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An innovative program that is helping provide access to healthy food to low-income residents in a north Winnipeg neighbourhood is also providing people with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to acquire valuable job skills and work experience.

The NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre (CFC) operates under the auspices of NorWest Co-op Community Health, a community-based non-profit organization with a mandate to promote health and wellness. The food centre’s primary mission is to increase access to healthy food by bringing people together to grow, cook, share and advocate for good food.

Located in the Gilbert Park area, the centre offers a range of programs including sessions on sustainable gardening practices, drop-in cooking classes, and a fruit and vegetable market. The centre’s most popular offering is a community lunch program that serves hot, healthy meals to as many as 100 area residents every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

While the centre has a staff of six employees, it relies heavily on volunteers to take care of much of its day-to-day activities.

“A lot of the success of the program is because we’ve been able to rely on volunteers. Volunteers are very important to us,” says Micheale Lynxleg, CFC’s Community Action and Engagement Program Coordinator and Volunteer Coordinator. “We absolutely wouldn’t be able to [operate without them]. They help us make everything run.”

Two of the people who help make things run at the food centre each week are Kelly and Nathan, who are both served by Epic Opportunities. The duo began working at the CFC earlier this year to enhance their work skills and help find employment opportunities in the food services sector. Kelly serves as an assistant to chef Grant Mitchell each Monday while Nathan serves meals and assists in the clean-up of the community dining area.

Nathan, who hopes to one day work in the hospitality industry, says the experience he’s gained at the food centre has been invaluable. Not only has working with the public helped draw him out of his shell, it’s also made him feel like he’s making a difference in the community.

“Yes, I like to be able to help other people,” he says.

Kelly was by no means a stranger to the kitchen before starting at NorWest. He previously worked as a cook at Goldie’s Grill at Shaw Park during Winnipeg Goldeyes home games and was a member of the kitchen staff at Winnipeg Harvest. He says working at the CFC has helped him keep his existing culinary skills sharp while learning some new ones. He says the best part of working at the centre is feeling like he’s part of a team.

“It makes me so happy,” he says. “We’ve got good people here. They have a good attitude. I’ve made some good friends.”

The NorWest Community Food Centre opened in March 2015 and is a member of Community Food Centres Canada. The CFC model was first launched at the Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto’s Davenport West neighbourhood and was later adopted by cities across the country with the aim of transforming health and quality of life in low-income communities.

Lynxleg says demand for the NorWest food centre and its services continues to climb. One of the reasons for the rise in Gilbert Park, where household incomes average $15,030 annually, has been a recent influx of newcomers to the community.

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