Unique café feeding 'forgotten' community's basic needs

Each Friday evening, the Food for Thought net-café offers nutritious food and web access to people who normally can't afford those things — and it's all free.

Food for Thought opens doors to Caldwell Avenue residents each Friday

Sylvain de Margerie grabs some carrots for 9-year-old Vanessa, a regular at the Food for Thought net-café. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

A couple sits together, quietly savouring their warm lattes. Teenagers frantically tap at keyboards, playing their favourite video games. Friends gather in a close group, sharing the latest neighbourhood gossip. In the background, the constant clatter of dishes and whir of a blender.

It might sound like any other corner café in Ottawa, but Food for Thought on Caldwell Avenue is different.

"Most of the people here have no choice in life," explained chef Sylvain de Margerie one recent Friday evening as he prepared a pita melt filled with cheese and herbs.

"They're standing in line at the food bank to get food. They don't have the choice on the menu, you know, what they're going to eat. They eat just what's there."

While everything at the Food for Thought net-café is made fresh to order, Sylvain de Margerie says a lot of preparation happens in advance. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Nourishing food

Here, in a common room in the middle of a community housing complex, customers can choose from a menu of delicious, nourishing food and drink, and it's all free. So is the wifi, and there are computers to use, too — another precious commodity in this neighbourhood.

The people around here mostly don't know that that kind of care exists.- Sylvain de Margerie

Funding for the café comes from the Ottawa Community Foundation through the Carlington Community Health Centre.

Food for Thought officially opens Friday, but the weekly "soft launch" has proved so popular over the past few months that de Margerie, his wife, Doris, and the other volunteers working here can barely keep up. 

On its very first Friday, dozens of people lined up outside, waiting for the doors to open at 5:30 p.m.

"The people around here mostly don't know that that kind of care exists, and they tend to be a lot treated like numbers by the government, by social services."

The café's "kitchen" fits into a custom-made box, which is wheeled into a cupboard at the end of each Friday. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

A 'forgotten neighbourhood'

Doris makes smoothies for a steady line of children while Sylvain moves between his panini press, microwave and waffle iron. A rotating cast of about 30 adults and children wander in and out, ordering food and surfing the internet on desktop computers.

This has become the de Margeries' Friday evening, for four hours each week.

"I know this neighborhood," said Sylvain de Margerie, who began teaching a cooking class in this Caldwell Avenue neighbourhood three years ago.

"It's a very tough neighbourhood."

It was only a year-and-a-half ago that a man was killed near the housing complex, just as he was closing his kitchen for the night. Yet for many Ottawans, the community isn't on the radar.

"People know where Heatherington is. They know where Vanier is. Talk about Caldwell? People don't really know where it is. So, it's a forgotten neighbourhood," he said.

Some Caldwell residents, including Annabelle Biefer, have been coming to the Food for Thought net-café since the beginning of its soft launch. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

'A community of friends'

Annabelle Biefer never fails to bring her grandchildren to the café.

"My grandkids play and I talk to the people," she said. "And eat. They have good stuff here. Healthy stuff. There's no junk."

I love the people here. You get to know them after a while.- Annabelle Biefer

Biefer spends much of her time surveying the room from a corner near the entrance, enjoying some homemade garlic bread — an off-menu item she specially requested the week before.

"I love the people here. You get to know them after a while," she said.

On the opposite side of the room, Courtney Adkins sits with her friends, enjoying her favourite combination on the menu, a turkey croissant and smoothie.

"It's a community of friends, family, that get together and eat and enjoy themselves, and I know I just love being here — and eating," she laughs.

Courtney Adkins says the Food for Thought net-café and its nutritious meals is needed in her neighbourhood. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

A basic need

The food is central, of course, but de Margerie set up this the café to fulfil another basic need: high-speed internet.

This year's federal budget lays out plans to provide high-speed internet to all Canadians by 2030, including people in underserved rural areas, but de Margerie said many of the people living here in the middle of the capital might as well be living in the middle of nowhere.

Cassidy, at right, volunteers to set up chairs at the Food for Thought net-café each week and then settles in a computer terminal for some online gaming. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

"There's no phones, there's no Facebook, nothing like that," de Margerie said.

New immigrants and low-income families who can't afford internet service at home have few options, often relying on the spotty wifi at a nearby Tim Hortons.

Eyeing expansion

The de Margeries rely on volunteers to help set out chairs, wash dishes and serve food. Even with that help, this is a lot of work.

"There's [only] so much you can do," Doris de Margerie said as she rinsed utensils.

Doris de Margerie's smoothies are among the most popular items on the Food for Thought menu. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Nevertheless, they're already looking to expand.

"I'd like for us to be able to do this maybe a little more often, maybe go to one of the other centres and help them set it up," she said.

The de Margeries say they've already had interest from other organizations looking to duplicate the concept.

The Food for Thought net-café is open each Friday from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. in the Bellevue Community Centre at 1475 Caldwell Ave.

'Who ordered the turkey croissant?' Sylvain de Margerie asks the crowded Food for Thought net-café on a recent Friday evening. (Elyse Skura/CBC)


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