Food brings people together. Whether it’s family gathering at the dinner table, colleagues eating lunch in the break room, friends dining at a restaurant, or neighbours attending a community BBQ, the planning, preparing, and sharing of food is a very social activity.
The Alex Community Food Centre, part of the Greater Forest Lawn Community Hub, recognizes the importance of food in our social landscape. It is a space where community members come together to grow, cook, and share food. Here, they can access healthy meals in a dignified setting, shop in a high-quality, affordable produce market, learn cooking and gardening skills, find their voices on issues that matter to them, and meet new friends.
Three times a week, the Community Food Centre hosts free meals for residents—a dinner on Monday, lunch on Wednesday, and breakfast on Friday. Volunteers prepare food and serve it restaurant-style to the more than 150 people who attend each meal. Warm, comfortable, and welcoming, the space has been intentionally designed to feel like a family dining room.
During each meal, a peer advocate—someone from the community who has personally faced challenges in the past—is available to offer support. Tracy Ray Lewis is one of the peer advocates. Through this role, she supports residents by listening to them explain the hurdles they are facing, such as food insecurity, and offering advice or referring them to resources and services to help. People come into the Community Food Centre for a meal, and end up having a conversation with her, discussing their issues with landlords, struggles accessing public transportation, or trouble finding work. Tracy says that, “sitting with somebody and having a bit of chit chat first helps with relationship building and trust. It’s the beginning of it.” Tracy has helped people with many different issues and recognizes how food helps with socialization: “People are going to talk around a table while they’re eating in a different way than they would if you ran into the same person at the bus stop. Coming into the [Community Food] Centre and sitting around a meal, just starting casual conversation over food kind of opens people up.”
Joe Espina, Community Hub coordinator at the Community Food Centre, explains how the different programs offered bring people together over growing, cooking, and eating food.
For instance, The Alex has partnered with Fresh Routes YYC to host a mobile market at the Community Food Centre on Monday evenings. Offering items such as fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, bread, and other non-perishables, the mobile market’s budget-friendly prices mean that more people are able to access healthy food. Joe explains the market is open to everyone, so people from all parts of our city come together to shop and socialize: “Anyone can buy food from the market. Staff here often end up picking up a few things, and we see lots of different people from the community come by. It’s a great way to meet neighbours.”
Through the Level Ground Gardening group, which meets every Tuesday morning, participants learn the fundamentals of growing their own food. A garden skills coordinator on staff facilitates the group, which meets throughout the year, as even in the winter much planning is necessary. In this way, community members connect not only through eating food, but also growing it. Joe has seen many positive interactions among participants: “While learning gardening skills together, residents chat with each other and really start to open up. There is something about being outside I think, that helps people be able to talk to each other.”
The Baking Break group, which meets every Thursday, is a resident-led program. It began when a woman who lives in the community was interested in bringing others together to learn how to bake bread. With stay-at-home moms in mind, childcare is offered while this group meets. Although open to anyone, this program provides women with children an opportunity to discuss the challenges they face as mothers, all while kneading dough and sprinkling flour.
The International Avenue Kitchen program, which meets on Thursday evenings, offers an opportunity for people from different cultural backgrounds to come together and enjoy a meal while learning about food from different parts of the world. Each week, this program is led by a different community resident who walks the group through cooking a meal from their country of origin. Afterwards, participants have the chance to visit with one another as they share the meal. Through this program, food from many different parts of the world, including South America, Vietnam, Hungary, the Philippines, and Lebanon, has been made and shared. “We really see people from all different cultures getting together through this program and starting conversations, building connections, over food. The power of a meal in bringing people together is incredible,” Joe affirms.
While sharing food with others is a very social activity, not having access to food can feel very isolating, especially when people try to hide the fact that they are struggling. With 34% of food bank users saying they have skipped meals so their children could eat, struggling to access their next meal is a tough reality that many people in our city face.
If your plans don’t include a gathering this Thanksgiving weekend, consider volunteering at a soup kitchen, agency, or mission to provide a healthy meal for others. Because food is more than just fuel for the body, it’s also fuel for the soul.
October is End Poverty Month. Learn more what you can do to help end poverty in support of Enough for All, Calgary’s community-driven poverty reduction strategy, stewarded by Vibrant Communities Calgary in partnership with The City of Calgary, Momentum, and United Way of Calgary and Area. Because when armed with knowledge, we are able to come together to build solutions.