Sharing a meal: Connection and community in northeast Calgary

The Mustard Seed and community social workers in Marlborough and Abbeydale teamed up to bring healthy eating programs to the city’s northeast neighbourhoods during the pandemic. The partners received a $5,000 ChooseWell Healthy Community Grant to fund nutrition workshops, cooking classes and a community garden — all with the aim of connecting neighbours during a season of uncertainty. “It’s about residents building trust with each other so they have a sense of belonging. You feel safe when you know three or four neighbours. You don’t feel alone anymore,” says Lemlem Haile, a community social worker in the Marlborough neighbourhood.

By Anna Schmidt, 2023

On a warm summer day, families strolled towards the Marlborough Community Association in northeast Calgary. A slow cooker simmered with lunch as neighbours gathered in the sunshine.

The event was more than a community picnic. It was part of a series of healthy eating workshops designed to safely connect neighbours in the midst of pandemic uncertainty.

“People were feeling isolated. They were feeling mentally unable to cope with all the challenges they were facing,” says Lemlem Haile, a community social worker with the City of Calgary. “We asked, ‘What can we do to bring people together?’ One thing that seemed to resonate with people was cooking.”

With the partnership of the Mustard Seed and a $5,000 Healthy Community Grant from Communities ChooseWell, Lemlem and her colleague Jessica Pauletig brought healthy eating programming to northeast Calgary’s Marlborough and Abbeydale neighbourhoods. 

The area hosts over 15,000 residents, many of whom are new Canadians. At the time, they were facing the challenges of finding work, building relationships and meeting their basic needs — all in the midst of the pandemic, explains Lemlem. The healthy eating workshops aimed to highlight the strengths of the community and bring neighbhours together.

“The community’s amazing,” says Lemlem. “They have ownership of the program. It’s about residents building trust with each other so they have a sense of belonging. You feel safe when you know three or four neighbours. You don’t feel alone anymore.”

The ChooseWell grant funded a nutritionist who led outdoor classes on cooking nutritious everyday meals, including hands-on learning like making homemade granola. Soon, residents were bringing family recipes to the workshops, and the nutritionist would offer suggestions on how to tweak them with healthier ingredients. As the program picked up speed, community members volunteered to host their own sessions. For example, one resident shared how her family used to struggle with leftovers, and led a workshop on reinventing yesterday’s meal in a way the whole family could enjoy. Community members received honorariums for their work, with support from the ChooseWell grant.

In the cooler months, Lemlem and her colleagues dropped off ingredient packages at residents’ homes, then hosted online cooking classes where participants learned how to preserve fresh vegetables or blend baby food. The social workers also used the grant to purchase and create a neighbourhood lending library of small appliances, such as a food processor and air fryer.

Finally, remaining ChooseWell dollars went towards planting a community garden at a local elementary school and hiring a horticulturalist to work with children from all grades. “We got so much out of the grant. It’s amazing,” says Lemlem, reflecting on the variety of programming they were able to provide.

While the ChooseWell funds are spent, the cooking, canning and gardening programs continue with resident interest and support.

“You can learn how to eat healthy, but if you’re by yourself with no support, the impact doesn’t go far enough,” says Lemlem. When you have people connecting, making friendships, building communities together — that’s a lot more effective.”