IS THERE A WAY TO GET UNUSED FOOD TO HUNGRY FAMILIES?
“I didn’t eat for three days one time.”
Unable to hold back tears, Salina* covers her face with a flowing pink shawl. Silence follows her words. She isn’t talking about life in her home country of Eritrea. She’s talking about her life as a refugee in Canada.
Salina is a widow who found sanctuary in Edmonton in 2006 after fleeing with her daughter from conflict in Eritrea. Since being laid off from a job as a housekeeper, Salina has been looking for work and living on government financial assistance. She uses nine-kilogram bags of barley flour to make breads and porridge and, by the third week of most months, has no money left for food.
A one-year pilot project called the Grocery Run is working to address the dire needs of refugees like Salina, who are trapped in chronic poverty, by collecting good food that would otherwise be thrown out and delivering it to refugee families. The Grocery Run grew out of research by two U of A professors and was initiated by the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth and Families (CUP) in the Faculty of Extension.
Launched in the summer of 2016, the Grocery Run is the definition of a grassroots initiative. Food that would otherwise be thrown away because it’s blemished or the packaging is damaged is donated by local restaurants, hotels, retail outlets and producers. Grocery Run volunteers pick up and distribute the food as quickly as possible to families that can’t even scrape together something to eat for that day’s meals.
Today, Salina has joined two other Grocery Run participants and fellow refugees at Edmonton’s Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative, a CUP ally on the project and the program’s home base. The women sit close together, looking uncertain. Mirkuz, a single mother who arrived from Ethiopia three years ago, is quiet and has a guarded expression. Badata, who is originally from Ethiopia but arrived from a refugee camp in Kenya four months ago, nurses her toddler on her lap as her other young daughter cuddles at her side.
Acting as translator is Dinke Gamtessa, who works with the women and other refugees at the co-operative. She is translator, caregiver and adviser to the refugees. Above all, she is a supportive role model. Gamtessa was a Crown prosecutor in her native Ethiopia before she moved to Canada as a refugee in 2011. After working through financial, cultural and emotional challenges to make a new life for herself and her daughter, she started her job as a “cultural broker” with the co-operative and has her own apartment.
“I don’t want these women to go through what I went through,” Gamtessa says. “I do everything I can to help them. I wish this program had been around when I came to Canada.”
“Dinke, she is like a mom to us,” says Salina, her voice cracking from emotion. “She is family. She helps us so much. Before I met her my face was not good, but now my face is better.” She pats her cheeks to show they are healthier.
Despite the stress of not always having enough food, Salina is happy to be in Canada. “My dream is to stay here and work,” she says. “My country is Canada now and there is peace. We can sleep here safely.”
During its first six weeks, the Grocery Run helped feed more than 80 families who would otherwise have gone hungry. While some clients are able to use Edmonton’s food bank, which provides crucial support, there are often times when the food runs out before they can get their next hamper: their children are hungry and they have to scramble to find food.
“There is so much treading water that families have no time or energy to find sustainable solutions until they find poverty solutions,” says Yvonne Chiu, a founding member and executive director of the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative.
Sandra Ngo, ’12 BSc(Nutr/Food), ’16 MSc, community resource co-ordinator with CUP, helps manage the Grocery Run. She works with volunteers and the cultural brokers, who are a vital link to the families. Logistics include tracking down donations and arranging pickup, finding culturally appropriate food that the families know how to cook, and rounding up delivery drivers. It’s one of many CUP programs that help families create an environment where they can not only survive but also thrive. It’s also part of a larger research program in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences called Enrich, funded by Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions.
The Grocery Run emerged from a 2014-15 U of A study that looked at the effects of economic and cultural barriers on maternal health. Conducted by Maria Mayan, ’90 BSc(HEc), ’96 PhD, assistant director of CUP and a professor in the Faculty of Extension, and Rhonda Bell, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science, the study revealed that healthy eating wasn’t an option when many pregnant and postpartum women weren’t able to get even their basic food needs met. Mayan took what she learned about poverty and health and applied it to her knowledge of food rescue.
“Most people don’t know the depth of poverty in our community, especially for children. This research helps tell the story of poverty and find solutions that honour the dignity and strength of the people we help,” says Chiu. “We need this research to facilitate change.”
Mayan hopes that at the end of the 12-month pilot project, the Grocery Run program will get the nod of approval to continue.
“We have to consider this a human rights issue to be able to eat,” she says. “A lot of these families are in emergency situations and need food right now.”
*The names of Salina, Mirkuz and Badata have been changed.
A healthy crop of kale donated by Lady Flower Gardens will provide much-needed nutrients to hungry refugees in Edmonton. Garden manager Kelly Mills (left) and community resource co-ordinator Sandra Ngo harvest kale for the Grocery Run, a food salvage pilot program led by the U of A’s Community-University Partnership.