Comox Valley Family Services Association’s “Neighborhood Connections” Initiative

 Photo Credit: Stock Snap photo by user Brooke Cagle

Photo Credit: Stock Snap photo by user Brooke Cagle

We spoke with Jane Hughes, Healthy Families Program Manager for Comox Valley Family Services Association, about a successful new initiative called “Neighbourhood Connections” that involves working with their local Food Bank, providing hampers to pregnant women and families with young children. There has been lots of learning in the process of setting up the program and the community is beginning to see some great results.

The original impetus for the initiative started around five years ago at community network meetings, where a consistent theme arose of how the early year’s community can better serve families who might benefit from support but are not accessing centre-based programming.

Four years ago, the Healthy Family Program (which includes both CAPC and CPNP programs) moved into a satellite site that was chosen because it is in a low income, high vulnerability area of town. About a year later, the Comox Valley Food Bank moved in next door and program staff began to recognize families waiting to receive food hampers who only connect with an outreach worker when there is a crisis or perhaps on an irregular basis. Frequently, pregnant women who might benefit from attending a pregnancy outreach program were on the food bank premises as well.

Jane’s team struggled to think of ways to engage such families on a more consistent basis. Staff members tried introducing themselves and handing out program materials to food bank clients, but this approach wasn’t having much impact. So she began to think of ways they could build trust and rapport with food bank participants by working collaboratively with the food bank volunteers, without duplication of service. Working in partnership, the two organizations came up with the idea of distributing monthly food hampers to pregnant women and families with young children (birth to 6 years) in the Healthy Families Program office, on behalf of the food bank. The food bank continues to maintain a centralized storage and distribution centre and manages all the food collection and distribution logistics.

Setting up the program was a very lengthy process. It took at least two years to work out formatting details and get the program up and running. The Food Bank staff suggested having the food distribution prepared for families on a separate day, Wednesday, rather than the regular Thursday general distribution. Jane’s staff re-scheduled some of their programming for pregnant women and families to the Wednesday morning and initiated the enhanced program by distributing food hampers to families in need who were already registered with the Food Bank. At this point, there was no funding for the initiative, so existing resources were re-aligned to allow the program to assign an outreach worker to manage the distribution and outreach aspects of the program.

Food Bank staff transports the prepared hampers over from their warehouse next door in grocery carts, and the Healthy Families outreach worker manages the registration, documentation and data collection, and completes a daily return form to the Food Bank to keep their data management system current. This allows the Food Bank to ensure there is no duplication of access with families. There is a clear distinction in the roles between the two organizations  and the primary role of the Healthy Families Program is about building connections with local families in need who may be interested in accessing services in the community.

The program has been very successful in building new connections with at-risk families in the community. They now have new families dropping by or calling in to access the program, enabling Healthy Families Program staff to engage with families who were falling through the gaps. Moreover, the Healthy Families Programs is recognized by community partners as a gateway program for families who may be in need of accessing a broader spectrum of community programs and resources.

Initially the Neighbourhood Connections Program was open for 2 hours a week. Due to demand, it has now grown to 4 hours a week, and it has expanded to include home delivery in special circumstances, as it is often challenging for families with transport issues to get to and from the Food Bank with their children, collect food and bring it back. Social anxiety issues also made it difficult for some of the mothers to stand in line in a public venue to collect food.

Six months ago, staff began to focus in particular on families living in a low-income subsidized housing unit in a neighbourhood that is located about 4 kilometers from the food bank location. This led to conversations with the manager at the complex about developing a playgroup that could be sited at the clubhouse for families with young children. Since the housing unit is owned and operated by the Comox Valley Lions Club, this service club became the initial funder in our community to come on board. Wednesday, 12 October (the day of this interview) was the very first day for the “Little Cubs “ play group. Already, on the first day of operation, two new families showed up and participated with staff in the early childhood activities planned by one of our community partners, an ECE worker employed by the school district.

Since this program was initiated, a circle of giving has come round, and Jane commented on how encouraging it is to see a funder in the community become more and more directly involved, taking the initiative to offer further support to the families in the program. The Lions Club members have volunteered to transport the food hampers from the food bank to the families who live at the new program site. As well as offering the use of their clubhouse for the program, the Lions have installed a change table for the washroom and have offered to assist with purchasing other equipment for program use.

The food distribution program fits comfortably into the network of food security initiatives operated by the Healthy Families Program, which includes a community garden, the provincial Farmers Market Nutrition Coupon program and the Canadian Diabetes Association’s “Food Skills for Families” cooking and skill-building program. With an emphasis on improved food security for households facing numerous health and social challenges, our goal is to enable families to build stronger networks of support, ultimately contributing to the well-being of the community as a whole.