It’s familiar food in a strange land.
Just off Como Lake and Mariner Way in Coquitlam, newcomers to Canada can find a food bank that offers both the groceries they need and the ingredients they thought they’d left behind.
The Coquitlam Alliance Church used to hand out packaged hampers. However, they were in the midst of a building renovation when a new idea was broached, explains Sonia Friesen, Local Missions Pastor at CA Church.
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The idea was to create what looks like a corner grocery in the church. Instead of giving people what they were expected to want, the Cultural Food Pantry lets people choose what they want.
Each month, about 200 families use the modified food bank, filling up shopping carts with as much as $175 worth of groceries.
What makes the food bank special, Friesen explains, is the emphasis on culturally-appropriate food, particularly for Persian and Afghan families.
Supported by Union Gospel Mission, the Cultural Food Pantry is a collaboration between CA Church and Port Moody-based charity House of Omeed.
With some refugees unable to get financial support during the pandemic, it was imperative to help folks out with their increasingly hefty grocery bills, explains House of Omeed executive director Ahmad Zeividavi.
“When the pandemic hit, our phones started ringing and people said that they couldn’t afford to buy food,” Zeividavi says.
They started providing food for 10 families.
“Probably three weeks later we were delivering to 175 families,” Zeividavi says.
“The harder part has been to have to cap it,” Friesen says, noting there are about 100 families on a waitlist.
After getting the program up and running, they decided to ask food bank clients to undergo income examination. However, what they found “sank our heart,” Zeividavi says.
In many cases, residents were paying more for rent than they were getting in income assistance. It’s a hardship Kheyreh Aboodleh knows well.
Aboodleh, 72, has been in Canada for six years.
Four years ago, she underwent open heart surgery. Now, living in Coquitlam on income assistance, she struggles to make ends meet.
“Just my rent is $1,600,” she says, speaking through Zeividavi, who translates.
“I’m just so grateful for House of Omeed and this church,” she says. “It feels very welcoming.”
Asked about her life in Iran, Aboodleh smiles.
“I had a great life there,” she says.
Her husband was a managing director of a major company. They lived in a company house with two young children.
The Iran-Iraq war changed everything, she says.
“We had to leave our city and we moved to the capital city. And then my husband died,” she says.
She raised two young children on her husband’s pension.
She was visiting her youngest daughter in Turkey around the time she converted to Christianity.
After 18 years as a refugee, she arrived in Coquitlam. She’s glad she did, she notes.
“My kids are here,” she says with a wide smile.
Every two weeks, Aboodleh picks up rice, tea, eggs, fruits and vegetables from the Cultural Food Bank.
The items range from soup and cereal to cardamom tea, a specific kind of rice, and imported canned fried vegetables needed to make ghormeh sabzi. It’s the kind of comfort food that makes children smile, Zeividavi says.
The pantry is funded through a Union Gospel Mission grant.
“The goal with this is to equip local churches in their own local communities to give them the resources to bring a support network around newcomers to Canada,” explains Rachael Allen, media communications officer for Union Gospel Mission. “We know that poverty, especially food insecurity, affects newcomers and refugees to Canada.”
A goalball Paralympian, Zeividavi was also a refugee in Turkey before he came to Canada as a teenager in 2009.
He said he wishes he had the Cultural Pantry when he arrived.
Born blind, he went to a food bank when he was new to Canada. He only went once, he notes.
“I had no idea what kind of food they gave me,” he says.
It’s always been challenging to be a refugee but Zeividavi says those challenges have been heightened by inflation.
“It’s harder,” he says. “Everything wasn’t this expensive. . . I don’t know how long we can go like this.”
Most of the clients are new Canadians, Friesen says, emphasizing the importance of respecting the clients’ culture.
The pantry is for everyone, regardless of religious denomination, Friesen says.
“If you don’t follow the ways of Jesus, it doesn’t mean the door is shut,” she says.
There’s food, she says, but there’s more than food on offer.
“We’re not interested in just dishing out food to people but also building relationships.”
Many clients swing by the adjacent coffee/tea room before or after shopping.
It’s a chance to talk about anything from finding a doctor to dealing with a landlord.
“A lot of the people that we’re seeing here don’t actually have someone to talk to or are more isolated, or are new to the country and trying to make connections,” Friesen says.
At its core, Friesen adds, the pantry is about creating a community.