CETL and Chalmers: A Mutually Beneficial Partnership Addressing Newcomer Food Insecurity

Posted on Tuesday, February 21st, 2023

Written by Haleakala Angus & Kendra Schnarr

CESI regularly has the privilege of developing relationships with community organizations who are deeply immersed in the communities they serve and are familiar with the issues that impact them most strongly. These partnerships vary in length and depth, and take place across a range of programs and projects at CESI; the common thread linking them is a strong potential for transformational change and the goal of offering benefits for all parties involved, as well as the broader community.

For a number of years, Chalmers Community Services Centre (CCSC) has partnered with CESI’s Community Engaged Teaching and Learning (CETL) program, which brings together faculty, staff, students, and community partners to address community-identified priorities. Chalmers is an emergency food provider that provides supplies and support to individuals experiencing poverty and food insecurity in the Guelph community. Through this long-term partnership, CESI and Chalmers have developed and undertaken a variety of projects aimed at developing long-term solutions and improving the lives of those experiencing food insecurity in Guelph.

Newcomer Food Insecurity: A Community-Identified Priority 

Food insecurity refers to the lack of access to food, which includes the inability to access food that is of sufficient quality, quantity, or culturally appropriate. It is a complex issue linked to income and poverty and impacts marginalized communities at higher rates than the general population. In recent years, Chalmers observed a change in the demographics of the Guelph community along with increased levels of food insecurity, particularly among the newcomer population. This shift sparked a growing curiosity and sense of responsibility to learn how to better support and respond to newcomer needs in relation to health and well-being.

One approach identified by Chalmers to promote newcomer health and well-being was to provide culturally appropriate food. This approach goes beyond improving a newcomer’s physical health by meeting nutrition needs, as it also holds the potential to increase their mental wellbeing. For Chalmers, this approach was crucial because the respect and dignity of their guests is their first priority. Offering culturally appropriate food can improve mental health because it ensures that individuals are provided with food choices that they are familiar with and able to use. It also cultivates a sense of belonging where individuals feel welcome and included in the community.

Bridging Gaps in Knowledge on Newcomer Food Insecurity

Once identified as a priority by Chalmers, better understanding newcomer food insecurity became the focus of their partnership with the CESI CETL program. As a community organization, Chalmers holds rich, anecdotal knowledge on poverty and food insecurity based on their observations and the relationships formed while working in the Guelph community. In turn, the CESI CETL program is well-positioned to provide project planning and coordination of all partners, instructors, and students, ensuring that projects meet the goals of all parties involved. They also offer a breadth of knowledge of principles and best practices around community-engaged research.

Since the birth of the partnership, groups of undergraduate and graduate students from across the University of Guelph have worked on several projects with Chalmers that aim to answer community questions regarding newcomer health and well-being, providing culturally appropriate food, and understanding the link between culturally appropriate food and well-being. First, a CETL-supported student report determined that when newcomers arrive in Canada, their health declines due to the poor quality of the North American diet, the increased costs of healthy food, and limited access to the foods they may be used to. This report was used by Chalmers to secure funding that allowed them to offer culturally appropriate food in their regular food offerings. It also laid the foundation for surveys and initiatives that would follow by demonstrating that the issue of newcomer health was part of a broader trend that needed to be addressed.

During the summer of 2020, Chalmers worked with a Nutrition graduate student to co-create an innovative pictorial survey to fill a knowledge gap on culturally appropriate food. This survey ensured that every guest was included and represented in the data by allowing guests to convey their experiences and needs related to culturally appropriate food and other services provided by Chalmers. Then, in 2021, a group of Nutrition graduate students developed a suite of survey tools that includes the pictorial survey as well as plans and guides for focus groups and in-depth interviews. These tools aim to provide an immediate snapshot and long-term picture of how accessing culturally appropriate foods and other Chalmers services impact the health and well-being of its guests.

Furthermore, in January 2021, University of Guelph geography students collaborated with Chalmers on a project called “The Affordable Food Map for Newcomers” to examine a gap in knowledge on the relationship between marginalized groups, food access, and affordable transportation. The students created a map of Guelph that shows all the locations where individuals can access free or low-cost healthy foods. These food maps are now displayed in Chalmers and three other non-profit organizations in Guelph and serve as a resource for newcomers and other individuals who may require assistance in finding healthy, affordable food in their neighbourhood.

The Good Food Box Pilot Project

The Good Food Box, another collaborative project between CETL and Chalmers, was launched in 2022. This project is a continuation of the larger effort to bridge the knowledge gap on newcomer health and food insecurity. Its goal is to create culturally appropriate “goodfood”-style boxes for newcomer women to foster community-building and emergency food provision. With the support of the CESI CETL program, Chalmers worked with two graduate students from CESI’s Research Shop to interview twenty-five local newcomer women to understand their food habits, preferences, and needs to ensure that the boxes reflected the community’s voice. Over the course of this project, twenty-two women worked together to prepare the food boxes and received food-handling training and certification.

The training and certification in food handling not only enabled the women to handle the food boxes safely, but it also provided them with a professional certification that they could use to work in the food industry if they desired. To make this project as accessible as possible, Chalmers ensured that the training and certification were provided in the women’s native languages and offered an oral test option. Furthermore, they worked with local organizations to provide a venue, childcare, and transportation to ensure the barriers to participation would be minimal. The Good Food project has had a positive impact in the community by building capacity in women experiencing food scarcity that goes beyond providing emergency food relief. It provided a means for them to earn income, helped them develop entrepreneurial and food-handling skills, and reduced their family food budgets overall.

Mutual Benefits- Recognition and Improvement of Chalmer’s Service Delivery

The Good Food Box project, as well as the other projects highlighted, have provided significant benefits for all parties involved. These projects were developed as a direct response to an identified need in the community, and thus have great potential to lead to positive social change that broadly benefits the Guelph community. Chalmers’ community ties and firsthand experience with poverty and food insecurity, together with CETL’s capacity to bring all the projects together for maximum impact, ensured that relevant questions on newcomer food insecurity were addressed. By filling gaps in knowledge on newcomer health and well-being, Chalmers was better able to modify and enhance service delivery for the newcomer population, improving access to healthy, culturally appropriate food in Guelph and mitigating food insecurity and its health impacts among newcomers.

Mutual Benefits- Enriched Student Learning and Experiences

CETL and Chalmer’s long-term partnership has also provided a unique opportunity for student learning and experience. Students working with Chalmers were able to gain hands-on experience and knowledge in research and implementation and apply their knowledge to a real-world issue impacting the Guelph community. These academic and real-life skills are transferable to future careers and have the potential to promote community-driven change. Melissa Tanti, the Community Engaged Learning Coordinator at CESI states that it “has been a thrilling experience to share in Chalmer’s vision, which not only enriches the local community but the learning experiences of so many students at University of Guelph as well”.

What’s Next

CESI and Chalmers’ ongoing partnership demonstrates the value of two organizations sharing resources and coordinating efforts. When community and academic organizations trust and rely upon one another’s skills and knowledge, they can achieve maximum impact and community benefit, as evidenced by this collaborative relationship that has created strong momentum to develop long-term solutions to addressing food insecurity, particularly among the newcomer population. Their work on food insecurity recognizes the importance of understanding the root causes of food insecurity and how it intersects with other social factors including poverty, culture, belonging, mental wellness, financial stability, transportation, affordable housing, and childcare. This collaborative model aims to empower Chalmers’ guests to improve all facets of a person’s well-being and as a result, has the potential to improve more than the physical well-being of its guests.

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