Food Brings Us Together
When we find ourselves in the day to day struggles of life, we show strength in community through food. A casserole, a pie, a warm cup of coffee; we share food to soothe a friend or neighbour. Local farmer, volunteer and member of the Lac du Bonnet Food Security Network (FSN), Tracy Neurenberg, knows the collective and healing nature of food. She initiated and runs Lunch Is On Us, which welcomes all people in the area for a free soup lunch. Located at the Lac du Bonnet Arena, the program has run since late January and serves 60 to 90 bowls of soup every Tuesday and Thursday.
Neurenberg says it’s not so much her farming background but more her love of cooking, handed down to her by her mom, that inspired her to start the program. “It’s more that I was raised to be generous with food. I’ve cooked meals for our family since I was 8 or 9. I always liked to (cook). It was a point of pride. For my grandparents, I would bake a fancy dessert on their birthdays. A snack or a meal shows how much we care about each other.”
It’s that love of cooking and community that rings true in Lunch Is On Us. “I can cook soup and make lunch. Soup is simple, not too expensive and doesn’t take a lot of planning.” Yet, if you step into the kitchen with Neurenberg you might be dazzled by the volunteers prepping food for the next day, and batches of soup or chili in slow cookers or enormous stock pots on the stove. Then there are the individual and family-sized portions stored in freezers for distribution through the Food Bank or the local schools. If you have a chance to volunteer with Tracy, even if you are a seasoned chef, you will learn a thing or two about prepping food and the impact good food has on the community.
Nothing can be accomplished in a community without collaboration and Neurenberg knows how to partner. The Lac du Bonnet Food Bank has been supporting the program since the beginning, providing tinned foods and buns when possible. Neurenberg was able to get Manitoba Harvest to come on board as a source of ingredients like meats, vegetables, canned goods and bread not only for the lunch program but for the Food Bank as well. Mrs. Lucci’s Family Resource Centre and the Lac du Bonnet Lions have provided funding. Both Campbell’s Grocery Store and Dancyt’s Foods have provided support to the lunch program. Funded by HERO’S Alliance, Lunch Is On Us relies on grants and the generous donations of participants and community members. It seems that when given the chance, people in Lac du Bonnet are keen to help in any way possible. Helping is one of the ways we feel connected to community and improve our own health.
Food Is Health
Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC) reminds us that sharing food is often missing from our understanding of food security and well-being. The CFCC is founded on the belief that “when you connect with people over a good meal, you can start to share culture, experiences, beliefs and build meaningful relationships.”
Lunch Is On Us grows relationships and increases our understanding of food security. People didn’t just look forward to a free bowl of soup each week. They began to reveal the importance the soup had in their lives. Neurenberg gets feedback regularly from program participants, “It still surprises me how people articulate their appreciation. People stop me in town to talk about the soup. One participant called me at home to tell me that the reason she hadn’t been attending (the soup lunch) was because her car was in for repairs. She wanted to be sure I didn’t think it was because she didn’t like the soup!”
While delivering soup one day, a volunteer had a chance to visit with a senior about the lunch program. Neatly dressed, her kitchen immaculate, the woman accepted her soup and bun and said, “I could never make soup like this for myself. I can’t stand for long enough to cook at my stove anymore.” She handed an envelope with a donation for the program to the volunteer and raved about how good the soups were. Another participant, during a short stay in hospital, called Neurenberg to apologize for missing the lunches. She shared how much she was looking forward to the hot soup when she returned home. When we think of food insecurity we think of poverty. While that is a terrible reality for some, food insecurity can have as much to do with our physical or mental health, access to transportation, mobility and social connections within the community.
Neurenberg hears more stories of people who are brought companionship and dignity along with a nutritious meal. “There was a real groundswell of support for the program early on. Some of the participants are people who have previously volunteered in the community.” She packs lunches into boxes going to organizations and group residences in the area. She keeps participants’ information in a small duotang. She knows who is gluten-free, who cannot have peppers and what people prefer. It seems her soups really do show how much she cares for participants and they know it. Being known or seen in a community increases our well-being. The food security equation seems to be Soup = Health.
Food Is Power
According to Statistics Canada, 4.4 million Canadians were food insecure in 2017/2018. That’s 1 in 8 households experiencing food insecurity: the inability to put food on the table regularly for you or your family. In a country of 37.6 million people that’s almost 12% of our population. For greater perspective, that means food insecurity is 8 times higher than the number of cases of corona virus recorded in our country. We could argue that this too is an epidemic. Yet, we either accept that food insecurity is the nature of society or we are unaware of its reach in the day to day lives of Canadians.
Food insecurity has a lasting impact on people’s health. CFCC states that Canadians who live with food insecurity are 6 times more likely to feel socially isolated, and they experience mood disorders and anxiety at a rate higher than the general population. Health care costs for people with severe food insecurity are 121% higher than food secure Canadians.
Neurenberg recalls a time when she was sending snacks to school for a classroom party. She questioned why parents were asked to send fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods. “The teacher explained that the veggie tray I send may be the only healthy food some children in the classroom have that week. It never occurred to me when my kids were young that there were kids going hungry in my community. It’s fundamentally wrong, with the abundance of food in our local area, that people should be hungry.”
Food Can Change Us All
The western world has not really come far from our ‘alms for the poor’ approach to the inequities of our society. For over 150 years we have relied on charity to promote the well-being of people who find themselves in situations of need. In spite of the 170,000 charitable and non-profit organizations in our country, we have not come up with sustainable solutions for levelling the playing field for Canadians. Groups like the CFCC are working to change that reality. And Neurenberg’s Lunch Is On Us is a small but mighty example of the power of collaboration and food making change in our community.
Hopefully, in days to come, people will gather at Lunch Is On Us with friends and strangers, children and adults, to share a bowl of soup and conversation. Maybe those conversations will increase our connections to each other. Maybe they will grow our awareness of the needs and strengths in our community and spur on action to build the sustainable changes we need. Maybe a soup program can offer diverse minds a place to gather, share stories and imagine possible futures.
Neurenberg adds, “A lot of people ask, ‘How long will this program last?’. It depends on uptake. There are a lot of reasons why people come.”
If you would like to donate or volunteer for Lunch Is On Us, drop by for a bowl of soup and talk to Tracy Neurenberg or give her a call at 204-345-9649 or visit herosalliance.ca and click on the donate button.