Growing concern

Newcomers to Canada are nearly twice as likely to experience food insecurity as people born here. Programs such as the Rainbow Community Garden help new immigrants put familiar and healthy food on the table while nourishing a sense of connection.


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Dikuri Chhetri, 56, wipes sweat from her forehead as she inspects this year’s harvest. Beans, tomatoes and peppers peek out between bushes at her Rainbow Community Garden plot, a site where newcomers grow their own produce during the summer.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/09/2018 (1484 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Dikuri Chhetri, 56, wipes sweat from her forehead as she inspects this year’s harvest. Beans, tomatoes and peppers peek out between bushes at her Rainbow Community Garden plot, a site where newcomers grow their own produce during the summer.

“It saves money,” the Bhutanese immigrant says with the help of a translator. “I’m going to keep the vegetables in my freezer at the end of the season.”

Newcomers who’ve been in Canada for less than five years are nearly twice as likely to be food insecure as Canadian-born citizens, according to 2012 Health Canada statistics. Results from the 2016 census show the number of immigrants living in prairie cities has more than doubled since 2011 but food-related supports are still lacking.


Some have limited opportunities to learn English before arriving in Canada, so they must do so while learning new cultural norms and navigating social services. These challenges can contribute to difficulties with housing, employment and food security.

The concept for Rainbow Community Garden came to co-ordinator Raymond Ngarboui shortly after arriving in Winnipeg in 2006. As a newcomer, it was hard for him to find the foods he had access to in Africa. Some ethnic vegetables are sold in Winnipeg grocery stores, he says, but quality tends to be poor and prices are steep.

Ngarboui collects seed requests from growers and places orders with companies outside of Canada. Local garden centres also make donations, and Rainbow Community Garden families hand out produce to community members in need.

“The idea was to have the possibility to grow local vegetables, but also vegetables from tropical areas, at an affordable price,” Ngarboui says.

With land provided by the University of Manitoba and help from Knox United Church, Rainbow Community Garden welcomed its first growers in the summer of 2008. As the garden’s popularity grew, so did its waiting list. There are approximately 212 families gardening at the university site this year.

Ngarboui says running the project is “very challenging” because it functions on a voluntary basis. The Winnipeg Foundation, Food Matters Manitoba and the Community Education Development Association (CEDA) bring in volunteers and supplies, but the bulk of the work falls on Ngarboui’s shoulders.

Students from the University of Manitoba gave their time to help with weeding on a Sunday afternoon in August. The group is part of Team Toba JDC West, an undergraduate case competition team from the Asper School of Business.

Kevin Collins, 22, and Andrew Smith, 21, knew the garden existed before volunteering, but not that it’s for newcomers.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ‘It saves money,’ says Dikuri Chhetri of growing her own produce at the garden, and ‘there’s always someone to talk to.’

“They can get a little bit of a home vibe here, which would be very tough to get in a Safeway,” Collins says. “Food may also be costly or not offered at all.”

“For them to have an outside area that they can go to garden is huge being as they’re often living in apartments,” Smith adds.

Despite help from groups like Team Toba, Ngarboui believes there aren’t enough supports in Winnipeg for newcomers who would like to grow their own food. He applied for government aid in 2016, but was told his project “wasn’t worth being funded,” he said.

Water has been an issue for growers. They were getting water from the University of Manitoba, but as of last year that supply ran dry.

“Support means to have access to water, or to have a greenhouse that can be publicly accessed by families throughout the year,” Ngarboui says. “There have been depression situations in newcomer and refugee families. The causes are things that can easily be avoided, but the government doesn’t consider the value of a small project like this.”

The garden is more than just a place for the families to grow food: it also gets them outside during the summer months.

Agnes Birime, a refugee who moved to Canada from East Africa in 1996, says she has made “many friends” at Rainbow Community Garden.

“It takes away the stress,” Birime explains. “Everybody is always chatting and sharing. Sometimes we bring food and eat together.”


Rainbow Community Garden is filled with stories of resilience, and Birime’s is only one example. The 54-year-old was in a coma for nine hours in 2015 after an accident on a Calgary highway.

“I wanted to do something because I thought I was going to die,” Birime says. “I said, ‘What will give me a second chance?’”

She decided to build an orphanage back home in Burundi.

Birime started by purchasing land. She hired workers, built a fence surrounding the property, renovated the site’s two existing houses and started a garden. She says there are currently 20 kids living at the orphanage, but she hopes to expand it.

She travels to Africa throughout the year to bring supplies and assist with construction. Her apartment in Winnipeg is filled with mattresses, seeds, clothing, blankets and toys.

Over the course of two years, Birime has spent approximately $120,000 of her own money.

“‘Let me help’ is how I started the orphanage,” she says.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The idea behind the garden, says co-ordinator Raymond Ngarboui, was to ‘grow local vegetables, but also vegetables from tropical areas.’

On a Thursday morning in mid-August, 15 newcomers descend on Sergeant Tommy Prince Place. It’s the final session of a nutrition course run by Altered Minds’ Living English for Employment (LEE) program and Food Matters Manitoba.

The program has been “very beneficial” for Mohammad Allibu, a 44-year-old Syrian refugee whose been in Winnipeg for 18 months.

“We get to learn new recipes and make connections,” Allibu says with the help of a translator. “We learned how to find similar items (to back home) at big grocery stores.”

Tazeen Asisn and Luciana Wiranto are teachers with the LEE program. The women use a “hands on” approach when teaching their students about Canadian food. This includes grocery store tours and in-class demonstrations.

“We teach practical knowledge and skills they can use in the kitchen,” Asisn says. “We tell them what kinds of foods there are in Canada and what kinds of practices there are in Canadian food culture.”

“We talk about the sugar amounts we need each day and reading food labels,” Wiranto adds. “Sometimes the students see a lot of canned or processed foods. Maybe they think it’s healthy, but if they continue eating their traditional foods it’s usually healthier.”

Tressa Alexiuk, Food Matters newcomer program co-ordinator, says there is a term to describe this phenomenon: dietary acculturation.

“They are often coming to Canada healthier than the average Canadian,” Alexiuk says. “Some of the research is showing that, as they adopt a more Western-style diet, their health starts to deteriorate.”

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dikuri Chhetri (right) and others (far right) tend to their plots at the Rainbow Community Garden.

Alexiuk says language and income are two barriers immigrants face when adapting to a new food environment. Grocery stores may look different from where they’ve come from, and some may not have transportation to get to a farmers markets to buy fresh produce.

“There are a couple of nutrition programs for newcomers in Winnipeg, but they tend to have long wait lists,” Alexiuk says. “There is a need for more and increased numbers of programs as we’re accepting more into Winnipeg.”

A heat advisory does not stop Chhetri from tending to her plot at Rainbow Community Garden. She spends an average of 10 hours each day planting, weeding and watering.

“There’s always people to talk to here,” Chhetri says, smiling.

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