’s dissertation in genome sequencing earned him an award and opened the door to job opportunities in Canada and abroad.  Myles chose to telecommute before taking a maternity leave with the couple’s second child.

For DiGuistini, however, the science just wasn’t working.  “It just wasn’t in line with our values,” he says.  Much of the reason for moving to the Valley was the community’s artisan vibe and growing culture of sustainability.  And work in biotechnology—even in the field of biofuels—just didn’t feel right.

Instead a trip to France to explore a job opportunity for DiGuistini got them thinking about yogurt.  But not just any kind of yogurt—the sort of artisan dairy that is readily available in France.

“We saw a lot of dairy products in France, and tasted some amazing yogurt,” says Myles. “The passion was to share the French experience using high quality ingredients and craftsmanship that is not available in Canada using the typical industrial process”.

In the end, DiGuistini turned down the job offer and instead decided yogurt making was the business idea they had talked about.

“We decided it was an exciting opportunity and an interesting family experiment,” says DiGuistini.

“It was a major life decision, because we were at the point of how we want to raise our children, and what experiences we want to have with them as kids,” adds Myles.

With that, Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt was born.  DiGuistini took his skills in microbiology to the kitchen, experimenting with ingredients and techniques in yogurt making.  The result was two product lines: Whole Milk (with cream on top) and Mediterranean.

The first uses farm fresh non-homogenized milk from pastured cows.  It is prepared without industrial thickeners, powders or artificial flavors, and comes in three flavors: Plain, Vancouver Island Honey, and Vanilla Bean, with plans for seasonable flavors in the works.

Each container has a layer of golden cream on top that can be stirred in, scooped off, or eaten off the top.  The second is thicker yoghurt made in the traditional style of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern yogurts (hence the name “Mediterranean”) where the yogurt is fermented in a large vat and has the whey strained out afterwards.  It is prepared without added cream or gelatin, and comes in Plain Jane, Royal Honey and Silk Road. Both are available in 500 ml and 1.5 kg sizes.

While experimenting, DiGuistini also completed the requirements for becoming a Certified Dairy Processor, and completed course work in cultured dairy at Cornell University in the food science department.

That left finding a location for making the yogurt.  And a home kitchen would not suffice.

In addition to a home delivery service, Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt will be available this spring at specialty stores and markets.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

“You need to be a licensed dairy processor and your building needs a lot of things for public health and safety reasons that go beyond that of an industrial kitchen,” explains Myles.

They found a willing partner in Hilary’s Artisan Cheese in Cowichan Bay.  Hilary’s is a like-minded cheese-making shop (they produce high quality cheeses using local cow and goat milk) with a certified dairy processing plant able to accommodate small-batch yogurt making.

With product in hand, DiGuistini and Myles were able to debut Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt with family and friends. The experience gave them the confidence to move forward filling a need with the locally minded, health conscious consumer.

“We carefully select the milk, picking single origin milks,” says DiGuistini.  “We put in the best ingredients—local whenever possible.”

More importantly, they use all natural ingredients.  “Here’s our ingredients—whole milk and live cultures,” continues DiGuistini.  Compare that to the typical yogurt product, which has milk powder, pectin, flavored sugar, and more.  “There is not a single yogurt on the market made with honey.  Whole food, minimally processed, hand crafted—those are the qualities of our product.”

However, there were immediate limitations on what Tree Island was trying to do—bring locally grown and produced artisan yogurt to market.

DiGuistini and Myles wanted local organic milk, but there aren’t any producers of organic milk on Vancouver Island.  Likewise, no farmer would make the time-consuming (and often costly) switch to organic production unless Tree Island could guarantee a ready market.  That would mean buying up to 7,000 litres of milk per week and turning it into yogurt.  And there wasn’t a dairy plant on Vancouver Island able to make that much specialty yogurt.  Finally, even if they could make that much yogurt, where could they sell such large quantities?  A change from small-batch processing and marketing to large-scale artisan production and distribution meant finding space on the already crowded grocery store shelves and educating consumers.

“We began with the vision to create BC’s best tasting yogurt,” says Myles.  “And we’re focused on making a fresh, non-industrial processed milk product.”  That focus, though, is radically different from the typical yogurt selection available in the average dairy aisle, which features established brands produced and marketing on an industrial scale.  And a non-industrial product costs more, simply because of how it’s prepared.

“There isn’t yet an equivalent for yogurt to the gourmet cheeses in the deli section of the grocery store,” says DiGuistini.  “When people get to the deli section, people think differently.  They’re no longer worried about the cost.  They’re more interested in the options available to them.”

“Consumers aren’t necessarily willing to pay the difference,” he adds.  “If the product is sitting on the shelf and it costs 20 per cent more, they’re not going to buy it.”

DiGuistini and Myles stepped back from small-batch yogurt making to re-evaluate their situation.  On the one hand, they were committed personally and professionally to the organic food movement and its goals of local food security, direct connections with producers and processors, and peak freshness.   On the other hand, they were admirers of larger-scale organic producers like Vancouver’s Happy Planet and the American Stonyfield Farm.  DiGuistini decided the best solution was to build their own plant, and be the change they wanted to make.

“I felt there was a well established path I could follow,” says DiGuistini.  “How hard could it be?”

The answer, of course, is a lot harder than they thought.  Licensing is complicated, start-up costs significant, and sourcing local materials a challenge.  However, the effort has already created the sort of opportunities DiGustini and Myles are looking for.

A Valley dairy farmer will be providing the milk for their yogurt, while others have expressed interest in participating.  Likewise, Tree Island intends to stay small-batch processing by offering co-packing opportunities to other small dairies.  That means offering other small and specialty dairies the opportunity to use the Tree Island plant to expand their own product lines.  For example, Snap Dragon Dairy, the Fanny Bay micro goat dairy, is interested in using the Tree Island plant to produce goat milk ice cream.

“This is an opportunity to create the impetus for the production of organic products,” says DiGuistini.  “Create economic opportunity by creating capacity.”

In fact, opportunity and capacity is what the Tree Island plant is all about.  The planned renovations will be done to meet immediate production needs, but include long-term plans for growth and expansion.

“We’re designing the plan around a continued process of evolving,” says DiGuistini.  “We want to let the plant evolve with the company.”  And in doing so, create a new market for locally produced, artisan dairy products on Vancouver Island.

That just leaves one question. How do Valley residents get their hands on Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt, once production starts?

“At first, we’re going to be selling in specialty grocery stores and non-traditional channels,” says DiGuistini.  That includes farmers markets, local shops like Royston Roasting, and a home delivery service.

“Many people in the Valley may still remember the milkman,” says Myles.  “We are offering a similar service, except we plan to do bi-weekly delivery for subscribers in the Valley.  This model is happening all over these days—organic soup in Portland, fresh juice in LA, artisan ice cream in New York, baked goods in London.  We’re excited to pilot it in the Valley.”

For more information on Tree Island Gourmet Yogurt, or to inquire about their delivery service, go to