Friday, October 24, 2014

Food box program hailed as successful ‘bridge’

The community-based “Healthy Living Food Box” program, entering its fifth year this November, continues to be well-used by local residents.
Based out of the Sunset Country Métis Hall (714 Armit Ave.), the program sees an average of 20 local volunteers come out on the third Wednesday of each month to pack boxes with nutritious food for hundreds of people who utilize the program.

Anne Marie Armstrong, co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Healthy Babies, Healthy Children program (Metis Nation of Ontario Health Branch), noted while the food box program is a partnership of the Northwestern Health Unit, Sunset Country Métis, Valley Diabetes Education Centre, and Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre, it is very much volunteer-driven in the sense that without volunteers, it would be a very hard job for the partner organizations.
“The volunteers are amazing,” Armstrong remarked, noting they enjoy themselves.
She even cited one former volunteer who no longer is able to help out but still makes muffins for the other volunteers who do.
The food box program also is seen by some as a “bridge,” or source of co-operation, between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, found McMaster University assistant professor Dr. Jeff Denis while he researched his Ph.D. dissertation, “Canadian Apartheid: Boundaries and Bridges in Aboriginal-White Relations.”
“In the long run, the most effective bridges may be those that involve a common interest or goal, but do not threaten the unique sense of identity of Anishinaabe, Métis, or non-aboriginal Canadians,” said Dr. Denis.
“This program brings together dozens of aboriginal and non-aboriginal volunteers each month to sort healthy [and, to the extent possible, locally-grown] fruits and vegetables into colourful ‘food boxes’ to be sold at affordable rates to local aboriginal and non-aboriginal residents,” he noted.
Armstrong, who was interviewed by Dr. Denis about the program, said it does have reserves that order food boxes, and that a lot of the clients are either First Nation or Métis.
“I would venture to say that a good quarter, at least, and it might be higher, are of aboriginal descent,” she told Dr. Denis.
Dr. Denis personally volunteered at the “Healthy Living Food Box” program back in the summer of 2009.
He recalled that “after a hard day’s work sorting fruit in baskets, re-arranging tables, and carrying food to the cars of elderly clients, I not only felt proud of myself for contributing to a good cause but also reflected in my field notes on the bridging potential and health benefits of this innovative program.”
“On paper, I can’t think of a better bridge,” he also observed.
“The Healthy Living Food Box program is run in partnership by the Ontario government, and Métis and First Nations’ organizations, and involves both aboriginal and non-aboriginal volunteers and clients.
“In practice, it largely lives up to its potential. Of the 25-30 volunteers, about one-third are aboriginal.
“There is lots of time for unstructured socializing, thereby helping to build social ties and a sense of community,” Dr. Denis noted.
“The program also provides clients with healthy fruits and vegetables at reduced cost, thereby saving them money [another determinant of health],” he added. “It’s open to everyone, regardless of race, income, or residence [in town, on reserve, or out in the country].
“Many of the clients have friendly ‘stop-and-chats’ with the staff and volunteers while picking up their food boxes. There is a real sense of community spirit and I felt proud to be a part of it today. . . .” Dr. Denis concluded.
Clint Calder, president of the Sunset Country Métis, said the program is much-appreciated.
“We would like to thank Anne-Marie Armstrong and Charmaine Langlais from our Sunset Country Métis staff; Janet Drennan and her staff from the Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre; and Becky Holden from the Northwestern Health Unit for going above and beyond their jobs in organizing this ‘Healthy Living Food Box’ program,” Calder wrote in an e-mail to the Times.
“Thank you also to Trisha Wood from Valley Diabetes Education who prints the newsletter; and to the many, many volunteers who help to bring affordable, healthy foods to our communities,” he added.
While a core group of volunteers come out each month, Armstrong said more helping hand always are appreciated and those able to help out are encouraged to get involved.
As an added bonus, volunteers get their names put in draws for prizes while the program offers breakfast or lunch for them.
The idea behind the “Healthy Living Food Box” program is to promote healthy eating throughout the district for everyone, no matter their age or income.
In summer, an average of 330-350 boxes are ordered each month, but this number climbs to 450-500 in wintertime.
One month, volunteers had to pack up 860 boxes.
The food boxes cost $20 but contain about $40 worth of healthy food each month. Very little of that $20 goes into administrative costs, noted Armstrong.
Each box of food also includes a newsletter, listing what’s included in that month’s box as well as recipes.
The newsletter also provides information about food that may be new and unusual to some people, such as bok choy (Chinese cabbage).
Armstrong said the program strives to provide as much local produce as possible in its boxes each month. For example, eight items in the September food box were locally-produced.
Orders for food boxes must placed at the Métis Hall on the first Wednesday of each month between 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Pick-up day is the third Wednesday of each month (from noon-5 p.m.)
The Métis Hall is the site for the organization and distribution of the food boxes, as well as several other Aboriginal Healthy Babies, Healthy Children programs.
But what the public may not know is the hall can be rented for various functions, such as meetings, family gatherings, showers, funerals, and birthday parties.
This helps generate revenue and keep the building a viable location for these programs.
For information on renting the hall, call Val Pelepetz at 274-9576.

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