Providing newcomers with culturally appropriate food not easy, says Calgary organization

A Calgary organization that is filling a gap for culturally appropriate food hampers for mostly African newcomers is struggling to feed over 600 families on its list — and it's expecting that number to keep growing.

More than 600 families have been added to the wait-list since November

Jean Claude Munyezamu founded Umoja Community Mosaic — previously Soccer Without Boundaries — in 2010 to give Calgary children in public housing more opportunities to participate in sports. The organization added its food program when the pandemic began. (Submitted by Jean Claude Munyezamu)

A Calgary organization that delivers culturally appropriate food hampers to mostly African newcomers is struggling to feed over 600 families on its wait-list — and that number is expected to continue growing.

The program at Umoja Community Mosaic, which provides and delivers food twice monthly, was created when COVID-19 hit Canada in March 2020.

"When the pandemic happened, our people were in trouble," said Jean Claude Munyezamu, executive director of Umoja.

The idea behind the program started when a single mom, who had a three-day-old baby, was unable to access the food bank because it was closed. 

Munyezamu then made calls, provided her with food and noticed a deep structural gap in Calgary's food security system.

"What we found was that there was a gap in food security because the food people eat [is] not necessarily what they get when they're poor," he said. "So what we started was giving … people food that they eat."

Knowing exactly where newcomers are from is important for the Umoja Community Mosaic food program, as it aims to provide culturally appropriate food staples that families would buy on their own. (Submitted by Jean Claude Munyezamu)

Since the program's inception 21 months ago, Umoja has provided and delivered food hampers to over 850 single mothers, seniors and families. But with a rise in food costs, many people still out of work and a lack of funding, Munyezamu says the organization is struggling.

He says the group is hoping to raise at least $150,000 to feed families for the next three months and provide extra support during the holidays, with the help of Calgarians.

Filling the gap for culturally appropriate food

Knowing exactly where clients are from, and what type of food staples they eat in that region, is what makes Umoja's food program unique, says Munyezamu.

"If you're from central, east Africa — Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo — then you're going to have cassava flour rather than baking flour or anything else."

Food serves as a convener, comforter and a source of culture for many ethnic minority cultures, says a release sent by Umoja.

During turbulent times, such as moving to a new country and living through a global pandemic, having access to cultural food is especially important.

"Basically, we are giving people food they would buy if they had money," said Munyezamu.

Depending where newcomer families are initially from, food hampers delivered twice a month can be equipped with food staples such as plantain flour, cassava flour and more. (Submitted by Jean Claude Munyezamu)

Veronica Tsegaye has been using the program for nearly a year now.

She's a single mom of three kids, originally from Eritrea. She lost her job in health care before the pandemic began and now relies on food banks to feed her family.

"Right now, I don't have work. It's hard for the kids," said Tsegaye.

She says the hamper from Umoja comes with lots of vegetables, bread and other food staples. She often cooks injera, Ethiopian flatbread, to eat with other traditional dishes, with ingredients delivered from the program.

Food inflation, extended unemployment

With the cost of food rising across the country, Munyezamu says the organization is paying 30 per cent more for food compared with last year.

Not only does that mean Umoja is paying more for food — it means more people are coming to Umoja for support. Many people are returning to the food program after no longer needing it previously.

Roughly $50,000 is spent on the food program each month. A portion of that budget used to be funded by various organizations, as well as by the City of Calgary and Government of Alberta. 

Aside from newly announced funding from the United Way, the program depends almost completely on donations.

Donations to the program can be made on Umoja Community Mosaic's website.

Those looking to sign up for the food program, and who aren't referred through a social agency, must reach out to Umoja's program co-ordinator directly.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.

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