Our recent webinar Setting more places at the table: From social isolation to community connection, featured André Picard, The Globe and Mail’s public health reporter and Wellesley Institute researcher Laura Anderson. We explored how social connection is a key determinant of health and how food acts as a powerful tool to bring people together.
For those of us doing community food programs, how can we apply the big picture ideas shared in the webinar to the work we do? We asked Steve Stacey, The Local CFC's Director of Fundraising and Communications, to share practical ways his organization tackles social isolation.
At The Local Community Food Centre, our goal is to empower people to break through any barriers they face: if people don’t have enough income to afford good food, we can provide them with access through our community kitchens, gardens, and our Community Access Market. If people lack the skills to cook healthy food on a tight budget, we can help equip them with tools through our cooking classes. But as André Picard and Laura Anderson mentioned, there is another barrier to accessing good healthy food that is not as obvious: social isolation.
At The Local we have created a space where those who otherwise might find themselves with nowhere to go, and no one to be with, can come and be part of a community. For some of our programs, like our Seniors Lunch, reducing social isolation by bringing people together around the table each week is a key outcome. Other programs aren’t deliberately designed to target those who are marginalized and alone, but they end up serving that purpose. We know this is the case based on the stories people tell us! I’d like to share a few of those stories with you.
One elderly gentleman at the Seniors Lunch came up to me not long ago and shared his story. His wife recently went into long term care. He went to visit her every day, but when he wasn’t visiting her he had no one to be with. He had no one to eat with. And even if he had the skills (he wasn’t much of a cook) there was no motivation to shop and cook a healthy meal from scratch for just himself. He wanted to thank The Local for giving him a place to go and meet new people and enjoy a meal with others, it was always the highlight of his week.
When Thomas divorced from his wife he found that he was very lonely. In the wake of his split he also found himself living off fast food for three meals a day. He came across the Tuesday evening Community Kitchen at the Local and discovered that both of his problems – a lack of connectedness and a lack of ideas and skills for cooking for himself – were helped by participating in this weekly cooking class. He quickly developed a strong bond with two seniors who volunteered and with Kate the facilitator and has rarely missed a Tuesday night in two years.
If you asked Mandy what she was doing four years ago, she would tell you she was homeless, depressed and suicidal. She was completely alone and isolated. Mandy was thrown a lifeline when a friend connected her to the Canadian Mental Health Association. As it happened, this was right around the same time The Local’s very first program – Shovel to Spoon – was launched in partnership with the CMHA. Mandy was part of our very first group, and not only did she learn how to garden and cook healthy food on a budget, she made a lot of new friends. Now Mandy is an important part of our volunteer team. She comes early to the Cook Ahead program every week to assist with printing recipes, setting up the kitchen, and other preparations. She feels that volunteering at The Local gives her a sense of purpose, and the community is always happy to see her when she comes in Monday mornings.
There are many more stories we’ve come across, and while they might involve people in different situations, they all share one thing: It might seem at first that people are coming to The Local for the food-based programs, but the nourishment they are actually looking for is what they get from being with other people.