People and programs 05/15/2018

“I often say to people, If you left your baggage at the door, no one would be able to walk through it.”

Miriam Bankey brings a rare combination of energy and serenity to the Calgary kitchen where she spends much of her time. She’s been coordinating food skills programs at The Alex Community Food Centre since it opened in 2016. There, she creates an inclusive and easy-going environment where people can learn about different foods, prepare low-cost, good-for-you recipes, learn new skills, and connect with others.

The people in Bankey’s programs struggle with poverty and food insecurity, and she knows better than most the negative impacts that can have on their mental health. Research shows that Canadians who are food insecure are much more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.* Her community members talk about the stress of not knowing how they’re going to afford their next meal. The shame of having to ask for help. The isolation that often stems from not being able to afford to participate in society in a way most take for granted. The loss of hope that things can change. How hard it is to find professional help and support.

Bankey’s programs focus on reducing the stigma that people experience, and to minimize the barriers to participation. “We work hard to create spaces that are welcoming, and we consider how participants experience our spaces and programs, and what invisible barriers they might encounter. We try to create multiple entry points for people, so that there are many ways you can participate, depending on what challenges you might be dealing with.”   

“One of my participants deals with a lot of anxiety and we’ve spoken a lot about comfort levels. We’ve set up a plan. When he’s feeling anxious, he takes a break and goes to the dish pit to wash some dishes because he feels at ease there. It’s a comfortable task he can take on, and still feels like he’s participating and contributing.”

For Ty, one of Bankey’s participants, just walking through the door seemed impossible. “At first, I was hesitant to even step through the door. I’m not good with new environments. But I met Miriam that day. Thanks to her I’ve come out of my shell.”

Bankey recognizes how important those first steps are. “I make a point to connect and get to know every participant at the start of the program. We discuss abilities and considerations at an individual and group level. As a group we always set guidelines on the first day around the culture and space we want share. Quite a few folks share their mental health struggles at that point. And those conversations also happen one on one, which gives us a chance to co-create strategies that will support them.”

The kitchen settles into a rhythm: in one corner, people laugh and talk about their favourite foods while chopping vegetables for a soup. Others hang back and listen. While making sure the onions don’t burn, a participant tells Bankey about her struggles finding affordable housing, and Bankey listens, and encourages her to visit the Peer Advocacy Office for support. In the dining room, people set the table and trade stories about their kids. The physical act of cooking together, of seeing a recipe through, of contributing to a project and sharing the result, of eating a meal they know is good for their health – it’s a simple but powerfully positive experience that has lasting ripple effects.

“Thanks to the Community Food Centre I’m more in sync with the community,” says Ty. “It’s my second home, my safe place where I can be myself. Odds are if I’m not at home, I’m here taking classes or volunteering. It helps me give back to the place that is teaching me how to be healthy and cook healthy and helping with my introversion and anxiety.”