Dartmouth North Community Food Centre serves up healthy food, sense of belonging

Girl enjoys snack at Dartmouth North Community Food Centre

Dartmouth North Community Food Centre serves up healthy food, sense of belonging

Depending what day and time you arrive at the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre, you could find yourself in the midst of a family supper, a community lunch, the Good Food Café and produce market, a cooking workshop or a gentle yoga class, among other possibilities. Whenever you go, you’ll find a sense of belonging.

That’s what kept Dartmouth North resident Russell coming back to the centre after his first visit. “I walked in for lunch… I had a great meal, I met some people and now we always sit together and have tea.”

The Dartmouth North Community Food Centre was created by the Dartmouth Family Centre in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada. It also benefited from the support of numerous businesses and community organizations, including the Dartmouth Community Health Board. 

"The Community Health Board regularly hears about the importance of healthy eating and food security to the citizens of Dartmouth, said Monique Mullins-Roberts, Co-ordinator of the Dartmouth Community Health Board. "We hear that a strong sense of belonging is important to an individual's health and yet it is difficult to make meaningful connections in community. The Dartmouth Food Centre is providing opportunities to address all of this. We are very fortunate to have such a community asset in our midst."     

The centre focuses on addressing needs in three areas:  

  • Food access – providing healthy, high-quality meals through two large community meals a week, as well as free healthy snacks and access to fresh produce at cost at its Friday café and market.

Deborah Dickey, manager of the centre, says some were initially skeptical that community members would embrace the access to fresh fruits and vegetables but, “the success of the market has shown us that people want produce.” They simply need it to be accessible and affordable.

  • Food skills – With the Community Kitchen offering cooking classes for adults and a Young Cooks course for children, the centre is helping to build capacity in preparing healthy, affordable meals. 

“People can take part as much or as little as they feel comfortable at first,” says Dickey. “We help people make things they could replicate at home.”

The kitchen was designed with the help of Dalhousie University’s Cities and Environment Unit to include low countertops for people in wheelchairs or those who cannot stand for long periods of time.

The centre also has an urban farm where community volunteers tend a garden that grows produce for the centre. “There’s always an abundance of harvest, so volunteers generally get to take produce home, too,” says Dickey.

Family plots are available for free to those who want to grow their own produce.

“We try to make connections between growing food and cooking food, particularly for young people.”

  • Community engagement and action 

Many of the residents of Dartmouth North have long been marginalized. The centre’s community action office is helping them find and use their voice.

Staff offer an 11-week leadership and community action training program to interested community volunteers, who learn about topics like conflict resolution and navigating systems, drawing on their own experiences. Some participants have gone on to become peer advocates at the centre, helping others navigate challenges and systems. 

The centre also focuses on broader advocacy and social justice work. Leading up to the most recent municipal election, it held an eight-week campaign to boost voter turnout, which typically ranges between two and five per cent in North Dartmouth. The centre offered a variety of activities, including an orientation to the voting process, education about what municipal government does, an all candidates’ meeting, and a community breakfast and march to the polls on election day, which roughly 80 people attended. The result was a nine per cent voter turnout for North Dartmouth, a significant increase. 

At the heart of every program the centre offers is its volunteers, like Russell. Dickey explains, “the purpose is to get people from community involved – helping people find a place when they don’t feel they have a place.”

For Russell, volunteering at the centre has helped him achieve just that. “This place has given me a reason to wake up in the morning. I take pride in volunteering here …. I’ve made friends. Now I meet people on the street and say hello. I finally feel at home.” 

*Russell’s quotes come from the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre annual report and website. To read Russell’s story and many others, visit http://www.dartmouthfamilycentre.ca/dncfc-blog/