By Naomi Mahaffy
The High River Food Connections (HRFC) is an interesting, and still evolving, example of change-making in rural Alberta. This initiative has identified and improved upon existing programs and services in High River, while also creating new projects to address unserved needs. The HRFC includes a mix of preventative approaches (to reduce the likelihood of people experiencing food insecurity in the first place), and responsive approaches (to meet the immediate needs of people who lack access to healthy and affordable food). Sarah Bruinsma and Brianne Fredell shared the HRFC story with me earlier this month.
Wild Rose Community Connections (WRCC) has been working with vulnerable families since 1998 to assist them in raising happy, healthy children in rural communities south of Calgary. WRCC sees families dealing with poverty and a lack of resources to address food insecurity on a daily basis. After securing funding from the Social Sustainability Collective, WRCC hired Sarah and Brianne to help coordinate and build upon food security work in High River.
After meeting with stakeholders in High River and connecting with other communities to learn from their approaches, Sarah and Brianne got to work creating and building on programs to prevent and respond to food insecurity. The HRFC’s mission is to increase access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds community and promotes equitable access to healthy food. With this mission in mind, Sarah and Brianne developed four goals for the HRFC:
Reducing food insecurity - helping households access healthy and affordable food
Educating the community about food and healthy eating
Building social connections to enhance food security and healthy food practices
Environmental Impact - raising environmental consciousness and reducing food waste
Reducing Food Insecurity
One of the most successful initiatives the HRFC brought to High River was the practice of food rescue. Volunteers rescue food from local grocery stores… food that would have been thrown out due to damage, excess, or imminent best-before dates. The food is sorted, labeled, and distributed through a ‘self-serve’ market. Anyone can come to this market and take 1-2 bags of groceries home with them without needing to answer any questions or provide identification. In the past four months, the food rescue initiative has rescued almost 19,000 lbs of food and served over 1,300 people. When surveyed, 87% of the community members using this free market said it has changed the way they eat. Unlike most food rescue initiatives, this one provides not only fresh produce but also dairy products, pre-cooked and cured meats, yogurt, eggs, milk, other grocery items, and even pet food that has been rescued from local stores.
The HRFC identified the lack of food for children and youth during school breaks as another priority. High River already had amazing lunch programs through its schools and a “Food for Thought” program, but kids in need weren’t able to access food on school breaks and summer holidays. The HRFC introduced the “Lunch in a Crunch” program, making it possible for students to anonymously text or call a number and receive a free nutritious lunch. They also created the Partnership Pantry: a fridge and pantry in the local library stocked with nutritious snacks over school breaks and the summer. Anyone in the community can access the food, and it is paid for by the High River/ United Way Partnership.
Educating the Community
To eat healthy meals every day, people require not only access to healthy food options, but also knowledge about healthy eating and confidence in their ability to cook balanced meals.
Each month, the Salvation Army Food Bank supplies 80-110 hampers to families in High River. These hampers have historically contained limited amounts of fresh produce. The HRFC has started adding vegetables to each hamper, along with a recipe card and information sheet to educate hamper recipients about quick and nutritious ways to use fresh produce. They also offer education programs related to gardening, food safety, and cooking.
Many residents and agencies weren’t aware of the food - related services in their community. Sarah and Brianne created a food asset map (which is now updated monthly and available in multiple languages) to help agencies and individuals access relevant food services and programs.
The Town of High River has historically grown healthy food items throughout the community, but few residents were aware of the free food growing in their community. The HRFC has now partnered with the municipality to create a map with the locations of trees, shrubs, and planters where people can harvest saskatoons, apples, plums, berries, and zucchini.
Building Social Connections around Food
Social connections are critically important for helping people adopt and maintain healthy eating habits. Initiatives through HRFC and its partners include Kids in the Kitchen, a cooking class for kids aged 10-14 to learn cooking skills and food safety while having fun together. Another program, Soup for the Soul links isolated seniors with a volunteer wanting to share a hot meal and some good company. Soup is donated by local vendors. A “Grow a Row” campaign also encourages local gardeners to grow an extra row of food to harvest and donate to the food rescue and food bank.
Learning along the way
Sarah and Brianne say their biggest learning curve has been building their expertise in food security. Both women have strong relationships with organizations and people in High River from their years of work and volunteerism, which has made coordinating and funding the HRFC’s initiatives easier. To expand their understanding of food security issues and intervention approaches, Sarah and Brianne reached out to and learned from leaders in other communities who have been engaged in food security work for a long time.
Another challenge has been figuring out how to reach and interact with teens who are dealing with food insecurity. Sarah and Brianne plan to work with teens to learn more about the platforms they use for communication, with the goal of creating strategies to help teens access lunches, education programs, and other relevant supports.
Sarah, Brianne, and their partners have listened to community members and provided options that allow them to access healthy food with dignity and relative anonymity. They have made it easier for people to find and connect with food-related services and resources. Sarah and Brianne look forward to continuing to learn from and improve their programs to prevent and respond to food insecurity through the HRFC.
ABSI Connect works to connect, align, celebrate, strengthen, and learn from Albertan change-makers who are finding innovative ways to address the complex problems their communities face. Do you have a story, idea, or insight you’d like to share with the ABSI Connect community? Let us know.