Food program offers lifeline to immigrant and refugee families in need

"To me, this program is like oxygen."

When Marilena arrived in Edmonton from Romania three years ago to join her husband, she weighed 70 kilograms. Six months later, the couple split up and she was left to fend for herself and their young son. Her weight soon dropped almost 20 kilograms.

"I was starved," she said. "First for me, it was important for my son to have something to eat. Then if something remained in his bowl, I ate it myself."

Struggling with her English skills and an economics degree not recognized in Canada, Marilena was grateful for social assistance that covered rent-but it didn't stretch to cover food.

When she connected last year with Grocery Run, a new program that provides healthy leftover food from store shelves, it was a lifesaver. She continues to rely on it to feed herself and her child as she takes English language classes and gets her new life on track.

Providing food while reducing food waste

Marilena's situation-and that of other immigrant moms grappling with food security-is at the heart of a problem-solving partnership led by researchers at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Extension. Grocery Run is one of the results.

"This is a food waste reduction strategy that is really just a creative way to get food directly to families who need it," said lead researcher Maria Mayan, who studies poverty.

The stop-gap program was started in response to the overwhelming need women and their families had for same-day food, said Sandra Ngo, co-ordinator of the Grocery Run program and U of A alumna in nutritional science and agricultural economics.

Grassroots community workers with Edmonton's Multicultural Health Brokers Co-operative were working holistically with these families to secure housing and income assistance, but instead found themselves scrambling just to make sure they had food for the day-often using their own money to buy enough for evening suppers and school lunches.

"The food security piece was really hampering their efforts, taking away from what the brokers were already trying to do," Ngo said.

Mayan teamed with the co-operative in 2013, and through a U of A nutrition research project for pregnant and postpartum women in Alberta called ENRICH, laid the groundwork for Grocery Run. The food program is part of a larger initiative working with immigrant and refugee families in numerous strategies that, when combined, will enable them to thrive as they build new lives.

They used to be able to grow whatever they needed

With the economic downturn in Alberta, it's become even harder for everyone, including immigrants, to find work-especially those like Marilena with language barriers. Ngo knows of families existing on a child tax benefit of $900 a month-with $850 of it going to rent. "A lot of families are really struggling and are quite trapped."

An ENRICH survey of 213 families with the co-operative showed 53 per cent were very food insecure in the previous year, with 31 per cent reporting children not eating for a whole day because there wasn't enough money to buy food. On top of that, many of the immigrant women, particularly those from Africa, were at a loss as to how to get healthy food for themselves here.

"Back home, they were skilled farmers with land and year-round sunshine, so they grew whatever they needed. But they don't have access to that here," Ngo said.

"We tend to think women are in Canada by choice, but most left their families, jobs and social networks to escape extreme persecution, so there are many struggles in the first few years," said Maira Quintanilha, a researcher with ENRICH. "They want to make simple, healthy meals for their families, but don't have the financial means to do so."

Although food rescue could be seen as a way of foisting off substandard fare to the needy, most people are on board with addressing food waste.

"Our project lies beautifully in the middle. We are reducing food waste while addressing immediate needs of those who are hungry," said Mayan.

The Canadian food system-from farm to factory to shelf to fork-throws away 40 per cent of the food it produces annually, she noted.

Grocery Run, based at McCauley School in downtown Edmonton, has handed out 3.2 tonnes of food to 130 families so far. It supplies 20 to 30 families per week, with most of the food provided by two Edmonton companies that donate bread and potatoes.

Building community and a support network

Every Thursday afternoon, moms and their babies-and the occasional single dad-drop in to the school's lunchroom to collect food from assorted bins and if they have time, linger for tea and conversation, which helps them build a support network.

"They have the opportunity to connect with other women who are going through similar experiences, and they'll tell each other about resources, events, things in the community that might be valuable for them," Ngo said. "We can use food as a gateway to addressing a lot of the social issues these families face, like language. If we can get people to congregate in the same space, we can really capitalize on that, to do more than the program might be intended for."

Ngo is working to find grocers willing to donate a greater variety of culturally appropriate food staples like flour, lentils, pasta, rice, beans, fresh fruit and vegetables. "That is what our families want to eat," she said.

Meanwhile, Marilena is able to stretch her Grocery Run staples into nourishing meals.

"I am from Eastern Europe, and we cook a lot. If you give me potatoes, tomatoes, rice, bread, I can cook a lot of things. To me, this program is like oxygen."