Power of partnership propels community network that helps get healthy food to families in need
Edmonton-wide network that helps feed more than 100 families every week recognized with U of A Community Connections Award.
By BEV BETKOWSKI
What started out as a small-scale emergency food program has blossomed into an Edmonton-wide network that gets fresh, healthy food to vulnerable immigrant families.
Powered by University of Alberta faculty, volunteers and a bounty of community partners, the Grocery Run & Leftovers/Fresh Routes Community Partnership pulls together several local initiatives that donate food to 108 families weekly—and 280 since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In addition, nearly three tonnes of surplus food per month is gathered from stores and restaurants for free redistribution to food agencies, and food is also bought at near wholesale prices, then sold to the community at affordable rates.
“The partnership is an example of a true effort towards food justice,” said Yvonne Chiu, who worked with Faculty of Extension researcher Maria Mayan to develop the program in its early stages.
“It’s a case study for a university at its best in creating mutually beneficial relationships with the community in learning about real community needs, and jointly addressing those needs.”
The program’s success is largely thanks to the U of A’s capacity for community engagement, research, policy and program development, paired with Mayan’s research commitment to ending poverty, Chiu said.
The partnership brings a team approach to tackling the multifaceted issue of poverty, Mayan noted.
“Its causes are rooted in multiple arenas, and ideas on how to eliminate it differ depending on who you talk to, so by working in partnership with an organization that truly understands families’ realities and taking their lead, together you can create interventions to address urgent and pressing problems.”
The program is being recognized with this year’s UAlberta Advocate Award, one of three U of A Community Connections Awards. It recognizes a member or team from the broader community who has contributed to the betterment of the U of A experience.
The idea for Grocery Run & Leftovers/Fresh Routes was sparked in 2016 when Mayan and her research team partnered with Chiu’s organization, the Multicultural Health Brokers Co-op, to study nutrition among migrant women. The results showed families were suffering severe food insecurity, Mayan said.
“Families didn’t have food for today and one-third of their kids were going a whole day without eating.”
In response, her research team and Chiu’s group formed Grocery Run, partnering with grocery stores to collect and redistribute spare food to families in need. In 2018 the Grocery Run partnered with another food organization, the Leftovers Foundation, to expand food distribution in Edmonton. Then, with the help of other community partners, the Fresh Routes Mobile Grocery Store—a grocery store on wheels—was launched to get healthy, affordable food to 20 high-need communities across the city.
Strength of partnerships
The group’s connections to U of A researchers, students and alumni have kept the partnership going strong, said Morgan Allen, of Fresh Routes.
“Through alumni, we’re supported by a pool of dedicated, talented volunteers. And the U of A has a lot of connections that we as a community organization might not otherwise be able to access,” said Allen, noting that the Faculty of Extension hosted an online fundraising campaign that helped pay for the Fresh Routes grocery truck.
U of A research, much of it fuelled by students, also keeps the organization strong by developing tools for volunteer recruitment, communications and strategic ways to measure a family’s changing food needs and distribution.
“Our programs are backed by a foundation of evidence-based research,” Allen said.
Grocery Run & Leftovers/Fresh Routes had enough capacity to respond when the COVID-19 pandemic swelled the list of requests for food, said Chiu.
“This kind of partnership extends our social capital, so we’re able to develop really good infrastructure and we just needed to scale it up when the pandemic hit. Our volunteers jumped from seven to 28 thanks to alumni and students, and we were able to very quickly help more families.”
The program also feeds souls, said Allen, noting that some clients have become volunteers.
One woman who shops for fruit for her toddler at one of the Fresh Routes stops began volunteering to help unload food, run the till and keep the bins stocked. But she liked it so much, she began riding along to work at other stops.
“A big piece of volunteering at any stop is the social aspect, greeting customers and building friendships. It’s been really rewarding to see just how embedded she’s become in the organization.”
The Community Connections Award honours the work done by everyone involved in the Grocery Run & Leftovers/Fresh Routes Community Partnership, Allen said.
“It’s special to recognize the time and effort that goes into pulling all of this off—how much goes into developing these kinds of partnerships. It’s about the commitment to building relationships, building trust and continuing to work together.”
The award also draws attention to the importance of the work done by the Faculty of Extension, Chiu added.
“I don’t think linking grassroots reality to policy is really understood. It’s probably a bit invisible, so this award will hopefully showcase that good work.”