Over the past five years, Gilbert Park, a Manitoba Housing community located in the Inkster area of Northwest Winnipeg, has seen a four-fold increase in diabetes rates among residents. The shocking news prompted the neighbourhood-based Nor’West Co-op Community Health Centre to take action.
Recognizing the link between healthy eating and disease prevention, the Centre explored ways to increase access to high quality food. The neighbourhood faces significant challenges: it is geographically isolated and many residents struggle with poverty.
“[The] median family income in Gilbert Park is about $15,000 a year. So, imagine trying to feed your family on that,” says Kristina McMillan. “There are a lot of families who are just struggling to put food on the table, let alone healthy food.”
Ms. McMillan is Director of the new Community Food Centre at Nor’West, created in response to the critical community need. It follows the model of a program in Toronto. A former food bank evolved to become a hub for food security, offering cooking classes, gardening, meal programs, advocacy and more. It has inspired a movement of Community Food Centres and Nor’West’s is the first in Western Canada.
Extensive community consultations shaped plans for the centre, says Ms. McMillan. The process allowed her to hear, first-hand about the realities many in the neighbourhood face when it comes to food.
“I heard some shocking stories. There are some really stark realities in terms of people struggling to feed their own families,” she says. “I also heard a lot of stories of strength. I would say there are really strong food traditions in this community.”
Consultations highlighted issues such as poverty, a lack of local food stores and lack of transportation to stores outside the neighbourhood. But the process also brought out other priorities. Neighbourhood residents wanted a gathering place where they could connect with others of different cultures and talk about issues such as poverty, hunger and health. They wanted programs to help them stay fit and build food literacy skills such as reading nutrition labels and budgeting for groceries.
So, a plan was born to create a holistic Centre that increases food security and offers much more.
The Community Food Centre opened in March, in Nor’West’s building on Tyndall Avenue at Burrows. A gleaming industrial kitchen opens onto a bright, comfortable eating area, which can hold up to 90 people. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming.
There is a free, drop-in lunch for neighbourhood residents every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, which typically sees 40 to 50 attend. Fresh, nutritious and delicious are always on the menu. One recent meal was roasted chicken on brown rice, topped with tomatillo salsa and toasted sunflower seeds with a side of broccoli. (The Centre’s chef is formerly of Bistro 7¼.)
Programming runs six days a week. The Centre offers a variety of cooking classes: one for kids, another for senior men, and another for Filipino families. Residents will be able to use community gardens behind the centre, as well as an outdoor pizza oven.
The Centre has been two years in the making and Ms. McMillan says residents are excited to see it up and running.
“It’s really neat having done the community consultation and having heard what the community wanted, and then to have them walk through the door and see that reflected in the programming calendar or some of the ways that the space was set up,” she says.
The Winnipeg Foundation has supported the project with two grants: for initial planning and, more recently, for a volunteer coordinator. That staff person also oversees a community action training program. The idea is to help build leadership skills within the neighbourhood, and create advocates for social justice – on food issues and beyond.
While the Centre is just getting off the ground, Ms. McMillan has a big vision for the future of the project.
“I want to see community gardens and an urban orchard across the street in Shaughnessy Park. I want to see community members take on running programs themselves with very minimal staff support so they can really drive the direction of it. I hope to see us get more involved in some of the activism around poverty and food insecurity,” she says.
She sees food as a powerful tool for change and a way to tackle some of the big issues facing neighbourhood residents.
“I’m hoping we continue to draw-in a diverse crowd of people and create those connections between cultural communities. Because food binds everyone together, right? It’s our common thread. We all like good food.”
The Moffat Family Fund, which helps level the playing field for children and families, supported this project.