People and programs
On an average day at the NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre in Winnipeg, volunteers arrive early to pick up the laundry and get the coffee brewing. From then until closing, the staff of six and a huge crew of volunteers spend their days cooking, supporting cooking classes, gardening, and most importantly, connecting with hundreds of low-income community members.
Winnipeg’s NorWest Co-op CFC supports a vibrant community of South Asian, Indigenous and senior populations, many living in a nearby social housing complex— the largest in Manitoba. Since it opened five years ago, NorWest Co-op CFC has become a key part of the neighbourhood.
Lila Knox has managed the centre for more than three of those years. Her office overlooks the round tables and bright blue walls of the dining room. From her desk, she can hear everything; the laughter, the bubbling conversation, and even the hush that descends as lunch arrives at the tables.
On a Friday in March, the Community Food Centre celebrated their fifth anniversary with a special meal, live music, cake and more than a hundred community members and donors celebrating the place that has become the heart of their community.
But the following Monday, the dining hall was empty—filled with takeaway boxes instead of families and volunteers, and silence instead of laughter.
As the coronavirus began its spread across the country, the staff at NorWest Co-op CFC rose to the challenge. For an organization built around bringing people together around good food, the shift to preparing 500 take-out meals and packing up 300 grocery bags every week has been a sad one. No one likes leaving people to eat alone.
“Every staff member here is really, really missing the part of their job that connects them with individuals in this community.”
Lila says, “We're missing them, and we know they're missing us.” This new challenge has pulled the NorWest team together in a powerful way.
Community Food Centres Canada’s Good Food Access Fund helped the NorWest Co-op CFC keep the surrounding community afloat by stepping in early with emergency funding. Lila says,“the generosity of donors has taken a weight off our shoulders. The impact is just immeasurable.”
Just a month into the COVID-19 crisis that forced the Centre to cancel their regular programs, monthly food costs had already more than quadrupled in response to growing community demand. Lila noticed a lot of new faces showing up for take-out meals, many of whom are recently unemployed and struggling to afford food for the first time. This, combined with the reduction of other social supports like school meal programs and with an increase in community members who were already unemployed or couldn’t stock up on groceries, explains the dramatic increase in demand.
To Lila, it doesn’t matter why people show up, as long as they know someone is looking out for them.“I hope we can welcome them back soon to come sit in our beautiful dining room, gather at our round tables and meet other community members. We hope they will continue to be part of NorWest after this all ends” says Lila, with a smile, “Honestly, that’s how you build an even stronger community; with kindness and dignity, by being there for people when they need it most, and by meeting them where they are.”
For now, Lila and her team are adjusting to the new reality and looking forward. The weather is warming in Manitoba and the makeshift takeout counter has become a special place for staff members to connect and check-in with regulars. “Not everybody needs only food,” Lila says, “Sometimes they just need a hug and shoulder to lean on, and it’s heartbreaking that that’s something we can't do anymore, but we’ll get there again soon.”