News / Vancouver

‘Holistic’ Strathcona community food programs hope for secure funding

Two-thirds of participants in community kitchen, food backpack and breakfast programs must be subsidized. But raising $1 million a year is draining staff.

Willem Haan, Lauren Brown and Tony Gillis unload a new shipment of donated food at the Strathcona Community Centre on Feb. 9, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro

Willem Haan, Lauren Brown and Tony Gillis unload a new shipment of donated food at the Strathcona Community Centre on Feb. 9, 2017.

At Strathcona Community Centre, a truck delivered a new shipment of donated food on Thursday afternoon. It’s a common sight at the tiny facility near the Downtown Eastside.

That’s because the centre has devoted a major portion of its programming to something everyone needs: food. In the “highly diverse and poorest postal code in Canada,” access to healthy food is an even more pronounced need, explained Shannon Williams, president of the Strathcona Community Centre Association.

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“We started all our food programs out of need,” Williams said. “It’s a necessity in our neighbourhood.

“Two-thirds of our program participants from children to seniors can’t afford to pay full fees, so our centre subsidizes them. It’s a real challenge in our neighbourhood to provide the assistance our community needs and deserves.”

Today, the centre — which is attached to the local grade school, and has integrated many of its programs — feeds an average 120 children and their family members hot breakfast every school day, and through its weekly healthy food backpack program serves an estimated 420 people. Other initiatives include food-making and –preserving workshops, family trips to farms and markets, and snacks for a childcare facility.

“There was such a need for food support,” said Lauren Brown, the association’s food security co-ordinator for the past four years. “People couldn’t participate in our other programs at the community centre or the school if they haven’t had a meal recently.

“A guiding principle is that our programs are more holistic: people don’t just come to access food, but they can also become engaged in other things, to be supported to use their strengths and gifts … and to take on a leadership role and form long-term friendships.”

The majority of Strathcona’s budget being privately fundraised — save for roughly $700,000 a year from Vancouver’s park board, including staff, maintenance, and a cash contribution.

The association is left with a stark choice: cut back on neighbourhood services, or fundraise the remaining $1 million of its budget.

That’s what it does, despite a small staff and volunteers focused on services. But as the city’s Community Centre Associations continue to negotiate with the city over how or whether the money they each raise should be redistributed to needier neighbourhood centres, Williams said Strathcona “is in a unique position.”

“It’s been a challenge to raise money through grants, fundraising events and donations,” Williams admitted. “It’s a huge responsibility on our staff and board just to keep afloat.”

She’s asked the park board to invest $200,000 more a year, topping the centre’s budget up so only half has to be privately fundraised.

“That’s the bare minimum for our funding needs,” she said. “There are many years we’re in the red, despite the hard work and generosity of our funders.

“Our bottom line, though, is to be a centre that serves its community. And that’s what we do.”

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