Building food security by building community in New West
Times are tough all around, but it's not always easy to reach out for help. One service provider says its community-building foundation provides a natural entry point for supporting families
The small kitchen smells of lentil soup and sounds of children playing.
Laughter and delighted squeals waft in through the doorway as soup is handed out through a window into a larger adjoining room.
In the bottom floor of Qayqayt Elementary School, New Westminster Family Place is giving out its weekly meal—typically done on a Monday, but this week it’s Tuesday due to a professional development day at the school—and parents are raving about Heba Saada’s soup.
It’s one of several spaces where New West Family Place holds drop-in programs for local families, and at Qayqayt, it’s done every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday morning. Most present, aside from the children, are mothers, but fathers also come, and it’s mostly about building community.
“We just provide support, play, [a] chance for parents to connect, really build that community,” says Dana Osiowy, executive director of Family Place.
But in recent years, it has begun filling another role: helping with food security and other affordability issues.
Inflation and affordability
The pandemic had already stretched pocketbooks after leaving many people unemployed or underemployed, and now, as the economy bounces back from that, generational-high inflation rates are stretching bank accounts even further.
While gas prices continued to climb, October’s inflation rate held steady at 6.9% over the same period in 2021, the same rate as was seen in September, according to the Globe and Mail. That’s somewhat eased from the nearly four-decade high of 8.1% seen in June.
While energy prices climbed again last month, the Globe and Mail reported that grocery prices grew slower, helping to ease overall inflation.
Such high inflation rates are hitting people’s pocketbooks hard, and it’s been a top talking point in Parliament, with both the NDP and the Conservatives coming after the Liberals’ economic update from both sides—the former seeking more support for households in need, and the latter calling for no increases in spending.
“I don’t need to say this, but the cost of food is astronomical right now,” Osiowy said.
Osiowy’s work has never been about food security, but Family Place has become an accidental support on that front as more and more families struggle to make ends meet.
“We were seeing a need... for a short time, we had a grant to give out grocery gift cards, and they were for emergencies, and the need was just overwhelming for families who had emergency food needs,” Osiowy said.
“Once we didn’t have a mask mandate anymore, we were like, ‘We could do something about this. Let’s do something to do with soup.’”
Now, once a week, at Qayqayt Elementary, Family Place makes a soup, “and people can come and have as much as they want.”
The need is certainly there.
The Greater Vancouver Food Bank has seen vast growth in its client-base in recent years—and particularly over the last four months.
“We are seeing, in terms of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, almost 1,000 clients have signed up every month for the last four months, which is unlike anything we have ever seen,” said chief operating officer Cynthia Boulter.
That, she said, is net new clients, on top of existing clients.
“When I started, say four-and-a-half years ago, we were serving around 6,000 people a month. We’re up to 13-14,000 a month now, and understandably, that is climbing with all of these new clients that we are seeing,” she said.
That’s all within the food bank’s catchment area, which includes New West, Burnaby, Vancouver, and the North Shore.
While the pandemic drove more people to the food bank, she said the “most aggressive influx” came since the summer.
She said there are three major reasons they’ve heard from new clients who are signing up for the food bank, and that includes being new immigrants, being newly unable to keep up with the cost of living, and being an international student.
The increased workload, Boulter said, is also putting a strain on the food bank, particularly in its volunteer capacity.
“We do have some vacancies, and we talk about … when is it at a point where we can’t keep up with it anymore?” she said.
“We are not there, and we’re grateful for that.”
‘Frankly, that alarms me’
But not all organizations are keeping up, she said. She couldn’t share which individuals or communities, but said some community agencies the food bank works with have stopped taking on new clients.
Others still are closing their services to some demographics and sending them to the food bank directly, though some may already be food bank clients, she said.
“Frankly, that alarms me. It’s one thing to say, ‘We can’t take on any more,’ but it’s another to say, ‘We’re going to cut back, and we’re going to send you our clients,’” she said.
While there has been a strain on the demand side, Boulter said the supply side has so far managed to keep up at the food bank.
Of the food bank’s food donations, 60% is fresh food, she said.
“We have been able to continue the growth of those donations through the pandemic, which has been amazing, and that’s with existing donors as well as by bringing on some new donors,” she said.
“It comes with work. … But that’s been a real success, and wonderful to see the quality of food coming in.”
Increasing food security needs in New West
Claudia Freire, housing and social planner at the City of New Westminster, said the city has been more involved in food security since the onset of the pandemic, hiring Bettina Wheeler with the New Westminster Homelessness Coalition Society to coordinate efforts in the community.
Wheeler said food hubs in New West have similarly multiplied their client base in recent years.
At the start of the pandemic, the city’s food hubs had been serving about 65 households per week.
“Now they’re up to 227 a week. And even just since August, that number has grown from like 196 to 227,” Wheeler said.
“We’ve seen huge increases over in Queensborough and in Sapperton where we weren’t seeing the increases before. A lot of new households [are] coming in.”
On top of those food hubs, other food providers in the city are also seeing increases, she said.
The St. Barnabas Church on Fifth Avenue, which operates a food program that also picks up food through Wheeler, is currently seeing 101 households a week, up from 80 in August—that’s a 25% increase in just a few months.
“When I order, I order, approximately, for 400 [households] each week,” she said.
Osiowy said she believes her organization is reaching people who might not otherwise be comfortable reaching out for help, be it because of language barriers or because they’ve never had to ask for help before.
And a big part of that is because of the community foundation they’ve built their food programs upon. Attending the weekly soup events isn’t just about getting food; it’s about being in a place where parents can connect with parents and for their children to play with other children.
Any stigma that might come with lining up at a food bank is effectively erased by the lack of that pretense in the Family Place drop-ins.
It’s a similar concept to what has been in practice at the New Westminster School District in recent years with its lunch program.
In 2019, the school board approved a move to launch a new lunch program that would serve any child.
All children whose families have signed up for the program can receive food from catering company Simply Foods at lunch time each day. What makes it unique is the sliding scale of cost—families can pay full cost for the meals, or they can apply for a partial or full subsidy.
But none of the kids know which of the other kids are on a subsidy—they all stand in the same line, and meals are either prepaid or a subsidy is arranged behind the scenes with parents, meaning no kid has to face the stigma of being publicly on a subsidy.
A total of 25 to 50 cents of paid meals go towards the subsidies, according to district vice-principal for early learning Tanis Anderson.
A significant increase in subsidies
And parents have said they’re grateful for the program. While some use the program longer-term, others have used the subsidy for a short time until their financial situation has improved.
“And that’s up to the parents. We have families who need to be on this subsidized program longer, and that's OK,” Anderson said.
“And then we’ve had families say that they’re pretty happy that a portion of their full-paying lunches are going towards subsidies, as well. … There’s been a nice sense of community that’s been created with this lunch program.”
And like so many other programs, the pandemic, and now inflation, has tested the capacity of the food program.
Currently, 450 kids are receiving subsidized lunches right now—175 of whom only started on the subsidy this school year.
“We weren’t expecting it to be that significant,” Anderson said of the increase this year. “We were expecting some sort of an increase, but not that much.”
Last year, about halfway through the school year, the district had to double its operating budget for the program to accommodate the needs of families, but it’s unclear whether any similar increase in funding from the school district will be needed again this year.
An entry point for getting help
Saada, an early childhood educator and program manager at Family Place, said part of what makes her proud of the soup days at the Qayqayt drop-in centre is the multicultural aspect.
While she was making lentil soup this week, she said families from other cultures will often bring in their own recipes, and it becomes a sort of communal effort to feed the group.
And Osiowy said that’s reflective of the group as a whole, sharing an anecdote of a father in attendance with his child absent-mindedly rocking a stroller occupied by another parent’s child. It’s not just a place for parents to connect with services or other parents, but a space for children to be raised, if only for a moment, by a community.
“It’s not just a focus about only low-income families, like a financial thing; it’s more like a community thing,” she said.
But in tough economic times, Osiowy said, affordability and food security do tend to become front-of-mind.
One example, which she can’t concretely tie to increased affordability challenges but which she believes to be related, is Family Place’s programming beyond the basics.
Prior to the pandemic, workshops on various aspects of parenting were “oversubscribed,” she said—parents couldn’t get enough of them.
But now, she said, parents will more often drop out of those workshops, or they won’t attend at all. And she said she believes it’s because parents are more preoccupied with day-to-day necessities—the more energy it takes to ensure children are being fed, the less energy there is to focus on what might seem extracurricular.
But Saaba believes being a regular contact point for parents makes them a natural point of entry for accessing those needs.
Being comfortable with the program and being able to ask for help there makes having those conversations easier for parents, she said.
“When they eat here together as a family, and sometimes they take it home, and they save for lunch or dinner. Sometimes, some families are so shy to ask for that stuff, so when we provide it, it’s really helpful for them because it’s easy to take without [being] embarrassing,” she said.
“[It’s] more comfortable to talk about this thing because when we’re making the food or talking about food, … [it] starts to be easier for them.”