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North Van low-income seniors get help with fresh produce
Fresh fruits and vegetables are often out of reach for seniors on a fixed income, either because of the cost or mobility issues that prevent them from making it to the grocery store.
Hollyburn Family Services Society, which provides outreach services to some of the North Shore’s most vulnerable people, identified a need for food security among low-income seniors through a survey that was sent out to their clients earlier this year.
Now, thanks to a new food box program, that’s starting to change.
“Hi. Come in. Welcome.” A warm greeting is offered the moment someone walks through the door of this multi-purpose room in the basement of North Shore Neighbourhood House.
The sun is streaming in through the doorway, as volunteers keep busy assembling fruit and vegetable packages in the centre of the room. There is a lot of laughing coming from this blended group of 20 seniors and young adults who make up the North Shore Food Box Cooperative.
Charles Phoenix is one of the first shoppers to arrive. Wearing a fedora that shields his eyes, he quietly peruses the selection of fruits and vegetables compartmentalized on a table along the back wall.
“I’m going to take some of these trees,” says Phoenix as he reaches for some broccoli.
The 80-year-old, who lives in a nearby affordable housing complex for low-income seniors and adults with disabilities, has been spared a trek downhill to the closest supermarket, which is many blocks away on Esplanade.
“So far the evidence of what I have seen here is really nice fresh food,” says Phoenix of the North Shore Food Box Cooperative set-up. “Almost a little bit of everything — veggies, bananas, cheese, yogurt.”
His small box filled with fresh produce that would sell for as much as $25 in a grocery store will only cost him $15 today.
The food box program was born out of an intergenerational mentorship project — “Honoring Our Past, Nurturing Our Future” — spearheaded by HFSS.
Supported by provincial money, the initiative focuses on collaboration between seniors and youth ages 19 to 24. Through workshops and activities there is a transmission of intergenerational knowledge that occurs.
Kristen Pring-Mill was one of the young participants in the 10-week program. Each week she would bring in a short comedic script for the seniors to act out.
“I guess one of the things that is fun about this group is that many of them have never performed before,” says Pring-Mill.
For Maureen Reierstad, the companionship helps abate any feelings of isolation. The 73-year-old is just starting to get back on her feet again.
A year and a half ago, Reierstad’s life turned upside down on a dime. She lost her long-time job, her mother died and her personal life went sideways — all at once.
“I was in financial straits, definitely to the point where I had no grocery money,” she recalls.
The staff at Hollyburn, which delivers B.C. Housing’s Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) program, provided Reierstad with the resources she needed to get her life back on track.
“I’m not very clever asking for things, especially when people are doing things for me,” says Reierstad.
Linda Brown has a similar tale of adversity. In 2007, after falling and fracturing her elbow, she was unable to hold down a full-time job and subsequently her apartment went into foreclosure.
Hollyburn staff also helped her find affordable housing. However, her monthly income is a $920 Persons With Disabilities (PWD) benefit, $700 of which goes towards her rent.
“Without this [North Shore Food Box Cooperative] I wouldn’t be eating,” says Brown.
Reierstad and Brown, along with the other food box program volunteers, take home a bag of groceries when they leave. However, Leya Eguchi, Hollyburn’s coordinator of seniors programs, says they are not looking for a hand-out.
“Everyone is here on their own accord because they want to help each other,” adds Eguchi.
Hollyburn was only temporarily hosting the food box cooperative at North Shore Neighbourhood House. Starting next week, the volunteers will deliver the fruits and vegetables to a seniors’ affordable housing complex in Lower Lonsdale.
“The goal was not to create a supermarket here,” explains Eguchi.
The group is learning as they go with this pilot project. Right now they source the produce from wholesalers. Soon, they hope to tap into a community resource next door to North Shore Neighbourhood House — the Edible Garden Project.
“We are looking at getting food from them and partnering with farmers,” says Eguchi.
The food box cooperative supplements Hollyburn’s overarching Seniors at Housing Risk Outreach Program.
This past year alone, Hollyburn social workers helped 235 marginalized seniors secure affordable housing and/or income support.
“I’m getting up to 20 calls a day,” says Eguchi. “The concern is that these people are about to lose their housing.”
According to Eguchi, with the baby boomer generation now entering retirement age, the number of seniors needing outreach services is expected to swell.