North Point Douglas has been referred to as a "food desert" because there’s so little in the way of inexpensive and nutritious food options for residents.
The area now has an oasis, thanks to the efforts of the North Point Douglas Women’s Centre and other neighbourhood advocates.
It’s a community oven located in scenic Michaelle Jean Park, literally a stone’s throw from the Red River.
The outdoor, wood-burning oven was built over the late spring and summer as a way to encourage community meals and baking.
The first of its kind in Winnipeg, the oven also features a colourful tile mosaic designed to discourage vandalism.
"Engaging with food in a creative way draws attention to lack of affordable, healthy food options in economically challenged neighborhoods such as ours," says Jess Lambrecht, drop-in co-ordinator of the women’s centre, which runs the oven.
According to Lambrecht, North Point Douglas has no grocery stores and just one corner store which offers only a few staple items.
Individuals or groups can now book the community oven through the women’s centre, she says, adding that it has a 40-loaf capacity for bread making, although "we can do pretty much anything that goes into a regular oven."
About 100 people indulged in a half dozen different varieties of bread during the oven’s official unveiling in August.
Lambrecht says a pizza night held a few days later was similarly successful, with residents treated to 200 free pizzas. Another pizza night is planned for sometime in October.
Elaine Bishop, executive director of the women’s centre, says the community oven not only makes the neighbourhood more self-sufficient, it brings people together to share food "which is great for building community."
She adds, "The reaction has been fabulous. When we had our first pizza night here, people were riding by on their bicycles to find out what was going on and being offered a pizza."
Bishop cites the picturesque setting as a big part of the oven’s appeal.
"What we are finding as we bring in more and more people from outside the community to Michaelle Jean Park is that people see this as a hidden gem," she says.
"They’re amazed to find such a beautiful riverfront place to sit and relax in a community they’ve been taught to be afraid of, and it’s creating a completely new perspective of this part of the city."
Lambrecht says the project was spearheaded by Leah Decter, a local artist who approached the women’s centre two years ago about building an outdoor oven to help foster community development.
"We thought it was a great idea and saw all sorts of potential for it," Lambrecht says.
She adds the Graffiti Art Gallery was also involved, engaging area youth to help tile the outside of the oven.
Groups which helped sponsor construction of the community oven include: the Manitoba Alternative Food Research Alliance, the Home Depot Canada Foundation, the Women’s Inter-Church Counsel of Canada, the Manitoba Metis Federation, the Change for the Better Foundation, the City of Winnipeg Land Dedication Reserve Fund, city councillor Ross Eadie, the Manitoba Arts Council, MB4Youth, Province of Manitoba Children and Youth Opportunities, and Canada Summer Jobs.