This post is part of our series featuring the winning charities from the 2016 Aviva Community Fund and is provided by Anne-Marie McElrone, Director of Partnership Development at the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre. This multi-part blog series features the stories behind the charities who won the 2016 Aviva Community Fund contest, and the impact they will make with each project across Canada.
Eighteen months ago, Russell spent much of his time in his Dartmouth North apartment. He didn’t know his neighbours, and getting one good meal a day was a challenge. He had to walk 90 minutes to reach the nearest soup kitchen.
“I was planning on moving out of the neighbourhood,” said the 55-year-old from the Pictou Landing First Nation. Instead, Russell discovered a community in his own backyard at the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre.
“I walked in for lunch,” said Russell. “It was friendly, welcoming and very clean. I had a great meal, I met some people and now we always sit together and have tea.”
At the time, the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre had just opened its doors for the first time, in a neighbourhood where 93 percent of people say they struggle to eat one healthy meal a day. The beautiful new 5,000 square foot community space, complete with commercial kitchen, large dining room, and a massive outdoor gardening space, created an immediate buzz in the neighbourhood.
Russell watched all the activity around the centre for weeks, and finally, on his birthday, he decided to check it out. Soon after, he began visiting the centre to take part in community meals. Now Russell is volunteering at the centre and has signed up for the community kitchen program, where neighbours cook together on a weekly basis.
“This place has given me a reason to wake up in the morning,” said Russell. “I’ve made friends. Now I meet people on the street and say hello. I finally feel at home.”
Good Food is Just the Beginning
Russell’s experience captures the essence of what makes a Community Food Centre special. Good food in a dignified setting is at the heart of what we do, but once someone comes through our doors, there are so many ways for them to get involved. Whether it’s enjoying healthy food together, building new skills and habits around healthy eating, learning to garden, or helping neighbours with issues affecting their daily lives, the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre has quickly become a hub for community connection in a place where many struggle with poverty, food insecurity, and social isolation.
Extending Our Impact
Nearly 20 percent of Dartmouth North households are considered low income. Many residents are seniors on a fixed income and our community includes a higher than average proportion of lone parent families and people living alone.
The Dartmouth Family Centre, which has spent more than two decades in the neighbourhood serving new moms and families with young children, opened the Community Food Centre to reach out to the entire community and extend its work with families as their children grow up.
“We knew there was so much more we could be offering to the community,” says Executive Director Roxanne Manning. “We build strong relationships with families at the earliest stages in their children’s lives. The food centre allows us to stay connected with those families, and to reach out to even more people who live in the neighbourhood.”
Early feedback from the centre is encouraging. 73 percent of program participants say they are now eating more fruits and vegetables, 71 percent of participants report their mental health has improved, and 82 percent say they have made new friends.
Community is at the heart of what we do
A big part of the centre’s early success is due to the critical role community members play in its daily operation. With only five staff, the centre relies on a pool of more than 100 volunteers for everything from meal preparation and service, to kitchen and gardening duty, With many of our volunteers living within walking distance of the centre, our centre is truly a community effort, and our values ring true throughout. For instance, during our community engagement process, 75 percent of residents surveyed identified a low-cost produce market as a priority in the community. In response, we became the first Community Food Centre in Canada to launch a market and café program run by, and for, the community.
Every week, skilled community residents, many of whom are food insecure, mobilize other volunteers to unload produce, package it into smaller portions, price it, and help sell it at cost through our weekly market. At the same time, another group of volunteers prepare snacks for the café component of our program, which provides healthy snacks free of charge during our community drop-in.
The initial impact of our Good Food Market and Café has been incredible. The market distributed more than 25,000 lbs of produce in its first nine months and the program’s potential and early success was recently recognized with a $100,000 grant from the Aviva Community Fund. With this support, the centre is working hard to engage other long-term partners and donors to support this powerful new place in our community and to increase access to low-cost, fresh, local produce and offer hands on learning to our community members in Dartmouth.