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The Banana Beat

The Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House in Vancouver has created a whole new category for healthy food distribution: nutritional outreach. Executive Director Joyce Rock and her team have developed a number of creative programs to deliver nutrient rich food to the vulnerable downtown eastside residents, or as she calls them, neighbours. Every Welfare Wednesday, when the neighbours are lining up for their cheques, the banana brigade hits the streets. Staff and volunteers, wearing green neighbourhood house aprons (to distinguish themselves from religious organizations), push a shopping cart full of bananas up and down the line-up, offering a potassium rich snack. “It’s demoralizing and humiliating to wait,” says Rock. “We want to humanize the line-up.”

Their roving community kitchen offers up smoothies every Tuesday at several different local partnering organizations. Once again, the shopping cart is loaded up, this time with assorted fruits and veggies and blenders. The community kitchen goes to where the neighbours gather and the team encourages them to mingle and chat together, no line-ups allowed. Each person is first asked what delicious and whimsically named flavour they would like, and then served up the delicious shake. They reach between 500 and 700 people every week and put some fun into nutritional education. While many of the downtown eastsiders have no kitchens, a blender is something they can have in their small Single Room Occupancy hotel room. It is ideal for the often mushy fruit they receive from charitable organizations. Even if they can’t afford milk, a smooth and creamy shake can still be made using water.

At the neighbourhood house, only healthy snacks are served during all their programs too. Hard-boiled eggs, dried dates and figs, fresh fruit salad. The program participants love the tofu dishes and the children are crazy about the sheets of nori (seaweed used for sushi rolls), torn into chip-size servings. The neighbours have come to rely on the healthy food they receive when they are there and are quick to tell someone who wanders in with a bag of chips, that the unhealthy stuff is not allowed. Also on the taboo list at the neighbourhood house are kidney beans and soup, a mainstay of the food line-ups. “We want to put the dignity back into food delivery, to use food to remind people of their deservedness,” says Rock. In addition to nutrients, every morsel they serve includes beauty, whimsy and fun.

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