People and programs 02/16/2016

When the doors opened at the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre last year, the team immediately knew the project had struck a chord with the community. Programs filled up, meals were popular, and in between programs, community members regularly dropped by for coffee and a chat. On a recent Friday morning as the community lunch was being prepared, a knitting group had gathered in the drop-in space. With needles bobbing, and conversation flowing, you’d think you’d stumbled into someone’s living room.

It’s this homey vibe that has made the Community Food Centre a go-to space not only to make friends over good food, but also to rally around community betterment. For the CFC, that’s what social justice is all about — creating a space where people most affected by an issue have an opportunity to take action on it. And with supportive staff and that quintessential east coast open-door policy, it soon became clear to the Dartmouth team that they were stationed in a community of astute leaders looking for a chance to get engaged.

So when CFC Manager Deborah Dickey put out a call for folks to get involved in the development of a new affordable produce market at the Centre, a dozen residents stepped up to the plate. Keen to take a lead in making more good food accessible in their underserved neighbourhood, the group set to work envisioning, planning, and implementing the project.

Now, a year after planning got underway, the community market is a huge hit. Every Saturday, the Community Food Centre’s dining room transforms into a veritable market atmosphere with people stopping to chat between sipping coffee and perusing produce. “Over 100 people come through these doors in the space of a few hours each Saturday, and in it, we usually sell $700-800 worth of produce,” Deborah proudly exclaimed. “We’ve barely done any outreach for this — it’s been driven by word of mouth, much of it thanks to the crew of dedicated volunteers.”

The empowering atmosphere at the CFC is also likely what gave community member Vel Oakes the motivation to tackle the district’s notoriously low voter turnouts in a recent by-election. With 6-11% of eligible voters in Dartmouth North marking ballots, Vel felt compelled to make the point to her neighbours that for the municipality to take their issues seriously, constituents needed to make their voices heard. The voting booth seemed like a good place to start.

With support from Tammy Shields, the CFC’s Community Action Coordinator, Vel, already an avid volunteer at the Centre, invited all the candidates to a public forum where the audience brought their concerns and questions forward on topics such as food security, affordable housing, transit accessibility, and child care. Cultivating political engagement in a community that has long thought of itself as voiceless is an uphill battle to say the least and this by-election was no exception. But Tammy is hopeful that the CFC will be able to play a growing role in getting people to tune into local politics and vote in the municipal election happening this fall across the Halifax region.

Having launched just last October, the Dartmouth North CFC is already a vibrant community hub where residents are actively getting involved. What’s their secret? According to Deborah, “it was that we got community buy-in right from the start. When people come through the door, they know immediately that something different is going on than most charity models of service. Our strong volunteer base is a big reason for that — we’re providing the opportunity for people to feel ownership. It’s brought a lot of people through the door.”

Clearly it’s what keeps them coming back too.