Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Local Community Food Centre... Come Lately

So in December, for the first time since launching this blog in April 2010, I went a whole month without posting once.

But my fifty-or-so days of blog inactivity weren't because I was taking a break, that's for sure.

I've had my nose to the grindstone bringing to life the most amazing project I could ever dream of being associated with - The Local Community Food Centre!

Back in October 2011 I posted about the first fundraiser I coordinated for the project, which was organized around a Stratford Festival production of The Grapes of Wrath. Touched by the outpouring of support from the food community and citizens of Stratford in response to the event and the initiative, I was quoted in the paper saying:

"we are still a very fledgling organization ... we don’t have a site yet but we have all this amazing support... I can’t even imagine what it will be like this time next year when we actually have an operating community food centre to show them the good work we can do.”

Well, it took a little over a year to see that vision fulfilled... but today I can proudly say we're finally doing the work we set out to do, and it feels damn good!

So you might be asking... What the heck is The Local Community Food Centre?!?

In a nutshell, it's "A Place For Food".  We've taken over the site of the old Stratford Farmers Co-op on Erie Street and turned it into a place where people can come together to grow, share, prepare, enjoy and advocate for good food... for everyone. It's a community centre with food at its heart, operating with the goal of using food to promote equity, bring people together, and increase health, particularly among those who have often been excluded from the benefits of quality food many of us take for granted.

We built our community gardens last summer with support from the Rotary Club of Stratford's Charitable Foundation (that's our Food Skills Coordinator Liz Mountain tending to the first plantings in our raised containers!). 

The site came with an amazing greenhouse we're in the process of kitting-out for year-round veggie gardening (the best part of those raised containers is we can bring them in and out as the seasons change)!

Inside, we've created The Storehouse, a distribution hub where we will be able to connect our area's foodbanks, student nutrition programs, community meal providers and not-for-profits with enhanced access to healthy - and as much as possible fresh and local! - food. Capacity has always been the biggest challenge for this ambitious goal, so we set up our warehouse with a big honkin' walk-in cooler and a freezer through the generous support of the City of Stratford Social Services department. The Storehouse manager Matt Kutney has already been approached with some generous donations from the farming community, including Perth Pork Products, Loco Fields, Church Hill Farm, Veri Fine Produce in Exeter, and Caveman Crops. He'll continue to accept donations from agriculture and the food industry as well as look for seasonal and wholesale deals on great food produced locally.

But the heart and soul of The Local Community Food Centre is definitely the community kitchen and dining room. We designed this space for two functions...

Building and sharing knowledge and skills through educational experiences is a huge part of what we do. The kitchen island was created to allow for 15 or so people to experience a cooking session together, with two built-in cooking stations.That's Liz above making falafels with her Shovel to Spoon group!

Cooking and serving healthy and delicious community meals is another important element of our programs. We sourced some incredible harvest tables and sturdy chairs from a local Mennonite woodworker to create a truly dignified eating space that accommodates 100+ people. We have a community dinner every Monday evening, a breakfast every Thursday (with an optional yoga or wellness session available before brekkie), and a lunch for people in their sixties and beyond every Wednesday. That's our chef Jordan Lassaline above on the left working with two of our volunteers putting together some lamb pitas at our launch event in November.

Speaking of our launch event (truly one of the most memorable nights of my life) here is a really great video produced by Powerline Films that has footage from that evening as well as interviews about the project:

But for me the most meaningful part of the launch was the Town Hall-style discussion that followed the ribbon cutting. For three days leading up to our opening around 30 community members participated in the Do The Math Challenge, where they subsisted on a food budget of $5 a day (a generous estimate of what might be left over for food for a person on social assistance once rent is paid) or on a food hamper purchased at Stratford House of Blessing's food bank. [Long-time followers of this blog might remember my post after I participated in this challenge a couple of years ago].

Activism against poverty - the primary cause of food insecurity - is another big part of what we're doing here. That's Mike Balkwill above, a dedicated activist and social movement mobilizer, who kicked off the town hall by speaking about the Put Food in the Budget campaign for increases in social assistance rates in support of more money for food. Mike was actually back this past week presenting about social movements as part of the Community Action Training our unstoppable Community Action Coordinator Liz Anderson has organized for food centre participants who want to know how they can make a difference!

The Local Community Food Centre is a pilot project by Community Food Centres Canada. The goal of Community Food Centres Canada is to build on the amazing success of The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto to create a whole system of networked food centres across the country (they plan to have fifteen in place within five years!). We are so fortunate that they picked Stratford (and the town of Perth Ontario) as the sites for the first Community Food Centres outside of Toronto. The reasons they picked Stratford are the same as the reasons I moved here four years ago - it's an amazing place for food education, for local food production, and for community food initiatives. Since food is at the very heart of so much that happens in our city, our potential to share our abundance with everyone in our community - regardless of income or status - is truly great. Now we have a place where we can harness that potential every day!

Support from the food community and citizens of Stratford has continued to pour out in response to the creation of The Local Community Food Centre. Savour Stratford connected us with GE Cafe who supplied us with some amazing kitchen equipment; Savour Stratford will be presenting the GE Cafe Chefs Series in our community kitchen space on select Sundays between now and June, where folks can come experience a hands-on cooking session with some of the best chefs in Ontario. The Slow Food Sunday Market has found a cozy winter home in our dining room and will run there every Sunday from 10am to 2pm until it goes outside in May. We've also received some much appreciated fundraising support through community events like the farm to table dinners hosted by Fosters Inn and Revel Caffe, the Hootenanny at Monforte Dairy, and a Christmas Singalong led by singer Pam Gerrand. Looking forward, Mercer Hall will be hosting an Oscar Night next month with some funds being raised for the LCFC!
For more info on The Local Community Food Centre's programs and to keep up on our progress check out our website, our Facebook page, and follow @TheLocalCFC on Twitter. Or come by for a visit and see the place for yourself!