Grocery store-style food bank gives choices back to low-income clients

The Main Street Project food bank lets clients pick only what they want to eat in a grocery store-style setting.

Main Street Project shop aims to provide dignity

Clients can pull their favourite loaf of bread or buns off the shelves. (Cindy Titus/Main Street Project)

Winnipeggers used to line up in front of the Lighthouse Mission every Thursday morning, hoping to be handed a box of whatever donations the food bank had to give.

"That's not a very dignified way to access food," said Cindy Titus, communications co-ordinator at Main Street Project, a service organization just a block away that serves many of the same people as the mission.

Main Street Project found a way to give low-income clients seeking food more say in the matter: Main Street Project Food Bank and Essential Market now lets users come every week to browse through aisles stocked with staples and special one-off items, taking home food they actually want to eat. 

"It's just like going to a grocery store and shopping, essentially, but all the services in that space are free to them," Titus said. 

There are about 60 clients signed up through Winnipeg Harvest, and more drop-ins come every Thursday morning to access the service, she said. 

Clients meet in the morning for coffee and conversation at the Lighthouse Mission at 669 Main St.

Starting around 10 a.m., a few people at a time walk over to Main Street Project at 661 Main St. to shop. 

The shelves are full of bread, cereal, canned and jarred goods, plus plenty of fresh produce. 

Fresh vegetables and produce are among the items available to clients of the Main Street Project food bank. (Cindy Titus/Main Street Project)

"We have a freezer for meat products, and then we have a cooler for dairy and produce," Titus said. 

Winnipeg Harvest provides most of the food on Wednesday afternoon. 

"It's giving people a choice, rather than just handing them a box of food. I think when people have a choice — and particularly people who are vulnerable and often marginalized, when they maybe don't get to make a lot of other choices in their lives — having the opportunity to make the choice about what you're going to eat, I think that's really important," Titus said.

"It helps them to feel empowered, and getting to decide what you eat is a good thing." 

There's also a household goods section, with clothing, jackets, winter gear, dishes, bedding, towels and hygiene products. 

"It's a great space. We're really, really proud of it," Titus said. "It's definitely grown a lot." 

A few weeks ago, Titus said they had 90 people come through in a day. 

However, with shortages at Winnipeg Harvest, pickings might be slim for the next couple of weeks, Titus said. 

Just like any food bank, sometimes there will be a surplus of some item or another. Sometimes that includes items that people aren't familiar with, she said.

"I was working down there a couple weeks ago and we had a lot of coconut milk, and I love to use coconut milk in my cooking, but a lot of people aren't really aware of how to use it or what it's for, so that's not always the first item they want to take." 

An item like that might spend a few extra weeks on the shelf before the right customer comes along, she said. 

Walk-in clients are welcome, but it's on a first-come, first-served basis, so Titus said they should come early. 

Direct donations to the food bank are welcome; those interested can drop items off at Main Street Project or Winnipeg Harvest.

"Food can be tricky, because many of us can eat what we want at any point in time. We can go to the grocery store and select whatever we want," Titus said.

"But there are many people in our city who don't have that opportunity, so I think it's really important that people support organizations like Winnipeg Harvest.… Those donations to Winnipeg Harvest are super essential."

A more dignified way to serve Winnipeg's most vulnerable

5 years ago
Duration 0:52
Main Street Project opened a space that works almost like a grocery store, except clients don't have to pay.