People and programs 03/18/2016

“Any door is the right door, and when you walk through it, we’ve got the right people here for you.” – Kristina McMillan, NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre Director

NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre is celebrating its first anniversary this week! Since they launched in 2015, they've served 11,000 healthy meals, delivered 504 program sessions, and their advocacy support office has fielded 193 visits from community members. Already, they're an integral part of their community.

The Community Food Centre was developed in partnership with NorWest Co-op Community Health Centre (CHC). The Health Centre saw a need for healthy food programming in Inkster and wanted to be able to deliver. 23% of Inkster families live on low incomes, and 13% of residents have been diagnosed with diabetes. The CHC understood the deep-rooted food security issues facing community members; building a Community Food Centre allowed them to add another pillar of support to their community.

By connecting the CHC and CFC, NorWest is able to tackle food insecurity on a deeper level, as well as lessen the discomfort and stigma that can sometimes come with accessing health care. Kristina McMillan, Director of NorWest Co-op CFC, knew the first thing they’d have to do is build a welcoming space: “We wanted a community centre feel to the space, where it’s always open, there are always things happening. There isn’t a stigma associated with walking in the door, and people feel good there.” This welcoming environment helps to build trust: community members know a healthy meal and a new friend are waiting on the other side of the door. 

Nurses, dietitians and health care workers from the CHC have been involved in the Community Food Centre from the very beginning. Every Friday, a nurse comes on site during the community lunch to see people who want or need access to health care. CHC dietitians were previously unable to field requests for cooking lessons from community members who were looking to make a change; now, they can refer people to the Living Well with Diabetes community kitchen. From having a public health nurse at NorWest’s healthy baby group, to getting a mobile diabetes screening program on site during community kitchen sessions, NorWest is pairing up programs to reach new people and provide them with services that are usually only available at the CHC. Milton Sussman, CEO of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, recently celebrated NorWest’s success in making these connections: “Partnerships like this allow health care to meet the needs of the community it serves, in a way that the community needs. By proactively having a range of services available in a comfortable, less clinical setting, health providers are able to build relationships – and trust.”

One such new approach has been NorWest’s After School Smoothie Drop-in program. Inkster has a large population of youth who struggle with complex issues, from violence to addiction. The program has youth using NorWest’s bike-powered blender to make fresh fruit smoothies as an after-school snack. Youth social workers from the CHC are able to come to the program, connect with kids in a comfortable place, and offer on the spot counselling, like referrals to teen clinics and primary care, and encouraging deeper participation in neighbourhood Indigenous programming like pow wow clubs and the Neechi culture club.

Outcomes across Community Food Centre programs are positive: 84% of community members with one or more health condition say that participating in programs has helped them better manage their condition, while 78% say programs have helped them make healthy changes to their diets. One of the key ingredients in opening the door to health at NorWest Co-op CFC hasn’t just been the increased access to healthy food and classes, but the community NorWest has helped create. 97% of community members surveyed say they feel they belong to a community at the CFC, and 90% have made a new friend. According to one community member, “I don’t know what I would have done [without NorWest Co-op CFC]. My life has changed — it’s like black and white. There’s a lot of interaction and a lot of socializing that goes on here. Your mood changes...Until you experience it, you wouldn’t understand it. It has turned me around completely.”

Looking ahead, NorWest Co-op CFC plans to keep developing and innovating their program collaborations with the Community Health Centre. They hope to expand the focus of their diabetes work from screening and treatment to prevention, especially among younger populations. They also hope to spread the word on their success, working with health care providers across the country thinking about food security in new and deeper ways, and creating innovative opportunities for partnership. “The enthusiasm and excitement about doing health work differently is there across professions and I don’t think it’s just at NorWest,” says Kristina. “There’s an appetite for that: these are complex issues, and we need to think outside of the box.”