The Local Community Food Centre in Stratford has become one of two successful pilot projects showcasing the successful contributions of Community Food Centres to the life and soul of communities through food, similar to what public libraries and the YMCA have done for reading and exercise.
When Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre received funds to “go national” as Community Food Centres Canada, they searched for partner sites — communities able to establish a template of measurable and sustainable centres that could then be replicated across Canada, forming a nation-wide network. “Stratford was a natural choice,” says Steve Stacey, the Director of the local project. (The other location is Perth, Ontario.)
“Stratford already has an abundance and variety food programs, like Savour Stratford, the annual Pork Congress, the Screaming Avocado at Northwestern [Secondary School], the Stratford Chefs School, and food banks. The city is manageable in size, [surrounding] Perth County is rich in agriculture, and Stratford has an unusual level of social cohesion. I knew we would see the desire, appeal and uptake for a food initiative like this.”
Located in a vacant farm supply store on Stratford’s west side, the Centre opened in November 2012 after receiving $300,000 for renovations funded by a Trillium Foundation grant, local donations, funds from the City of Stratford, and partnering with Perth-Huron United Way. Much of that money went into purchasing the walk-in fridge and freezer located inside the loading dock to receive large-scale food donations that local food banks are not equipped to handle. “We are a support service to the dozen food programs run by churches and community groups,” says Stacey during a walkthrough. “Because we can receive, store and re-distribute skids of fresher, more nutritious food, the Centre can help them offer better quality than dry pasta and peanut butter.”
The Centre’s former retail space is now a large multi-function area with dining tables built by a local Mennonite furniture builder. “Our programs are growing, so I have to order more tables,” Stacey smiles.
Looking out over the dining area is a large teaching kitchen, with a spacious food prep area, as well as a serving and instruction counter and overhead demonstration mirror. Behind the counter the brushed steel glints on Savour Stratford’s commercial appliances sponsored by GE Café for year-round culinary programming. “Cooking is an important educational aspect of both Savour Stratford and Food Centre programs,” Stacey explains. “Savour was looking for a location for their GE Café appliances, we had the setup, staff and compatible programs to make good use of them — it made collaboration obvious.”
So while Savour Stratford runs high-end demonstrations, with the likes of Chef Aaron Linley of Stratford’s renowned Bijou, the Centre offers free public classes such as cooking rice, choosing and preparing fish, and making homemade marmalade. The Local Food Centre’s hands-on kitchen work is driven by Chef Jordan Lassaline, a Stratford Chefs School graduate and instructor, and former Sous Chef at The Old Prune.
“We are so fortunate to have an activist chef like Jordan,” says Stacey. “He’s a great educator, loves including people and he has real impact. One lady who made fish pie at a recent class said she had only ever eaten frozen fish sticks and didn’t know what fish actually looked and tasted like. She said, ‘That was great, and now I know how to make it for my family.’”
Grow Your Own
Local food maven Liz Mountain oversees the educational programming that includes 50 skid-mounted garden beds in the Centre’s adjoining greenhouse and outdoor lot. “Community gardening is important to the Food Centre model. Last summer we had a group of 15 from L’Arche, Perth Community Family Services, and the Canadian Mental Health Association who planted, tended, harvested, cooked and ate from those beds,” says Stacey. “With the greenhouse, we can work toward our own year-round food production.”
The United Way’s Liz Anderson is the Centre’s Community Activism Coordinator, cultivating peer advocacy and referrals for social services. Dietary and food provision problems facing the working poor and at-risk families are often linked to other struggles, so community-based anti-poverty, affordable housing and employment resources are important elements that Community Food Centres Canada maintains.
The national body is both impressed and delighted with the early results in Stratford, as they work to their goal of 15 centres in five years. “Their CEO, Nick Saul, is out there right now raising millions of dollars across the country,” says Stacey. “While we help the working poor feed their families, it’s really about the community bonds that form around fresh, nutritious food — from planting and growing it, to harvesting and cooking it, serving and sharing it, to collecting and distributing it to others.”
The Local Community Food Centre
612 Erie Street, Stratford
DAVID HICKS is a Stratford freelance writer and branding consultant, and sous chef to local pressure cooking expert, Charmaine Hicks.