Moving from charity to solidarity: snapshot of the Alex Community Food Centre

The Alex Community Food Centre in Calgary has only been open since September 2016, but in that short time, it has made an incredible impact on the community. Visitors to the centre will immediately notice a slogan, “Good food is just the beginning”, painted in large lettering near the facility’s kitchen. This principle is fully reflected in the organization’s wide variety of programs and initiatives, as well as in the impacts that each of these programs have on the community. According to the Alex CFC’s website, their main aims are to “provide people with access to high-quality food in a dignified setting”. This is accomplished through a focus on food access, food skills, and education. The Alex CFC is under the umbrella of two larger organizations: Calgary-based The Alex and Toronto-based Community Food Centres Canada, each of which provide essential support for operations. The following profile will detail where the Alex CFC is on the road to accomplishing their vision, outlining how the organization functions day-to-day and what its future directions are. This is informed by Miriam Bankey, the Alex CFC’s Food Skills Coordinator, with supplementary information from Renee MacKillop, the Alex CFC’s Project Manager.

Background: How the Alex CFC got started

The location and physical space of the Alex CFC are key parts of what makes it so special. Originally a restaurant, the space was transformed pro bono by Frank Architecture, a Calgary firm. Upon walking into the building, visitors are welcomed into a bright and open seating area with colourful chairs and tables alongside a coffee and tea station filled with mismatched cups and mugs. Other features of interest in the centre include its state of the art, fully-equipped kitchen, outdoor gardening space, and smoothie-making bicycles. Overall, the facility’s atmosphere is one of openness, friendliness, and most importantly, a feeling of being “lived-in”, which is a key part of what the Alex aims to achieve through its programming. According to Bankey, “there is something when people come into the space, there are cues we’ve intentionally created, by the design of the place, the lighting of the place and what it begets… about the place being inclusive, a safe space where people become comfortable quite quickly”. This helps build community ownership of the space and increase inclusivity.

The community in which the Alex CFC is situated is Greater Forest Lawn, an area with persistent high food insecurity and poverty. Compared to the rest of Calgary, this neighbourhood has higher unemployment rates, more single family households, and a larger proportion of the population below the poverty line, or low-income cut-off (LICO). The area also has a high number of Aboriginal residents, is very multicultural, and is home to “International Avenue”, where it’s said that you can “travel the world in 35 blocks”.  Although the community members who participate in the Alex CFC’s programs and utilise the services the centre provides are largely from the immediate and greater Forest Lawn community, people from other communities do visit. According to Bankey, this is due to the overall lack of food programming with “a similar holistic and systemic lens that’s bigger than just the handout” in the Calgary area.

Looking ahead, the Alex CFC has a number of short and long-term goals. This year, they aim to establish and develop an urban garden atop part of the existing parking lot, which will become a program area for community members and volunteers. They also hope to further expand their fresh food market program, as well as eventually increase programs for children and youth. Long-term goals include further social innovation, and incorporating food programming on a systemic level.

Organizational structure and programming

The Alex CFC has six full-time employees and approximately sixty volunteers. With these staff and volunteers, the centre focuses on the program areas of healthy food access, healthy food skills, and education and engagement. The Alex CFC has the vision of everyone having “the means and knowledge necessary to access good, healthy food in a dignified way, and the ability and opportunity to be heard on the food issues that affect them”. Aligning with this vision has meant that so far, the organization has cultivated a new food philosophy that goes against traditional examples of food charity, and generated community cohesion around the space and the centre’s philosophy. Within the nonprofit sector, the Alex CFC is unique in that it concretely connects food, health, and community outcomes: prioritizing a nutritious diet and community connection as a key aspect of quality of life.

The programming area of healthy food access is addressed via a Wednesday drop-in community meal and a Friday affordable produce market. Every Wednesday, “community members can come in, grab a coffee or tea, something to eat”. Bi-weekly, this meal is in partnership with the Aboriginal Friendship centre, so dishes are prepared with a focus on traditional indigenous ingredients and dishes. Every Friday, the drop-in café and produce market allows community members to access fresh produce through a suggested donation/pay-what-you-can format. Produce at the market is sourced from different producers, with donations from 7K Ranch, GFS, Blush Lane Organic Market, Cob’s bakery, YYC Growers, and other local producers. Most of the produce is donated, though a certain portion is purchased to ensure a good selection. This format of the produce market aims to re-jig how people traditionally access food aid, rethinking narratives of how emergency food is accessed. Instead of picking up food hampers or “stand[ing] in that line, [community members] can relax and sit and meet people and drink coffee and have something to eat”. Also on Fridays are pedal-powered smoothies for kids, providing the opportunity to learn about food preparation, healthy living, and get a nutritious snack.

The second area of programming focus at the Alex CFC is healthy food skills, with the aim to help people develop healthy food behaviours and skills through the areas of gardening and cooking. The three main cooking programs are FoodFit, which is a food skills program, teaching “everything from grocery shopping to knife skills and of course, nutrition”, International Ave Kitchen, where participants “showcase their family recipes…[sharing] story and culture through food”, and Kids in the Kitchen, where children ages 7-12 learn about “healthy food, cooking skills and of course have fun”. The gardening aspect of food skills programming is just getting started this year, with the planned outdoor garden space soon to have programming in place, with the overall intentions of further developing food-related skills, and building community in the process.

The third and final area of programming focus is education and engagement, which has the aim of giving “individuals and communities voice and agency on food and hunger issues”. This program area allows the lens of advocacy to be applied: as Bankey commented, food is an ”amazing hook to bring people in the door, but we know that food insecurity is…caused by bigger systemic issues”. The Alex CFC allows participants to come together to discuss larger systemic issues through their Community Action Training (CAT); a 12-week program where participants learn to “advocate, navigate social systems and take action on issues in the community”. There are separate youth and adult CAT programs, and once participants have completed the training, they graduate to the role of a peer support worker for an honourarium. Also under the education and engagement area of programming is Cooking Up Justice engages youth in social justice and community action. The Advocacy Office is run by trained Peer Advocates.

Partnerships

According to Bankey, partnerships “make the wheel go round” at the Alex CFC, because partnerships were essential both in getting the organization started, and are necessary for everyday operations. As an affiliate of Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), the Alex CFC is provided with “financial support, programmatic support and shared resources as well as knowledge exchange networks”. The Alex CFC is the only Alberta Community Food Centre, and is one of eight in Canada. In addition, the Alex CFC is just one of the many arms of the Alex, which is a Calgary nonprofit community health, housing, and food organization that aims to alleviate health and social issues in innovative ways. As an arm of the Alex, the Alex CFC can take advantage of the Alex’s established relationship with Calgary’s low-income population. Bankey commented that in being a branch of the Alex, there are “already relationships built, [the Alex already has] doctors and psychologists and social workers, the whole shebang.” In addition, being a part of the Alex also allows the Alex CFC to avoid administrative costs.

Other partnerships are with community organizations. Community partners play roles in nearly every aspect of the Alex CFC’s programming. For instance, 7K Ranch, a local farm, has a plot of land that grows specifically for the Alex CFC. Other examples include the Awo Taan Calgary Shelter for Women Fleeing Domestic Violence and Abuse, that partnered with the Alex CFC to offer an Aboriginal perinatal workshop, or the East Calgary Health Centre, that helped put on a healthy living diabetes class. One event, held each October, is the Restaurants for Change initiative, where across Calgary, Bankey commented, “a bunch of the big local restaurants will donate the evening’s earnings to us specifically or Community Food Centres Canada”. Other community partners include but are not limited to the Aboriginal Friendship Centre, Leftovers YYC, East Side Health Clinic, East Calgary Health Centre, Carya Society of Calgary, Sunrise Community League, and YYC Growers.

Challenges, opportunities, goals, and future directions

Despite being open for less than a year, the Alex CFC has already firmly established itself within the community, as a place for equity, participation, and inclusion. Proof of the organization’s success lies in the ability of the space to bring together diverse groups through food. One such case, commented Bankey, was where members of the Filipino and Aboriginal communities came to the Alex CFC for a night of food and drumming, following an incident between members of the two groups. Elders and community leaders “shared elk stew and chicken adobo”, and had the space and opportunity to have an open discussion about troublesome issues facing their communities. Another case of embracing of the spirit of diversity and inclusion through community events is the Alex CFC’s work with the Syrian community, many members of which live near the centre and are newcomers. One event for this group was a Muslim Mother’s Day event, where Bankey commented that “there were 75-100 Syrian mothers and kids [at the centre]. We put paper on the windows and they took their hijabs off and had a dance party”. From these clear cases of diversity and openness, future opportunities lie in expanding collaboration and connectivity between disparate groups across the city. Bankey commented that the recent adoption of a sliding scale for low-income transit passes, with costs as low as $5.05 per month, may aid in the ability of low-income people from across Calgary to access the Alex’s services.

As of yet, the Alex CFC itself has not experienced many challenges, largely in part, according to Bankey, that the organization is “new and shiny so a lot of people want to partner”. The main challenge lies in equally addressing all program areas with such a small team of staff, who has to be “able to juggle and work with and engage a lot of people…finding the time in drop in situations to meet [with] people [individually], and to have conversations, because there’s such an inflow of people with diverse needs”. This means that volunteers are essential for the organization. With the challenge of a small staff comes the opportunity of expansive volunteer options and further community ownership for the organization. Management of the many volunteers at the Alex CFC is a challenging task, and the organization heavily relies on volunteers to accomplish its programming. Volunteers assist in many facets of operations: such as helping out at food skills classes, preparing and serving community meals, building the garden,maintaining databases, and organizing photos from events. According to Bankey, the organization’s reliance on volunteers is much more of an opportunity than a challenge, and that volunteers can “grow and graduate and have ownership” through participating in the volunteer program. The volunteer base allows “people who go through [the] programs and engage with the space [to] become ambassadors”.

Overall, the clear opportunities for the Alex CFC lie in its ability to cultivate relationships within and between communities and community members. Examples of these connections could include partnerships with academic institutions, such as projects with Calgary universities related to community development, or with other community organizations. Renee Mackillop, the Alex’s manager, notes that opportunities also lie in the fact that there is “a general increase in understanding of the importance of nutrition and connecting food and health. Food is a tangible means to connecting with people living on low incomes and sparking discussions of health, community, connection, skills, and sustainability”.

 


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