Black and Longfield Tour West Willow Neighbourhood Food System

Food security has been one of the defining issues of the pandemic era, and Guelph has been at the centre of trying to find new and innovative solutions. One of the groups doing a lot with a little is the West Willow Village, and they got a chance to show off all their hard work Thursday during a visit from Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield and Senator Rob Black. The lesson of the day was that there’s some interesting stuff happening in the west end.

Although Wednesday is the usual “Food Day” for West Willow Village, the day that all the food deliveries are made, the Federal politicians were given a fairly good idea of the network established by the neighbourhood group to assist area residents with food insecurity issues.

“This neighborhood is a priority area as identified by the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health unit’s social determinants of health,” explained West Willow board member Ralf Mesenbrink. “We have one of the highest percentages of low income families in the city, the second highest rate of immigrants – that’s over 28 per cent – and also a high rate of immigrants who have come to Canada in the past five years at almost six per cent. The West Village is also home to one of the largest visible minority populations in the city.”

The first stop was a unique community garden project at St. Peter’s Catholic School on Westwood. Established earlier this year, the garden currently has 14 plots, which were all quickly snapped up by people in the area, many of whom live in apartment units across the street from the school and wouldn’t normally have access to outdoor space for gardening. Right now 52 families, representing 171 adult and children, are getting use out of this garden.

“We used Google Maps and determine that there were over 1,000 units here within a 10-minute walk,” Mesenbrink said. “We had flyers printed up and we were going to put them out but we didn’t have to do that. When people saw us working here, they came over and said, ‘What are you doing? Can I help?’ We had a waiting list before we were finished.”

“The first thing that I thought when I saw the email was ‘Thank God, I’ll be able to bring the kids outside for something,’ because of the pandemic has meant staying at home and not being able to go anywhere,” said Sabina Starhija, who emigrated to Guelph from Croatia and has been tending a garden with her children.

The neighbourhood group hopes to add 20 more plots in the next phase, as well as add a shed where gardening tools can be made more easily available. They’re also hoping to get approval soon to begin construction of a food fence, which will keep out area wildlife like rabbits and raccoons, but will also be used for planting beds for various canes, bushes and vines.

The next stop in the tour was the portable at Westwood Public School that serves as the office for the neighbourhood group. The pandemic has made it so that hardly anyone can be onsite, but with the increase in need because of he effects of COVID-19, the space became a sort of central clearing house for all donations.

“We have had to turn this into a ‘just-in-time’ food support program,” explained  board vice-president Crenda King. “It used to be market-style where people could come in and pick what they wanted, so when COVID hit we converted to an online form where everybody chooses the things that they would like, which eliminates waste as well because we’re only giving people things that their household will eat.”

The food program at West Willow Village is made possible by many different partnerships and connections in Guelph and area, from the usual donations from people in the community, to eggs from Grayridge Farms, bread and other perishables from the Guelph Food Bank, and the logistical support of the Guelph Muslim Society who lent a freezer.

Along with getting food, the neighbourhood group is also getting data. Volunteer Fahim Zaman inputs the information collected from all the paper and online order forms so that the group can better target their donation drives and ensure that they’re getting the items people are asking for most the often.

“Let’s say when we use 50 or 60 boxes of cereal, it’s important to know that so we can get that support when people come back in two weeks, and make sure that we have what is often asked for,” Zaman said. “Food security is a really important thing for a lot of families, and it’s important to have the stuff that they need.”

The third stop was at the not-for-profit housing at 150 Imperial Road, where West Willow board member Indu Arora explained that their programs were helping 46 different families at the complex. What was once a storage room on the property is now a hub for people in the area to pick up their weekly grocery orders. People like Shannon, who is a mother of two girls, has found herself able to lean on neighbourhood food system for help.

“It means a lot, especially with everything going on right now,” Shannon said. “Just yesterday, I put in an order for groceries because I reached a very low point, and I’m going to need to continue to do that, and so will a lot of people in these buildings. It’s just not easy to get to a grocery store right now, and a lot of people are worried about the whole COVID thing.”

The tour ended at Mitchell Woods Public School where a couple of key programs are run, the Young Farmers course, where students learn about farming for school credit, and the You’re the Chef after school class, where students learn to make products from all that farm fresh produce.

The West Willow Village group is looking for funds from the Federal government to upgrade the staff room at Mitchell Woods to become a multi-purpose space to give young people food skills. Neighbourhood Development Co-ordinator Linda Busuttil explained that there’s presently a lack of available public space for these kinds of programs in the west end, and the group is teaming up with the school boards to make space in the proverbial backyard of the people they’re trying to help.

“We have families in this area for whom transportation is a huge barrier,” Busuttil said. “What we lack in this area is space, and it’s consistent with public health’s social determinants of health, to have the space to do programs like this during the daytime.”

“We can give people a place where they can improve their household economics, but we need to do it here and eliminate those barriers,” added board member Mai Miner. “It’s not two bus rides away, and it’s not 10C downtown, which can be difficult to get to, we try to make it as easy and accessible as possible for families.”

The group is hoping that they will be successful in applying for a Canada Infrastructure Grant to turn the staff room into a full commercial kitchen by getting the money to install a hand-washing station, a double sink, ventilation and other upgrades that Busuttil calls “low hanging fruit.” The group is adamant that there are endless opportunities if they can get the funding.

“We realize that there are a lot of skills in the community that are being underutilized and could be made profitable for their own household benefit, as well as spreading cultural diversity in the neighborhood,” Miner noted. “We discovered there’s people in our community that know how to make cheese, but they can’t do it out of their home and sell it, but they can do it this room once it’s made into a commercial kitchen for that purpose.”

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