Impact Stories

Exploring food security in Cowichan

Supported by funding from United Way BC, Cowichan Green Community Society’s Food Recovery Project brings accessible and affordable food to the region.

Food should be accessible and affordable, but although it’s a basic necessity, food costs and distribution and other socio-economical barriers negatively affect many British Columbians who are increasingly turning to community services such as food hubs to meet their needs.

Supported by funding from United Way BC, Cowichan Green Community Society’s Food Recovery Project recovers food from large food retailers while also servicing the community by delivering produce to vulnerable community members.

“We know that around 20% of British Columbians are relying on different community programs to put enough preferred and nourishing food on their tables. What I mean by that is that right now community programs offering community meals, community gardens, food hampers or market style food distribution are essential to meeting basic needs of people in our communities,” explains Alžběta Sabová, Director of Food Security at United Way BC.

Cowichan Green Community Society (CGC) is one of several food networks addressing food security on the Island. Since 2004, CGC has focused on environmental sustainability and its connection to food in the region.

Through a variety of programs that span farms and gardens to resiliency projects, CGC tackles the issue of food security from several angles, including reFRESH Cowichan and Food Recovery Program.

Family moments created in the kitchen

“I think this place is very important; it helps me a lot because of the prices going up now,” says Lena.

Lena is a frequent shopper at reFRESH. As she enters the space, she’s welcomed by the smiling faces of Susan and Sandra, two of the dedicated volunteers. She chats cheerfully with them, discussing the week as she browses the produce section.

For Lena, the program is invaluable as it helps her connect with her grandkids through food. She’s a quiet-spoken woman but lights up when discussing her grandchildren. “They love making pancakes and I teach them by scratch,” she says. “So, I get my flour and blueberries here, all the stuff that’s too expensive in the big stores.” It’s the time spent together that means the most to Lena. Finding affordable food allows her to do so.

As she continues shopping, more customers enter the space. All are greeted by Susan and Sandra. It isn’t long before the camaraderie, laughter, and sense of community fills the aisles.

Lena relies on reFRESH for affordable and nutritious food that she uses when cooking & baking with her six grandchildren. Making memories in the kitchen is an important way for her to bond with them as she teaches them to make things from scratch.

A recipe for a healthy life

reFRESH is a community hub for many who shop there. All appreciate the affordability and selection they can access. For Diana, this is especially important given her health and strict dietary requirements.

“I have food allergies,” says Diana. “I can’t have dairy or gluten. I don’t know why they do it in the big stores but they demand high prices. This program really helps me to get good food.”

The location of the store also helps Diana, who lives upstairs. “I can’t go up places and walk back with stuff,” she says. While the convenience and cost are perfect, it’s the ambience that also makes the place ideal. “The staff are excellent, all of them! I’ve never run into a staff member here who’s not a wonderful, good person. There’s something to be said for that.”

Diana and Susan, one of the store’s volunteers, visit in the back of reFRESH, a common occurrence amongst the shoppers and volunteers.

While shoppers peruse the aisles and chat with one another, staff and volunteers are busy in the back sorting through fruits and vegetables. The companionable atmosphere from the shop also drifts into the back room along with the conversation and laughter.

A potluck created by the community

“So, reFRESH Cowichan is kind of our social enterprise that we run,” says Julika Pape, Manager. “Our driver, Mike, goes out every morning Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to six stores and Tuesdays and Thursdays to two stores. He brings back everything they want to donate, which is about 80% produce with some dairy, and a bit of meat.”

Mike, reFRESH’s driver, visits local retailers daily to collect their donated food. He then delivers sorted food back into the community to support over 18 programs in the area that support people in need.

Once the produce arrives at reFRESH, the team begins the process of sorting. “We unwrap things that are in plastic packaging to see if there’s mold underneath. Anything that’s bad goes into compost binds that are sent to a farmer for livestock,” explains Julika. As she and the team sort through boxes of produce, the amiable spirit on the other side of the door filters in as they chat about their days and plans for the weekend.

The produce that’s considered good is distributed a number of ways – boxes of fruits and vegetables go out to the community to over 18 programs, some goes into reFRESH’s own kitchen to help make meals for Meals on Wheels, while some goes to the produce stand in the shop. As Julika says, “Some of the produce goes to the store but a couple of retailers don’t allow us to sell their donations, which is fine. We just make sure we separate it out and only send what we can to the store.”

The operation is almost a circular process, supporting all components and relying on one another as a way to get food to those in need.

Julika sorts through the donated produce with her team. All the fruit and vegetables find a use, whether it’s in the community, reFRESH’s kitchen, or the front store.

Ingredients for sustainability

United Way BC supports many different food hubs and groups under its Food Security program. Each region and community’s needs differ so the solutions are as unique as the place and people championing food security.

“What we aim to do is to support communities across BC with programs and services that address their particular needs, and reflect where they’re at with what they are needed” says Alžběta. “One of the important roles of United Way B.C. is to be the convener, supporting all the regional partners to together and collaborate, to come up with solutions that are sustainable, efficient, and that address some of the inequities that are happening traditionally in the food sector.”

At reFRESH Cowichan, that means working with retailers, donors, community agencies, municipalities, and each other to collect and distribute food to those who may not be able to access it otherwise.

Alžběta also characterizes that there is still some stigma around accessing food through food hubs and other community services, “Our work collectively is to break this dynamic, to de-stigmatize what food access means to people and to actually use food as a vehicle, to build communities, to bring traditions around food, to build and foster healthy, caring communities locally, regionally and even on the provincial level.”

Sandra, one of the volunteers at reFRESH, shares a laugh with regular shopper, Will.

The idea that food can be accessible without the stigmatization is something felt in the store at reFRESH. While shoppers are able to access the food at reasonable prices, they never feel like they are getting a “hand me down.” Produce sent to the community is similarly received.

As one client says, “It’s really good to be able to come to a store like this and have a selection of good stuff like produce.”

United Way BC agrees. By supporting these programs, we continue to support food security throughout the province, all with the goal of making food accessible to everyone who needs it.