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Moncton: Partnerships ensure families ate healthy during COVID-19 pandemic

By Kate Doyle, Community Developer for the Moncton Area

Schools are so much more than just a place to learn. They're often community hubs, support systems and, safe spaces.  

For many, they're also a place where students can count on being able to get a breakfast and lunch. For many families in the Salisbury and Petitcodiac regions, consistent access to healthy food can be a challenge. But schools in the area have really stepped up to make sure that students had full bellies.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing schools to close mid-March, parents across the province scrambled (myself included!). There was so much uncertainty and increased pressure.

In the uncertain before the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), it was incredibly stressful for so many.

I know I'm not alone in saying that it felt like every half hour a little person was asking for a snack.

For families who are food insecure, which is up to 15 per cent in the Salisbury and Petitcodiac regions (New Brunswick Health Council, 2017), this meant having to provide meals and snacks they may not have been able to provide even before the pandemic set in.

In my experience, rural communities are adept at mobilizing and the communities of Petitcodiac, Salisbury and the surrounding area are no different. We started to connect local leaders, far too many to name individually, to talk about how we were going to make sure "our" youth still had access to healthy food.

Through an already existing partnership with the Food Depot Alimentaire, we were able to get weekly deliveries of some staple foods - things like cereal, cheese, milk, and granola bars.

These were already part of the normal school breakfast and lunch programs, but with the lockdown, we struggled with access to fresh foods through our normal supply chains, and increased prices.

By bringing all the schools together we were able to access bulk purchasing through a local supplier - meaning we could buy way more with less money by working together.

We were able to leverage the larger order to buy more fresh fruit than usual. In normal times, if something wasn't available via the Food Depot Alimentaire, schools might be able to go buy it. In this case, price and availability were huge barriers (not to mention it was scary going to the grocery store for a while there!).

We were fortunate enough to get a grant from the United Way of Greater Moncton and Southeastern New Brunswick and we moved quickly, establishing supply points, packing places, deliveries and databases.

In case you ever wondered what 600 boxes looked like, here you are! These were donated by Master Packaging and delivered to our packing sites by Holly McNeil, from the village of Salisbury.

When we started, 22 families signed up, and when we wrapped up the program, we were up to 85 families and 151 youth across two different community hubs! We ran the program for the duration of the school year, which would be when breakfast and lunch programs would normally run.

By that time emergency benefits had been coming in, getting groceries wasn't quite as challenging (or scary), and people were getting into our new normal. On our last two weeks of orders, we included print outs of how to access emergency benefits, free tax clinics (to receive child benefit) and food banks.

Those youth got access to close to 5,000 pounds of apples, 4,000 pounds of bananas, 1,000 cucumbers and a colossal amount of baby carrots in addition to their staple pantry items!

This would be a feat for any community, but it was also being done under COVID-19 precautions, meaning we had a very limited numbers of volunteers who had to keep their distance.

Normally in a project like this, volunteers are numerous and shoulder to shoulder - not in COVID-19 times though!

As I write this, it's late July 2020, and when I checked back in with the planning team, every single one of them said this project was an incredibly rewarding experience.

I asked about highlights - one school principal told me of a cross stitch she was given as a thank you, another described the relief they heard in parents' voices when they got the call about their delivery.

A gift to one of the school principals who made sure food was still available to their students, even when school was closed (this is only available in English).

For me, two things stuck out: how quickly everyone we asked to help said yes immediately, and the week that one team member went out and bought hundreds of chocolate bunnies to add as a treat over the Easter weekend.

It feels good to help, especially when things these days seem so outside of our control.

Kate has been a community developer with Horizon since 2018, but prior she worked in the non-profit and charitable sectors for many years. She is currently a student at the University of New Brunswick, having just completed its Renaissance College Leadership Program.

She passionate about social inclusion, bringing people together and encouraging communities to try brave, bold, new ideas. She's always on the lookout for community leaders (especially those who don't realize they are… yet!), so please feel free to reach out to her at Kate.Doyle@HorizonNB.ca.

She works supporting communities across the Moncton Area and would love to help you build healthier, stronger, more resilient communities one project at a time!

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