It’s Friday morning at the Sackville Public Library. Soothing music plays softly in the background as volunteers and staff prepare for the weekly community café in the facility’s kitchen.
Individually wrapped muffins and bagels sit on a table alongside packages of butter and cream cheese, juice boxes, fresh fruit, and pots of yogurt. The doors open and the smell of fresh coffee fills the air as people in search of a free breakfast begin to trickle in.
Some regular patrons exchange pleasantries with staff and volunteers behind the counter before grabbing a cup of hot chocolate, tea, or coffee, and food to go.
A woman named Tammy is one of the first to sit down at a table with food and a hot drink. She moved to Sackville a few months ago and is soon starting a new job.
Tammy, a single mom, is also being evicted from her home this week. On Friday, she wasn’t yet sure where she and her three children would end up. But she remained hopeful a solution would be found.
‘Can’t turn a blind eye’
This was Tammy’s second visit to the community café. She learned of its existence through a calendar posted at the library. She described the weekly event as offering a “good atmosphere,” adding that she intends to continue dropping in for the free food, but also for the social connections.
Tammy isn’t alone.
According to the Sackville library’s community navigator Shawn Gregory, over the last year the number of people attending the weekly café has more than doubled.
“People today may be coming here just to have some breakfast, or they may take some more items, too,” Gregory said in an interview. “Then this may be their breakfast for tomorrow or for the next day. And that’s OK. That’s what it’s for.”
Families, seniors, people from the local shelter, and newcomers are among those who attend the weekly café. Some stay to socialize while others put food in a brown bag and leave. The weekly café predates COVID by several years, but attendance has skyrocketed in the last year.
“We get between 30 and 50 people every week… Certainly over the past year the number has doubled or tripled for sure for us,” Gregory said. “We started off with a dozen people a year ago when I started here, and we’ve certainly had over 50 people on occasion.”
While continuing to offer traditional library services, Gregory said they’re now focusing far more on the social needs in the community.
“It’s meeting the needs of the people that walk through our doors every day,” he said. “And we just can’t turn a blind eye to that. It’s so important if we can help somebody.”
New food security network
Recognizing the growing issue of food insecurity in the area served by the Cobequid Community Health Centre, the Sackville Public Library is one of several local organizations that belong to the recently formed Cobequid Food Security Network.
Initiated by the Cobequid Community Health Board, the goal of the food security network is for community groups to pool their resources, skills, knowledge, and spaces to better help people who are struggling to feed themselves and their families.
As members work to get the word out, students at a local school are pitching in and developing a logo for the organization.
“There’s a lot of anxiety for people right now. They’re nervous about what’s going on with the economy. They’re worried about so many different things. Food is just one thing, housing is another thing. Just providing for your family, or you may be going through some personal things in your life,” Gregory said.
“When you’re juggling all that, how do you do it? It’s so stressful and you’re so anxious. Then you may see the news and then you see, ‘Oh, gas went up,’ or the price of this item at the grocery store you need went up and it was far cheaper last week. It’s difficult for people right now.”
Finding free and low cost food
The coalition’s members created a monthly food calendar highlighting all the days, times, and places where people in the community can get free or low cost food. The colour-coded calendar highlights local food banks, meals, and food programs.
There are also several church-based food initiatives and other food-related offerings featured on the calendar. It also notes that the Sackville Public Library offers snacks whenever it’s open and while supplies last.
“I’ve never been in that situation where I haven’t had food for 24 hours, 48 hours. I know some people out there have experienced that, are experiencing that right now,” Gregory said.
“If we can help out in some way, organizing ourselves a little bit more, providing more opportunities, thinking about reducing those barriers that are out there… hopefully that provides easier access for people.”
Although there are typically food options from Monday to Friday and one or two on Saturday, the plan is to try and ensure access at different times of day, seven days a week. Members of the food security network print copies of their calendar to send to local organizations and hand them out to those seeking food.
“I have printed copies for people to pick up at the supper at Freedom Kitchen. We have Square Roots here (library) on Saturday morning, and as people are picking up bags, they will be able to get a food calendar,” Gregory said.
“So, as you are getting food, seeking food, you can also determine each day of the week ‘Where I can go to get other food?’ That knowledge isn’t always out there for people when you are struggling and searching around for things.”
One of the Cobequid Food Security Network’s plans is the launch of a frozen soup project in the coming months. Inspired by a similar initiative in West Hants, the idea is to offer a variety of healthy and hearty soup options.
These can be regularly accessed at sites throughout the community via strategically placed freezers.
“One big barrier to food is transportation. So, if you live down the road, you can’t necessarily always get up here and this is where the food may be,” Gregory said. “So, that is a barrier. Or even when you think about communities just outside of Sackville, it’s the same thing. That’s a big barrier because not everybody has a car.”
Gregory said the food network also hopes to secure funding to hire a food coordinator in the next year. Because group members have their own organizational duties, he said having someone devoted to the project would help them accomplish their goals more quickly.
“We are together trying to help the public. I think that gives a lot of people some hope in the community, because it’s so tough right now with everything,” Gregory said.
Gregory believes what the food network — and a closely tied housing support network — is doing collaboratively is unique, at least in HRM.
“Communities are working together to take it upon themselves to zero in on their area, to see what they can do to help people in their area… I think that just builds a stronger community in the long run,” he said.
‘As soon as we stock it, it’s empty’
The Nova Scotia Works employment services centre in Lower Sackville is also part of the network. It hosts a community fridge and pantry at its Cobequid Road site.
Accessible every weekday when the centre is open, demand for food from the community fridge has also grown in the last six months.
“We have people coming in every day now. It used to be sporadic throughout the week,” Nova Scotia Works-Opportunity Place director Sarah McCormick said. “As soon as we stock it, it’s empty. Because donations are low, we’ve had to limit how much people can take.”
McCormick said staff volunteer their time to keep the fridge and pantry stocked, but community donations are vital. While their board supports the initiative by topping up supplies, she hopes as more people learn of the community fridge and pantry’s existence, they’ll consider donating food and personal hygiene products.
The most popular items are bread, cheese, milk, and eggs. Due to the number of families accessing the service, snack items suitable for children as well as baby formula, yogurt, margarine, and cereals are also needed.
In addition to typical non-perishable food items like canned fish, meats, pasta, and sauces, fruits like oranges and apples fly off the shelves. The centre also accepts grocery store gift cards to purchase food for the fridge and pantry or to give out to people who need them.
McCormick stressed it was important for people to know the fridge is open to the public, not just the centre’s clients.
‘Do better together’
The Cobequid Community Health Board’s coordinator, Denise VanWychen, said while conversations started about one year ago, local groups have been steadily building the food security network since September.
“This whole struggle that people must have between do I go get food, do I pay my rent, do I send my kid to school with a lunch,” VanWychen said in an interview.
“What choices they must have to make and balance with a little bit of whatever funds they have coming in, or no funds, to try to figure that out. And if the community can supply the food or the breakfast, that’s one less thing they have to deal with that day.”
Despite so many organizations doing great work, VanWychen there’s so much need in the community that it made sense to pool resources.
“We’re all here for the same purpose. We’re all trying to feed those who need to be fed. We can do a better job together than we can by ourselves,” Van Wychen said. “We have a stronger voice, we have more skills, we have more resources and assets to pull it all together.”
One of the drawbacks to the meal programs currently on offer is they’re only available at set times. That’s why the network has “big plans” for the frozen soup project.
The group is applying for funding to purchase required supplies. Meals like frozen soups, stews, and chilis can be stored on a longer-term basis and picked up even if people can’t attend established programs. The frozen meals will be budget friendly, and recipes will be provided.
VanWychen said freezers will be installed in entryways of local organizations so people aren’t required to ask for the food. They can just drop in and take it when needed.
‘It’s a Band-Aid’
“The coalition came together and said, if we could really increase the amount of food in community collectively, that would be a way that we could all participate and take the frozen food, give it to our clients, but also expand who might be able to use the food outside of the programs we already have,” VanWychen said.
Although most of the new food security network’s offerings are based in the Sackville/ Bedford area, VanWychen said the goal is to expand to all areas covered by the Cobequid Community Health Board. That includes Beaver Bank, Fall River, Waverley, Wellington, Hammonds Plains, Lucasville, and Stillwater Lake.
“It’s the client stories that we need to tell people about so they understand that it could be you, it could be me, it could be your neighbour. There are people who need food. And the work that we’re doing, the work that the groups are doing, is good work. But we shouldn’t be needing to do it,” Van Wychen said.
“Food banks were created as an emergency short-term solution to the fact that people needed food. This is not a solution to the food insecurity that’s happening in this province right now. It’s a Band-Aid. And it’s wonderful that we’re able to do what we’re doing, but it’s not sustainable.”
The network is looking for food donations and volunteers to help with food distribution. The group is working on its social media presence, but anyone interested in helping out can inquire by email.
‘Food brings people together’
VanWychen said people who are food insecure are often getting “so much more” than food by attending programs like Knox United Church’s Freedom Kitchen or receiving deliveries from Meals to Wheels.
While she hopes food insecurity disappears, she wants people to continue being brought together around food for the social connections it provides.
“A volunteer who’s delivering the food comes in and talks to somebody, gives them a little bit of their time. That might be the only person that person sees for the next week. When they’re standing up in line at the Freedom Kitchen to get their meal on Monday night, they’re hearing all kinds of stories, people talking about their day and their life and their week,” Van Wychen said.
“They’ve started putting picnic tables out now. People are staying to socialize. Yes, the food has brought them together for a really bad purpose. But they’ve created this kind of community as well. And hope. When we talk about mental health, we talk about bringing people together. Food is the catalyst that brings people together. The things they receive out of that are not just the food, but all these other kinds of things.”
Tammy, the single mom facing eviction who attended the library’s community café on Friday, would agree. She expressed gratitude for the free breakfast and the brief respite it offered from life’s stresses.
But she also said the opportunity to socialize and feel connected to her community was already having a positive impact.
“In my experience, things like this café just make you human. And humanity needs to be connected. This is a connection, it’s a part of connection,” Tammy said, smiling broadly. “And I hope if we bump into each other a few months from now, it’ll be a different story for me.”
Food insecurity sounds like a five dollar word for poverty. Band-aids are important and people helping is good, but it might be more productive “for community groups to pool their resources, skills, knowledge, and spaces to better” force changes in government economic policy. One of the drawbacks of these efforts is they allow governments to avoid responsibility, and they allow individuals to do things like vote for lower taxes and fewer social programs guilt-free since they give a tin of food to “the poor” every Christmas.