Community Through Food at Chandler Mowat

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House of Friendship (HoF) runs an Emergency Food Hamper program. If you’re reading this blog, you likely already know this. You might not, however, know that—or how—food is a big part of many other HoF programs. That’s a shame, because food is great. It brings people together, it is a vehicle for change, and it tastes so good! To help share the story of food at HoF, we enlisted our two summer students, Chloe and Khadija. Together they visited the Chandler-Mowat community centre, and what follows are their collected thoughts.

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Chandler-Mowat is one of House of Friendship’s four community centres, which the organization runs in partnership with the City of Kitchener. The community centre is also home to many City of Kitchener employees, volunteers, and so many of the wonderful folks around the neighbourhood.

Thursday afternoons are a busy time at Chandler Mowat. The food distribution program at the Chandler Community Centre is held once a week in their gym. It’s set up much like the farmer’s market with tables of food and community members walking by picking what they like. The only difference is that there is no exchange of goods – they are given away freely by program volunteers! Food distribution starts at 2:00, but it is not uncommon to see many patrons sitting in the waiting area well before it starts, catching up with neighbours.

The food that the community centre receives comes from different places.  The Food Bank of Waterloo Region, local supporters and recently, Food Not Waste, a local nonprofit that collects leftover food from restaurants and grocery stores to be delivered freshly to local organizations like the hostel and Chandler Mowat.

The food distribution program aims to do a number of things, including reducing hunger in the neighbourhood. Anybody living in the catchment area (a geographical boundary designated by the Region of Waterloo) centre can participate. Devon, the program coordinator, emphasized the importance of building trust and relationships with the residents—goals she said go hand in hand with the process of food distribution. Participants only go through intake once – when they first ask to be part of the program.  In future visits, a Family Outreach Worker named Aline marks the names of the participants she sees on a sheet of paper; Devon and Aline know everyone they serve.

The process of food distribution really stood out for me, not only because of how welcoming it was, but also how much it differs from the process at the Emergency Food Hamper Program. Here we go through the intake process with all our patrons every time they come in, and then we pack food hampers for them. This is because we serve patrons living throughout Kitchener and Waterloo, whereas Chandler Mowat serves a single neighbourhood. Because the sizes of the communities served are so different, it was interesting to see another approach to handling food distribution.

Finally, it’s clear that the community centre is in-tune with the needs of the neighbourhood. A year and half ago there was a large review of our services here at the community centre to figure out the root of the problem was. Devon had about 300 community conversations with Chandler residents whether that was in the park, community centre and front porches asking what people’s essential needs were, what was going well in the local community centre and what could be improved upon. She wanted to know how it was that we could help make the community centre feel like an inviting and inclusive space for people of all backgrounds and age groups. Food security emerged as a key community concern, and more specifically food that is religiously and culturally appropriate. People also wanted to get their food and have the chance to converse with people, talk about their day and come in to experience community. This food distribution program is a way for the community to gain a sense of belonging.

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So by building trust with the community, Devon and others were able to find specific issues to address. For example, seeing the need for more halal food in the community, Chandler has started a weekly halal lunch program. Here, kids are able to get a free lunch suited to their specific diet, and even choose snacks to go with it. Chandler Mowat is in partnership with a church called The Gathering to make this program happen. A program like this starts and even grows with listening so as to understand the surrounding community and how to deliver the best and most meaningful services.

The Chandler Mowat Community Centre also builds relationships all across the region! Devon put it this way:  “Donations are possible by strategically resourcing the wider community to provide items that meet the needs of the Chandler Mowat one. For example, our allotment for halal meat is possible by Muslim Social Services and our adult food program is possible by the perishable and nonperishable goods from the Food Bank of Waterloo Region.”

A church group comes together and provides fresh fruit for the children. A grant given by an initiative called “Show Kids You Care” also keeps the food program going.  A while ago Chandler had started a partnership with African Family Revival Organization (AFRO) who offer translation services in languages from all across the horn of Africa; in a diverse community like Chandler that has been a much needed service.

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I am glad that I had the chance to visit Chandler Mowat. It was great to see another program making food their focus, spending so much time alleviating hunger in the community. It was also great to hear Devon talk through the big questions that her program continues to reflect upon. For example, Who’s not in the building? Who’s not here? Those voices that are lacking and have not been resourced are very important. The community centre is reaching out to the people who live beyond the few blocks around the community centre (for example, a backpack drive was just organized for folks living in the Valleyview area of Chandler Mowat catchment and the House of Friendship will be assisting in completing a needs assessment in this area beginning this fall) so that there is a place at the table for them. Finally, I loved how much the staff and volunteers make an effort to get to know the patrons, even knowing them by first name. As their program makes clear, food assistance programs can operate in ways that build trust and thereby, strengthen communities.

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