The Hama’Elas Community Kitchen is abuzz with activity as volunteers prepare to serve their evening meal. Leading the activities this evening is Joanne, who not only manages the kitchen but also runs the Campbell River Food Bank.
In Campbell River, the Strathcona Regional Community Food Hub connects the Hama’elas Community Kitchen, food bank, and several community gardens as a way to improve food access and security. Thanks to funding from the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, United Way British Columbia works with local organizations to support and create food hubs comprising networks of community partners working together. Through a community-led approach, United Way BC Regional Community Food Hubs have connected over 100 organizations across BC to help over 228,000 people access the nourishment they need and deserve.
Communal meals and the passion of volunteers
The success of these programs is multifaceted but one component that truly shines is the staff and volunteers who put all their passion and dedication into helping their communities.
Volunteers Micheline and Ingrid prepare food for the upcoming meal.
“When I retired, I started working in the community kitchen,” says Joanne. She is in constant movement as she deals with a busy kitchen, while also making time to chat and interact with everyone around her. “It’s a long day, yeah. But it’s a rewarding day as well.”
The kitchen is open 7 days a week for 10 meal times . While available to anyone, diners are generally those experiencing homelessness or live on limited income. Many live with mental health challenges and addictions. They include all genders, family compositions, and ages.
While Joanne checks the menus, stock, and other administrative duties, volunteers flit back and forth as they serve, clean, and restock.
The dining room soon fills up with diners. The sounds of conversations and laughter are heard amidst the clinking of cutlery against plates. A woman helps her friend find a seat and then lines up to get food for them both. A group congregates at another booth, catching up and chatting about their days. Countless “hellos” are heard as diners enter the space and greet one another and the volunteers.
Health, wellbeing, and a great omelet
At a table to the side sits Keith. Unassuming but open and friendly, he begins our conversation by describing the community kitchen as “life or death.” He elaborates, “That sounds very powerful to say but I’ve experienced that. I’ve experienced homelessness. I’ve experienced living in my vehicle. Yeah, I would survive without it [community kitchen]. Everybody could survive but it would be different.”
Keith is quiet and earnest when he speaks. Living next to the kitchen, he uses it about three quarters of the month but as he likes to cook himself, he also utilizes the food bank to make homecooked meals.
Keith, a diner at Hama’Elas, shares how to make the perfect omelet while speaking about the importance of the community kitchen and food bank.
“Seafood is my favourite thing to cook. Seafood stews, spaghetti, omelets. I’m a good omelet cooker,” he says. He even offers us a tip, given with a smile and a wink, “I’ll tell you a little bit of a secret is to use a little bit of water, not milk. They’ll get fluffy.” While there’s much more to making the perfect omelet, we won’t give away all of Keith’s culinary secrets.
When Keith speaks about how crucial the kitchen is, it’s not just himself he thinks about, it’s the countless others who find a nutritious meal within its walls. “Without this place, a lot of people would not have the health and well-being that they have. What can I say. We’re very grateful for this place.”
The ebb and flow of food security
“Without the food bank, there is no kitchen. It just flows,” says Joanne.
Joanne surveys the space at the Campbell River Food Bank, which services individuals, families, and the community kitchen.
Hama’Elas Community Kitchen which feeds 85 people on average per evening (though some nights it reaches upwards of 100 folks) is supported by the food bank. In addition to the kitchen, the food bank also helps individuals and families who make their way along a busy road to stock up on their basic supplies. “It’s challenging,” says Joanne. “When I started in 2021, there were pallets of food in every corner. Our drivers pick up from the grocery stores and today we didn’t have anything to pick up. It’s frightening.”
Thanks to a food gleaning program that is becoming increasingly popular in communities, there are shopping carts filled with apples they can give out. Organized by another community partner, Greenways Land Trust, fruit and vegetables are collected by volunteers from residential and public gardens and donated to the food bank and the fresh fruit is a welcome addition.
Apples collected by Greenways Land Trust through a food collection program are a welcome fresh & nutritious addition to the food bank.
The work to keep shelves stocked is a struggle, especially when you consider that the food bank supports their recipients in Campbell River while also supplying the community kitchen. When able, they also share any excess with Quadra Island, Cortes Island, Gold River, Sayward, and Tahsis.
However, nothing seems to deter Joanne who remains steadfast in providing what she can, however she can, whenever she can. Her wish list includes a new building – one that is more accessible. “We’re not on a bus route so if you don’t drive, you’re hooped. Think of all the families that can’t make it here.”
Privacy and safety are other issues Joanne would like to see resolved. In its current location, recipients must wait outside in the elements next to a busy, main road, visible to everyone driving by. “It diminishes their dignity,” she says emphatically.
The key to sustainability for Joanne is a new building, one that can better store food, provide a distribution centre, is more accessible and safer, and (most importantly) treats recipients with dignity.
United Way BC’s Critical Food Infrastructure Grant helps to address challenges like these by supporting the development and implementation of community-led food infrastructure projects across the province. In partnership with the Province of BC, United Way is working to increase capacity for storing, transporting, and redistributing food locally through this grant.
The threads that connect us
As the meal service nears its end at Hama’Elas, Keith reflects upon his life. “I’ve had a good life. I’ve worked in forestry. I’ve done treatment. It’s made me more powerful than who I am.”
He chats about the challenges of Campbell River and housing. “I just want to be stable. There’s affordable housing out here but it’s very limited.” While he works towards that stability, he resides in John Howard housing.
The dining room at Hama’Elas, quiet after a meal service, is cleaned and ready for the next night.
Meanwhile, the volunteers finish cleaning. Tables and benches are wiped down, floors swept, kitchen surfaces sterilized, and rubbish collected to take out back. It’s a nightly routine that seems subdued after the lively communal spirit of the meal service.
At Hama’Elas, many who feel alone or forgotten during their day-to-day can gather to share a meal and be part of a community. At the Food Bank, those who feel lost or overwhelmed can access food to feed themselves and their families. They are the threads that United Way BC weaves together to connect individuals in meaningful ways.
Learn more about how Regional Community Food Hubs are supporting food security across the province in our annual report.