Upcoming closure of food bank for Black Albertans highlights gap in services, advocates say

About 90 Edmonton families depend on the culturally relevant food hampers each week.

90 Edmonton families depend on the culturally relevant food hampers each week

Africa Centre's Emmanuel Onah says the culturally relevant food improves clients' mental health. (Submitted by Africa Centre)

Organizers of a food bank for Black Edmontonians say there will be many families left behind if the service ends in March.

Each week, dozens of families of African and Caribbean descent ranging from two to 10 members collect hampers packed with culturally relevant food.

Despite demand, organizers had to cap the program at 90 families so staff and volunteers could keep up with collection, packing and distribution. 

The service was launched in May thanks to the collaboration of multiple Black-led Alberta organizations under the banner of African Diaspora COVID-19 Relief.

But the funding and food from donors such as the Edmonton Community Foundation, Islamic Relief Canada, The Ghana Friendship Society and Loblaws, as well as personal donations, will soon run out.

"It is a need that needs to be filled," said Emmanuel Onah, youth program manager at the Africa Centre, where the program is co-ordinated, clients pick up hampers and donations are being accepted.

"It's a gaping hole in all of the resources that are currently available." 

The Liberia Friendship Society of Canada, the Jamaica Association of Northern Alberta and the Black Students Association University of Alberta are also among more than a dozen groups involved that will meet Sunday to determine next steps. 

Nii Koney, executive director of the Nile Valley Foundation, who rallied the coalition to action, said the program emerged from weekly meetings among Black organizations looking for ways to best respond to the pandemic.

Some of the people seeking help are middle-class community members whose jobs and incomes have been impacted by COVID-19.

"People are bringing nice cars, they will come and park in the front, they will come with their wife and husband, they will sometimes come, the whole family," Koney said. "So now I know that if we didn't provide these services, it would be a great disservice to the community."
Nii Koney, head of the Nile Valley Foundation, says many middle-class people are accessing the service. (Submitted by Nii Koney)

Onah said a large part of the appeal comes from offering culturally relevant food tailor-made for each family whether it's injera, an Ethiopian fermented flatbread, or turtle beans, popular in the Caribbean.

"The peace of mind you get when you're eating something that you're familiar with or you grew up with and is inline with your culture and your background — that all contributes to overall wellness. That all contributes to mental wellness, especially in the time where we're in a pandemic," said Onah.

The initiative also supports local businesses largely by sourcing food from community stores on 118th Avenue and Stony Plain Road. 

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. You can read more stories here.