Carolyn likes to chat. She grew up in Sydney on Cape Breton Island in a house full of kids on a street where everyone knew everyone’s name. But at 62, after working in a packing plant and attempting retraining for mature workers, she was out of a job, living on social assistance in a small apartment in Halifax, isolated and alone.
“I had nothing to do,” she says. “I was sick of sitting at home, so when my friend told me about Dartmouth North*, I decided to come over and check it out.”
Unlike most local community members who visit the drop-in lunch program or pick up produce at the low-cost fresh food market on Fridays, Carolyn has to come over the bridge from Halifax on a city bus. Construction delays mean it can be a bit of an epic journey, stopping in at practically every street corner along the way. But for Carolyn, the trip is worth it.
“When I first walked in last summer the centre was bright and noisy. Lots of little kids running around. People were friendly. Down to earth. I came for a meal because it’s hard to eat healthy on social assistance and the food was yummy.”
But the best part for Carolyn is the friends she’s met. Some are older, others the same age or younger. They sit at the round wooden tables and talk, share stories, offer a bit of advice over tea and toast or, Carolyn’s personal favourite, turkey pot pie.
Nearly 80% of people who use the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre also volunteer in the programs, and it wasn’t long before Carolyn realized that she wanted to help, too. Today, she comes for food and chat two days a week plus volunteers on Thursdays and Fridays, making broccoli salad, breakfast egg muffins, or slicing bread for the drop-in and café meals. The kitchen is often supplemented by fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, squash and more from the lush community garden planted in a former parking lot next door.
“Pitching in makes me feel good,” Carolyn explains. “I like doing stuff for someone else. When I was home alone, it was like I was in a shell. Now I feel more open about myself.”
She also likes the chance to take home healthy leftovers and pick up fresh supplies at the market. Carolyn says she’s eating better these days, but most importantly, she’s happier. The centre has started to feel a little like that street she grew up on in Cape Breton. “It’s a bit down home here,” she laughs. “It feels like family to me.”
*Dartmouth North is now The North Grove Family and Community Food Centre.