Last summer, Russell (last name withheld) was thinking about leaving his Dartmouth North neighbourhood. The 55-year-old from Pictou Landing First Nation had been there for three years, but he rarely left his home and he didn’t feel safe going out at night.
But then the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre, a project of Dartmouth Family Centre, opened in August 2015 on Primrose Street, and things changed. For weeks Russell watched all the activity around the centre and finally, on his birthday, he decided to check it out. “I walked in for lunch. 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.”
Soon Russell joined the Community Kitchen program, where neighbours cook and share meals every week, and now he’s volunteering at the centre as well. “It’s so handy for me,” he says. “This place has given me a reason to wake up in the morning. I take pride in volunteering here.”
And that’s the basic philosophy here, says the centre’s farm coordinator, Rob MacNeish. “Change starts with good food.”
MacNeish and I are outside today, on the centre’s growing 20,000-square-foot urban farm. The sun is shining down bright and hot on us and rows of kale, garlic, tomatoes, beans, squashes and cucumbers. Around the perimeter are berry beds and fruit trees, and near the front is the skeleton of a greenhouse and a few community garden beds. Earlier, kids here for one of the Community Kitchen programs came out and harvested some of that kale and then took it inside to make Caesar salads. All of the food grown here goes inside for the centre’s programming or to the community members who grew it.
About 335 programs ranging from cooking classes to family suppers were delivered here in the first seven months. And on Saturdays, during the popular Good Food Market and Café, where fresh food is sold at cost, about 25,000 pounds fresh produce was distributed — a godsend for people from the neighbourhood who’ve been living in a food desert since 2012. “Look how far you have to go to get groceries, fresh food,” says MacNeish. “There’s Sobeys and No Frills on Wyse. But people who have mobility issues or don’t have a car, getting fresh food can be a trek, a three-hour process for some.”
And that’s not even mentioning the cost of food, which has increased about 44 per cent over the past 15 years across the province. For people from this neighborhood — where about 40 per cent are below the low income level — getting fresh, affordable food that the centre provides is rare.
But as MacNeish hinted at earlier, food isn’t the only focus here. As we step inside the bright, open, 5,000-square-foot centre with a huge commercial kitchen and tables for about 90 people, MacNeish points to the Community Action Office just inside the front door. There, a team of trained community peer advocates offer support, information and referral on a wide range of issues, such as income assistance, land and tenancy issues, health services, pensions, addictions services, and food banks.
Often, says MacNeish, someone will come in for a meal or the market and then see that they can get help with all of these different issues. “So the way we look at it is that food is the draw, but food security isn’t just about food. It’s about social justice, income equality, all of these different things.”
That’s the way Community Food Centres Canada looks at it too. They’re the umbrella organization with seven community food centres like this one across Canada (Dartmouth North is the first on the east coast). They, along with a growing group of local partners, provide support and funding to keep the doors open and all of the programs going.
“It’ll take us 10 years, I think, to have a strong, sustainable network of supporters, but we are doing very well for an organization that’s been open for one year,” says Anne-Marie McElrone, director of partnership development for the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre.
For now the focus is on growing, getting people to know about this place and engaging a community that has too often been ignored. This fall, part of that engagement plan will be developing a strategy to increase voter turnout in the municipal election. During the last election, voter turnout in this riding was three per cent; McElrone and her team hope to help double that number.
“So it’s not just about food here,” says McElrone, “It’s about engaging, it’s about being together. The sitting down and eating together is just as important as the eating.”
Russell agrees. The food and location were big draws, he says, but the biggest benefit has been the people. “I’ve made friends. Now I meet people on the street and say hello. I finally feel at home.”