Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre: Meeting the Needs of Saskatoon's Growing Population

The Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre (SFLBC) receives over 12,000 requests for food a month. Almost half the respondents to a 2014 client survey said they pick up a food hamper every two weeks. Over 60% have been using the Food Bank hamper program for more than two years. Shocking statistics in a city that prides itself on urban growth and prosperity.

When the Saskatoon Food Bank opened its doors in 1983, I’m sure they thought it was a temporary fix for a short-term problem. That hasn’t proven to be the case (almost a third of Saskatchewan's single-parent families can't afford healthy food), and the SFLBC’s services continue to evolve to better meet the needs of their clients and to address the underlying causes of hunger and poverty. They’ve expanded their programs to include literacy and work experience programs, cooking classes, urban agriculture, a clothing depot, and advocacy.

The SFBLC held an open house in February and I was intrigued by some of their survey results and future plans. I had lunch with Brit MacDonald, Community Developer/ Urban Agriculture Manager, to obtain more information.

Healthy Food 
It seems like a no-brainer to provide as much fresh, healthy food as possible in the emergency food hampers. And yet it’s not quite that simple. The SFBLC conducts an annual need assessment survey to help them meet the needs and wants of the community that relies on them for food. The Fall 2014 survey asked clients what kind of food should be provided by the Food Bank. The #1 choice was lots of food, even if it’s not healthy. The #2 choice was food that is quick and easy to prepare, even if it’s not healthy. Last, by a wide margin, was fresh fruit and vegetables.

There are many complex, inter-related factors that account for these results. What we do know is that nutrition education and food skills training increase the uptake of vegetables by any population. Food Bank clients need the opportunity to try samples of unfamiliar foods and attend food demonstrations or cooking classes. And the interest is there. SFBLC’s urban agriculture survey indicated that over two thirds of clients were interested in attending cooking classes, 47% were interested in canning classes and 43% were interested in learning about herbs and spices.

The SFBLC currently offers some cooking classes, but a very small kitchen limits their ability to expand this service.

Bridging the Divide
I make regular donations to the SFBLC, but I’ve never stepped through their doors. I suspect that I’m not alone in this regard. There’s an invisible wall that separates those of us who donate to the Food Bank from those who use its services. It’s an artificial barrier and one that the SFBLC is working hard to remove so that everyone feels comfortable at the Food Bank.

Shared interests – preparing and eating meals, gardening – provide a common meeting ground. The Garden Patch on 3rd Avenue North is a wonderful project and has done so much to raise the visibility of the SFBLC and to switch the focus from emergency food rations to healthy food for all. Over the past four years, they’ve harvested over 90,000 pounds of produce thanks in large part to over 1,000 visitors who planted, weeded and harvested the site.

Unfortunately, in our northern climate, the Garden Patch is only operational for a few short months. In addition, it’s not located next door to the SFBLC, so there are fewer opportunities to build community around common interests in healthy food, gardening and food security.

Community Greenhouse 
Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a year-round facility that was accessible to everyone in Saskatoon and that was equipped to meet a wide range of needs – from emergency food hampers to cooking classes and harvest festivals?

I’m sure those are the thoughts that immediately sprang to mind when Tom Allen, an Associate Professor in the College of Agriculture with a strong interest in northern food security, approached the SFBLC to see if they would be interested in partnering with him to establish a greenhouse fueled by biomass.

The SFBLC was eager to be involved. A greenhouse could expand their impact and provide opportunities for individuals from all sectors of the community to connect and learn. It would be a positive space, bringing together people from all parts of society, and – unlike the Garden Patch – it could operate year round.

The greenhouse could provide fresh vegetables for the emergency food hampers, but that’s only a small part of its overall goal. First of all, it would be difficult to produce enough vegetables on a consistent basis to fill all the food hampers. Secondly, a focus on food production would mean the emphasis was on quantity, cost effectiveness and meeting short-term needs rather than on addressing underlying issues.

The long-term potential of the greenhouse is so much greater as a community centre. People could learn how to grow their own food. The fresh produce could be used in food demonstrations and cooking classes that brought people together from all parts of our community – newcomers, people who didn’t learn how to grow or cook vegetables as children, master gardeners and community-minded volunteers. Abundant harvests could be shared with other community organizations, such as the Friendship Inn.

There could be classrooms, meeting rooms, kitchens, office space and an industrial kitchen. (The Invermere Community Greenhouse, a similar endeavour in British Columbia, offers a wide range of programs, including carsharing, a community greenhouse, composting services, and a permaculture garden.)

In addition, solar panels, biomass heating using waste wood, and water catchment techniques would ensure that the building served as a model for green building practices.

What Happens Next? 
The plans for a community greenhouse centre are evolving. An Urban Agriculture Workshop in 2014 provided input from community members with expertise in related areas. A grant from the Agriculture Council of Saskatchewan has funded a feasibility study to further understand the needs of the community and how the greenhouse centre would fit with the SFBLC’s other operations. The report will be available to the public by December 2015.

A community greenhouse would be such a positive way to build a shared commitment to healthy food for all our City’s residents. I really hope it goes ahead.

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