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This article was published 19/4/2020 (515 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When he delivers free meals to people in the Central Park neighbourhood, Winnipegger Raymond Ngarboui feels he is paying forward the kindnesses offered him as a boy.
"As a former child who lived in a civil war situation, I was able to survive by the generosity of community members," says Ngarboui, 44, who recalls running into the bush for safety or being confined inside his home as a young boy in Chad.
Where to findClick to Expand
Food 4 All operates out of Knox United Church, 400 Edmonton St.
Breakfast runs from 10 to 11 a.m. and lunch is served from 12:30 to 1:30 on weekdays.
Contact Raymond Ngarboui at email@example.com
So while the COVID-19 pandemic keeps Winnipeggers at home, the community organizer did what he does best — organize folks to feed people who had few options for groceries or takeout food.
He cooked up an ad hoc meal program for the Central Park area, mobilizing contacts from his work with the Community Education Development Association, his volunteer gig for Rainbow Community Gardens and associates from Knox United Church.
"There are many people struggling," says the father of two, whose job with CEDA is stationed at Gordon Bell High School.
"Many of them don’t know how to cook food and many don’t have credit cards or know how to order online."
The high density neighbourhood within the triangle roughly created by Balmoral Street and Cumberland and Portage avenues is home to about 4,000 people, many of them new Canadians.
'As long as the confinement situation lasts, we are willing to continue this work'‐ Raymond Ngarboui, who organized Food 4 All after the pandemic struck
Within a few days of floating the idea to Melrose Koineh of Winnipeg Central Park Women’s Resource Centre and the leadership of Knox United, Ngarboui had permission to use the Knox community kitchen, the help of its kitchen manager and a bit of seed money to cover the cost of takeout containers.
Since March 30, the program dubbed Food 4 All operated under the radar, serving breakfasts and lunches on weekdays and using neighbourhood networks to get the word out.
"The flow of community members to get food was overwhelming," says Ngarboui of serving 200 meals a day.
"People from the apartments (around Central Park) saw us and they came."
Although needs may be great, people are very grateful for the food, says Koineh, who spends her mornings in the large community kitchen along with the kitchen manager and a volunteer from the women’s resource centre, now closed due to the pandemic. They observe social distancing by staying within their two-metre zones marked on the floor with tape.
"They say ‘Thank you, God bless you,’" she says of the reactions to the free breakfasts and lunches.
On a sunny but chilly mid-April day, the lunch menu consists of egg-and-vegetable fried rice, caesar salad, a banana, ice cream, and bottled water or red hibiscus sorrel drink. Ngarboui takes turns with another volunteer to stand by a metal serving cart laden with food located at the church’s Edmonton Street entrance. The volunteers place one packaged meal at a time on a wooden piano bench on the boulevard, step back, and then encourage people to take the food.
Their rule is one meal per person, but Ngarboui and his volunteers will deliver multiple portions to apartments in the area if people can’t come out due to health issues.
For an hour, a steady stream of people pick up their lunches, some repeat customers, others surprised they can pick up nourishment right there on the street.
"We’re getting by," explains first-time client Travis Forster of how he and his partner Darlene are managing during the pandemic.
"There’s no resources out there."
One woman passing by declines the offer of lunch but gives Ngarboui a package of disposable masks she had stowed in her backpack.
Koineh says they’ve received requests for gloves, masks and other items, but at this point can only offer takeout meals.
"Some of the challenges are we have people who access the food program who ask us for toiletries and hygiene product," says the longtime director of the women’s resource centre, which operates out of Knox United.
What they can provide are well-balanced nutritious meals based on the Canada Food Guide, says the kitchen manager, who didn’t want to be identified for personal safety issues. Kitchen staff confer weekly to develop a menu plan using available ingredients, supplied by Winnipeg Harvest or purchased with donated cash.
"The biggest challenge we have is the resources," she said of the need for more cash and food donations.
"The kitchen has the capacity and we have the equipment."
Each portioned and packaged meal costs $2.50 for food and the single-use containers and cutlery, says Ngarboui
A recent grant of $3,000 from the Winnipeg Foundation and United Way Winnipeg bolstered their resources, he says, adding to the previous contributions of $1,500, including $1,200 donated by Starbuck United Church just west of Winnipeg.
Knox United Church has also provided hands-on help from Rev. Lesley Harrison, who served 200 portions of lunch on Easter Sunday.
"It has reinforced the relationship of goodwill we as a church have with the neighbourhood and the community," says Harrison of the group effort to feed people.
Her partner Keith Barber pitched in to create a large freestanding sign to advertise the program, placed on the sidewalk for the first time on April 15.
The quick development of the Food 4 All program proves that with the right supports, neighbourhoods have the capacity to pitch in to fill the gaps, says Mareike Brunelli, director of Central Neighbourhoods.
"It shows there is a lot of intelligence with the community workers to come up with solutions that are adaptable to the environment around them," she says during a quick visit to the program to offer her support and the loan of a restaurant-style coffee maker.
It also demonstrates that a former refugee, traumatized by war, can help his fellow citizens in the most practical ways — by offering them food when they’re hungry.
"I feel a moral duty I have to pay back," says Ngarboui, who has lived in Winnipeg for 14 years.
"As long as the confinement situation lasts, we are willing to continue this work."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.