People and programs 05/05/2020

Derek Barnes is the Manager of Community Outreach at The Local Community Food Centre. He’s been working on the front line of a rapidly changing situation in Stratford, Ontario.

Derek and the team at The Local are doing everything they can for their community. “In these trying times, every community needs to find their heart,” he says. And as churches close and food banks struggle to meet demand, The Local has stepped up, adapted and become the beating heart of Stratford.

Before the Ontario Government mandated social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, The Local was one of several lifelines for people living on low incomes across the city of Stratford, known for its world-famous theatre festival.

“You might picture people lining up and waiting for hand-outs,”  says Derek. “But that’s not what The Local is about. It’s a place for people to come together to grow, cook, share and advocate for good food.” And when people walk through the doors, they find so much more than food -- they find a place to belong, to feel like they matter. “We cook with care, we serve with dignity and we plate with pride.”

When lockdown measures were put in place, the team at The Local quickly learned that all other community food services had either closed or were running low on supplies.

“We had some heart wrenching moments with a few patrons who couldn’t find a loaf of bread for their families of 5 and 7. Luckily we’d had some donated by our local baker that we could give to them. They left in tears. It reaffirmed for us that we are truly the only game in town: we need to sustain whatever services we can offer safely.” 

And thanks to the generous support of people like you, Community Food Centres Canada’s Good Food Access Fund is helping The Local put good food on the tables of not just families, but their neighbours, too, as people pick up multiple meals and drop them off to elderly neighbours.

The Local’s kitchen is typically buzzing with volunteers chopping veggies and helping the Community Chef cook up hundreds of community meals per week; those roles are temporarily being filled by laid-off local restaurant staff  who are paid as essential workers.

They’ve had to shift how they work in many ways -- moving dining room meal service to a parking lot take-out system, setting up a drive through, working out delivery strategies. They’ve even transformed live cooking classes into a popular video series. Your donations are making these critical solutions possible.

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“If you want to make a veggie chili, you can cook along with our videos,” Derek says proudly. “All the ingredients you need are  in the good food kit you just picked up. And it helps reduce isolation. For now, it’s a great alternative to the real thing.” 

But The Local has always been more than a place for food. Many seniors visited because they felt  isolated or lonely-- and this loneliness can gnaw at you like hunger. Every week at The Local, community members were finding care, support and friendship. Some would stick around after mealtime to play cards or host jam sessions on the piano in the dining room.

“Community building is what we do here. It has to come first, even before food. It’s about seeing somebody across the street and feeling like you're partially responsible for their well-being, no matter who they are. A lot of people don't have that--and  that's what we're trying to change here at The Local,” Derek says.
 

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Now, with their community members more isolated than ever, the staff are checking in during parking lot meal pick ups and making daily phone calls to regulars to chat.

Despite the current challenges, Derek and the staff at The Local know that the issues of poverty and social isolation that they are trying to address won’t disappear when COVID finally does.

“Many of our community members live in a state of emergency ,” he says. “The emergency was there before the pandemic and it'll be there after the pandemic too. But we’re here to support them. We’ll get through this. I know we will. And we’ll do it together.”