At a donor-supported community centre, neighbours maintain shared gardens to help alleviate an ongoing crisis of hunger
It’s a hot, hot summer day and the budding plants outside Blake Gardens Resource Centre are thirsty for a drink. Community facilitator Caprice Kehler is happy to oblige—filling her watering can and wetting the tomatoes, herbs, and other garden sprouts—while neighbour Susan follows behind and carefully plucks away the weeds.
It’s a moment that represents not only a coming together of community, but a creative approach to combat an ongoing hunger crisis and capitalize on any and all avenues to feed Winnipeggers.
“People who are living on a fixed income have a really, really hard time with the increase of food costs these days … their income hasn’t increased, but everything else has increased,” said Kehler. “Food is a basic need—and that’s really not being met. So that’s what we’re trying to help with.”
“We're trying our best to make sure community members have needs. But honestly, people are still going hungry.”
Blake Gardens Resource Centre is one of three community centres in the Inkster neighbourhood under the umbrella of NorWest Co-Op Community Health and supported by For Every Family, a partnership between United Way Winnipeg, the Province of Manitoba, The Winnipeg Foundation, and many others in the private and public sectors. Centres are strategically located in areas of low income and are vibrant hubs for the people who live nearby.
Over the last year, Blake Gardens logged more than 18,000 visits. People drop in to have a cup of coffee with a friend, join an exercise class, collect harm reduction supplies, drop their teen off for a field trip, or take part in a movie discussion group.
Mostly, though, people come for food.
Community Development Coordinator Michelle Kirkbride said the neighbourhood’s food needs increased 400% during the pandemic, and since then, those increases have barely dipped at all.
“It’s still well above over the 2019 levels, which were already pretty alarming,” she said. “We’re trying our best to make sure community members have needs met. But honestly, people are still going hungry.”
Right now, more than 14% of Manitobans are experiencing household food insecurity, meaning they or their families don’t have enough money to buy food.
Caprice said some visitors to Blake Gardens have a hard time revealing to staff that they are struggling to feed their families.
“Sometimes, people come in and they ask to speak to us one-on-one, so we go to the back of the office and we’re chatting with them—and what they’re really trying to get at is asking for food. And they feel a lot of shame around it … they’re just so embarrassed to ask,” Caprice said, adding facilitators are patient and understanding, and help guide visitors to the basic items and resources they so desperately need.
“Once we are able to provide them with food and give them food for lunches for their kids for the next couple of days, the stress just seems to kind of release for a little while. And they know and they’re so grateful. People here are so grateful when they get that help. I think it’s very significant.”
Kirkbride said not having proper nutrition on a day-to-day basis creates huge challenges for people in many different ways.
“Food fills not just a physical role, but an emotional role,” she said. “When you’re constantly worried about where your next meal is going to come from … you are essentially in survivor mode, and it’s sometimes hard to make decisions or think clearly when your body is starving.”
It’s part of the reason Blake Gardens focuses on food as much as they do—they know that if community members are able to have access to regular healthy meals, it’s a critical first step to becoming grounded and stable in other parts of their lives as well.
“Once you’re able to sit down and have something really warm and delicious to eat, not only physically are you getting what you need for your body to maintain a good level of health—but you’re also feeling like you can then control your emotions and are able to think a little bit more clearly,” she said.
“We believe that everybody does better when they have food.”
To make sure visitors always know when and where they can find something to eat, Blake Gardens creates a monthly calendar of featured events and programs.
Regular community lunches feed on average 60 to 80 people each time, and fruit and vegetable markets run four times a week. COBS Bread donates stacks of free loaves twice a week—and families can join “Make and Take” groups to cook in the centre’s kitchen to take home.
In addition to the no-cost foodstuffs at Blake Gardens, the centre also helps make healthy food more affordable to purchase. Workers will divide large boxes of pasta or bulk-sized bottles of olive oil into smaller portions for visitors to buy. For example, a bulk bag of rice at the grocery store might cost $20, which is financially out of reach for many families—but a smaller, portioned bag of rice at the centre for 50 cents is something many can afford. Friends of the centre also make and freeze dinners for people to pick up at cost.
Young visitors to Blake Gardens also have a number of options, like breakfast programs and pantry choices, to make sure they don’t go hungry throughout the day.
“We offer kids lunch, because some of the school programs are overwhelmed and can’t take more kids on,” Kirkbride said. “We offer kids in the kitchen programs … so kids can learn the basic skills about how to cook and learn how to make healthy foods.”
Finally, people can munch on healthy snacks during almost every activity offered at the centre—whether it’s watching a movie or taking part in a yoga class or playing traditional games.
And then, of course, there’s the garden.
The gardening club began last summer and has expanded to include berries and specific herbs for Indigenous teas. Blake Gardens visitors like Susan regularly tend to the bright painted boxes and workers like Kehler help maintain the blooms as they grow.
When things are ready to harvest, the whole community is invited to share in the bounty.
“It's not even just about giving food all the time. It's about learning skills … and (improving) your mental health.”
“People can really just come and pick it when they want,” Kehler said. “Last year, people were just coming and grabbing tomatoes and herbs and they were cooking with that. Now, we’ve just upgraded it more to like lettuce and other things.”
Kehler said the garden not only fills a critical community need to help neighbours grow and gather their own food—but it’s a living, breathing testament to growing through what you’re going through.
“It’s not even just about giving food all the time,” she said. “It’s about learning skills … and (improving) your mental health.”