As 2019 comes to a close, the Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks continues to celebrate 25 years of delivering food programs for our neighbours.
In 1993, Strathcona Community Centre started their first breakfast program and from there, we have grown to a coalition of 15 Neighbourhood Food Networks across Vancouver to meet the needs of those who face barriers to food security. We have provided food literacy, food skills workshops, community lunches and dinners, community kitchens, gardening programs and have shared many meals and celebrations with our neighbours.
Thank you so much for joining us on our adventures these past years, and here’s to many more together!
Last spring and summer, a group of poh-pohs (Cantonese for “grandmothers “or “elderly women”) gathered every Saturday to grow fresh vegetables in raised beds and pots on the edge of the parking lot at East Hastings Street and Jackson Avenue. Led by local organizer Doris Chow with support from the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House and Carnegie Community Centre, this Chinese Seniors Community Garden became a new space for seniors to share skills and stay healthy.
In Fall 2018, the Sun Wah Centre on Keefer Street hosted CHINATOWN GENERATIONS as part of the Heart of the City Festival. This intergenerational community event celebrated Chinatown and its ongoing presence of cultural heritage. It featured a photo exhibition by and of urban farming poh-pohs and their gardening activities in the Downtown Eastside.
During this event, an attentive audience listened to these seniors share stories from their experiences in this project with the support of English translators. Unlike many other community garden spaces, these elderly Chinese women tended to the garden beds in a communal fashion and shared the harvest. In addition to obtaining produce and new garden skills, they cultivated stronger friendships and community with one another.
Seniors’ photography shares personal memories
Upon my arrival to the event, one of the senior participants, Kong Tai (Mrs. Kong) came over to say hello and handed me a small photo album. Mrs. Kong is a well-known elder in the Chinatown community who advocates on issues of housing justice. Despite the language barrier between us, the photos she offered me conveyed her excitement and happiness for the garden project.
As I flipped through the photo album, the 4×6 prints displayed the unmistakable film aesthetic of a disposable camera. I realized these photos were taken by the poh pohs themselves. The photos captured many bright faces, green growth, and blurred smiles: Mrs. Kong and her friends working in the garden, a group of elderly women displaying large bunches of Asian greens, a harvest of juicy mo gwa (fuzzy melons). These photos captured the seniors’ experiences through their own lens.
“No one needs expensive coffee or skateboards, but we need groceries”
We had all the grocery stores and herbal stores, cafes, a variety of restaurants to eat dim sum or dinner, which are important social spaces for us Chinese people… [but] there are not even a lot of grocery shops left.
A big problem is that the new places opening in Chinatown are either a coffee shop or a nightclub. These places are really expensive and they don’t sell things that we need, nor are they welcoming spaces for us. They are unsuitable to our needs. I never go into these places and I drink my coffee at the Carnegie. No one needs expensive coffee or skateboards, but we need groceries.
“The [seniors] that are healthiest come [to resource centres in the Downtown Eastside] in the biggest groups. They don’t have any education. They can’t read. They can’t write. But the way they’re happy, the way they survive, and part of why they’re healthy, is because they have each other.”
The success of the Chinese Seniors Community Garden is even more meaningful with an understanding of how immigrant seniors’ needs are not adequately met by Western society. The role of friendship and community in this neighbourhood are necessary for survival. Growing gardens may be the vehicle, but this multi-lingual, culturally-focussed project will have lasting impacts through its built relationships.
A future with food for all, seniors included
As the gardening season begins again, more local food security projects are continuing to center the needs of seniors in other parts of the city.
In the coming months, Little Mountain Neighbourhood House will launch “Sowing the Seeds of Inclusivity,” a gardening project at Riley Park Community Garden to specifically support food security for seniors in Little Mountain-Riley Park neighbourhood. In addition to gardening and cooking activities, the project will provide lunches in the garden and shuttle rides to and from the sessions, as a means of increasing accessibility.
For those who are looking to get involved or are passionate about seniors’ food security, Riley Park Community Garden is currently looking for new members to join their Seniors Engagement Committee for their “Sowing the Seeds of Inclusivity” project.
The Chinese Seniors Community Garden is also welcoming new volunteers and gardeners, with no prior experience needed. They will host a public re-opening celebration on Saturday, April 20, 2019 at 10AM. The group will celebrate the new growing season with snacks and an official lion dance opening.
As the food movement shifts to prioritize more and more underrepresented voices, like those of our elders, I hope we will continue to listen to elders’ stories and learn from the wisdom they have to offer. I hope projects like the Chinese seniors garden plant the seed for more of Vancouver’s food communities to address seniors’ specific needs to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods with dignity and respect.
Congratulations to all the poh-poh participants and project facilitators Doris Chow and Simin Sun. This project has been supported by the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, Carnegie Community Centre, New Horizons for Seniors, and Wing Wing Sausage Co. Limited. Thank you to Clare Yow for permission to use your photos.
“Kitchens and dining room tables aren’t just places to make food. They’re also safe and familiar places to gather, connect, organize, plan and to recuperate. Food not only changes the feeling in a space, it also shifts behaviour.”
Julia Turshen, author of “Feed the Resistance: Recipes + Ideas for Getting Involved”
The dining room table offers more than a space to eat a meal. While breaking bread, a shared meal is an opportunity to sit down and converse with others. It offers space to share stories, create new ideas, or even informally practice language. As a shared activity, eating food connects people to community.
Combining the need for healthy, balanced meals with the need for more social spaces in the city, Vancouver Food Networks offer affordable meals for the community. Community meals are meant to offer meals which are accessible, so the cost of an average community meal is between $3 to $7. These are often homestyle meals, usually prepared and cooked on-site during the week. With advance notice, dietary considerations may be taken into account by the kitchen, too.
If $3 to $7 is still a barrier, free and by-donation meals are available. Breakfasts (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday) and lunches (Wednesday) are offered for free at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House. By-donation lunches (Monday, Wednesday) are available at Gordon Neighbourhood House in the West End.
These community meals usually consist of multiple courses, including dessert. Weekday meals are offered throughout the city at Britannia Community Centre, Collingwood Neighbourhood House, Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, Hastings Community Centre (for seniors), South Van Neighbourhood House, Little Mountain Neighbourhood House, and Kits Neighbourhood House.
Find a Food Network which offers free or low cost meals in your neighbourhood. Learn when you are welcome to drop by to eat a hearty meal and meet your neighbours at the same time.
See up-to-date information on current community meals here.
For more information about individual Neighbourhood Food Networks or their organizations, please visit the Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks map. Visit individual Neighbourhood Food Network websites for other current employment and volunteer opportunities.
This posting has been updated as of June 25, 2018.