The smell of bright red peppers simmering in a pan while chicken breast bakes in the oven and fresh cauliflower steams in a pot combines into a mouth-watering aroma, but for some of the people heading to the new GROW Community Food Literacy Centre market in downtown Niagara Falls, those are smells they may not have experienced before.
But Pam Farrell is hoping they’re among the new scents that lower-income people in Niagara Falls will get used to, as part of a push by the new non-profit centre to make healthy food choices much more accessible for people who traditionally haven’t had as much access as others.
GROW, located on Fourth Avenue, is believed to be Canada’s first food literacy centre, with a mission to engage the community in growing its own food, experiencing the joys of gardening and harvesting food, and learning or rediscovering the pleasure of cooking and eating healthy food.
The new market is open from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays and final preparations were underway Friday to get ready for the opening day this past weekend, Aug. 8.
It’s been a long time coming for the organization that started with a United Way grant late last year.
Farrell, the volunteer executive director, said the Elgin area of downtown was selected because household incomes in the area are low on average, with more than half of residents paying 30 per cent or more of their income on housing — considered the threshold past which families have difficulty paying for other necessities such as food, clothing and transportation.
But it was also chosen because of the lack of supermarkets in the area.
“You can find a fast food outlet at every corner,” said Farrell. “There’s an abundance of fast food.”
Michael Jodoin, new co-ordinator of the new low-cost market where people can get food at wholesale prices roughly half of what they’d pay in a supermarket, said eating healthy isn’t cheap. “I can buy a bag of chips for a dollar, but a pint of raspberries is $4,” he said.
Farrell said the new market will be open to people who can show they’re living below the low-income cutoff. “It ensures we’re helping the people who really need it,” she said.
The market also had corn, oranges, bags of potatoes, peaches, cucumbers, apples, watermelon, frozen ground turkey and whole pineapples as well as non-perishable items available on the opening day. Farrell said she hopes to have meat options rotate on a regular basis and possibly add fish.
“It is easier to eat unhealthy, but we’re going to make it easier to eat healthy,” she said. “We want to hear from people what they want.”
Plans call for a commercial grade kitchen to be installed in the basement of the building, a former Scouts Canada location for decades, hopefully in 2021. Farrell also hopes to begin workshops and cooking classes in the coming year, possibly with themes such as Indigenous cooking and blind-low vision cooking, food preservation/canning, and cooking for critical illness survivors such as cancer survivors, to encourage people to learn new skills in the kitchen.
Those classes will be open to everyone, regardless of income level.
Farrell said statistically, people in lower-income brackets are much more susceptible to diabetes and other health conditions related to fewer healthy food options, resulting in life spans years shorter than others.
“(But) it’s amazing how if you change your diet you can reverse that trend,” she said.
Her agency has also embarked on a farm-to-table program, with volunteers tending to a one-and-a-half-acre plot of land at partner St. Davids Farm, growing produce for the new market location.
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The GROW centre and market’s development has been guided by a community advisory committee — some members of whom have experienced homelessness, poverty and food insecurity — advising the agency’s board of directors.
Farrell said that’s important so the centre and market can provide resources that local people who know best what is needed can guide its development.
“We really want to serve the community,” she said. “We wanted this to be a beautiful, welcoming place.”
The centre has just hired Roxanne Molyneaux as Indigenous community outreach co-ordinator. She will be co-ordinating Indigenous knowledge sharing and contributing to the development of a strategy to work in partnership with Indigenous communities.
Jodoin said he is excited to be part of the effort to broaden access to healthy food to people downtown.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s going to help out a lot of people.”
Part of the target audience is the sizeable number of people with lower incomes who for a variety of reasons don’t access food banks, said Farrell. “We want to ensure we capture those people so they don’t have to go without,” she said.
The GROW centre is always in need of additional volunteers to help out, said Farrell.
The low-income cutoff in a region the size of Niagara ranged in 2018 from $22,186 for a single-person household to $27,619 for a two-person household, $33,953 for a three-person household, up to $58,712 for a seven-person household.