Alex Community Food Centre: sharing meals, strengthening communities

The sunny new Alex Community Food Centre on 17th Avenue in Forest Lawn aims to strengthen communities and boost physical and mental health by providing education, access and otherwise engaging people through good food.

Their weekly schedule includes free cooking and nutrition classes (and in the spring, gardening), shared meals and activities for kids.

The free programs, some which require registration and others that are on a drop-in basis, include hands-on cooking classes where participants learn basic skills and bring prepared meals home to their families, learning to cook on a budget, and an after-school program that allows kids to make fresh fruit smoothies using bike-powered blenders.

Next week, they'll launch a program for youth aged 13 to 17 that addresses social justice issues in the community and beyond, encouraging teens to get involved by coming up with their own projects and ideas. And a few weeks ago, they began offering a free community lunch every Wednesday.

The past two were hosted by the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary (AFCC), who the first week prepared elk stew, beet salad, quinoa salad, fry bread and fresh fruit, and the next made chili, fry bread and kale salad for up to 120 guests.

On the second week, a well-known elder was in the kitchen making her traditional fry bread.

Volunteers work with staff at the Alex to prepare and serve the meals, offering lunch guests water and coffee and clearing their plates.

"We're all here to help and support our community," said Trian Knight, elder coordinator with the AFCC.

"As long as we don't forget that. If anyone has any questions, we have elders all over the place."

Round and communal tables encouraged conversation in a brightly-coloured room flooded with natural light, and the activity of volunteers and guests, along with elders drumming in one corner, generated the kind of warm social environment you might expect at a shared meal.

People leaned from table to table to introduce each other and browsed the free bookshelf. Conversations lingered long after plates were cleared and the kitchen cleaned.

"They've been doing this program for 2 and a half years downtown at the [CommunityWise Resource Centre]," says Helen Hamlin, operations manager of the Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

"But we want to target the populations of Forest Lawn and Dover, and help develop a healthy community. We do the drum, the smudge. It's things they can identify with, and they'll come for that. And the healthy food."

Wednesday community lunches at the Alex are free on a drop-in basis from noon to 1 p.m.

The AFCC will continue to be involved every second Wednesday. Other weeks the Alex will partner with other cultural groups. One week they may serve a Syrian meal, another week Vietnamese, reflective of the rich diversity of the neighbourhood.

Sharing and learning is a key function of the Alex, in fact one of their programs, International Avenue Kitchen, which runs every Tuesday night, invites neighbourhood families from different backgrounds to come cook and share a family recipe.

The meal is then shared around their communal table, donated by 7K Ranch, with about 20 guests who register to attend.

"This is one of the main functions of the Alex," says project manager Renée MacKillop. "It's about sharing and learning."

The Alex Community Food Centre is at 4920 17 Ave S.E., on International Avenue. More information and program schedules can be found online.

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