Whether you're looking to give or take food, you can find the city's 1st free community fridge outside the Burnaby Youth Hub at 4750 Imperial St. (Simran Singh / Burnaby Beacon)

Burnaby community fridge ‘highly needed’ as pandemic makes food insecurity worse

Burnaby Primary Care Network, which operates the fridge, also says there's evidence of increased mental health concerns with people worried about their food supply.

By Srushti Gangdev | September 27, 2021 |5:00 am

Three months after the Burnaby Primary Care Network set up a community fridge for people to take or give fresh food as they need, the organization is eyeing the possibility of setting up several other fridges across the city.

The first fridge, located outside the Burnaby Youth Hub on Imperial St, has been “wildly successful.”

“I get a lot of emails and we get messages on Instagram, [from] people, you know, asking if they can drop off this or that or, you know, letting them know when they drop off stuff. It’s quite used,” said the PCN’s community engagement coordinator Andrea Creamer.

“I get the impression that it doesn’t have food often in it, but I think that there has been food put in it because I get the messages and then [people are] taking it away. So it’s highly needed.”

Now, PCN is looking at opening a couple more fridges, potentially at SFU for the “unique” population on Burnaby Mountain, and at a local temple. They’re also looking for businesses who would be open to hosting a fridge on their property, or groups who would be willing to maintain a fridge.

Pre-pandemic, nearly 13% of British Columbians didn’t have consistent access to adequate nutrition—and the pandemic made things worse.

In fact, in a February council meeting, staff with the city of Burnaby noted that the number of people accessing the food bank in Burnaby had increased by more than 50% since the pandemic began, spiking from 2,000 to 3,200.

Creamer said the pandemic has pushed a lot of people who were on the verge of food insecurity to the point where they need support, and that’s had a significant impact on mental health too.

“It’s impacted everybody and I think that specifically [with] mental health and food insecurity there’s a lot of shame and stigma for folks that have maybe been employed and not ever experienced that kind of need,” she said.

“Accepting charity can be incredibly challenging, or admitting that you need support, and not having the map or the pathway to even know how to ask for support—that sends people into a really terrible spiral.”

Mental health and food insecurity

That’s in line with a new study out of UBC that shows the first wave of the COVID pandemic may have worsened worries about food insecurity in Canada, and in turn contributed to negative impacts on mental health.

The paper, titled “Examining the associations between food worry and mental health during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada” was published recently in the Canadian Journal of Public Health and co-led by researchers in UBC’s school of nursing and school of population and public health.

The researchers said when the pandemic started, “multiple issues collided and elevated those worries significantly.”

Grocery shopping became a more stressful experience as some essential goods saw shortages and Canadians wondered if they had to sanitize their products. 

And the more they worried about their food supply, the more likely they were to feel heightened mental health concerns—twice more likely, in fact.

“They had higher odds of feeling anxious or depressed. Even more concerning, they had more than triple the odds of experiencing suicidal thoughts,” said researcher Dr Carey McAuliffe in a press release.

Nutrients, and how to help

Creamer said there’s also a physical aspect to it: when we don’t eat well, our mental health suffers as a result.

“If we’re not accessing good nutrition in a reliable way, that is setting us up before we’ve even had any negative thoughts about ourselves or negative thoughts about a situation,” she said.

“We’re not operating and functioning right, because we haven’t had good access to food. So that’s really challenging.”

Burnaby PCN has been taking donations of fresh fruit and vegetables in the community fridge since it opened in late June in an attempt to make nutrient-rich foods easily accessible to community members.

The fact that the fridge is open 24/7 and you don’t have to stand in a line to pick up a meal, helps in supporting people who may be afraid of a stigma associated with accepting charity, Creamer said, or with not being able to go at a particular time of day.

If you’re looking for ways to help, Creamer said the fridge at 4750 Imperial St is always taking donations of fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products, or even fresh produce from a backyard garden. And while they do accept prepared meals from commercial kitchens, they can’t take homemade meals or leftovers for health and safety reasons. 

If you’re a business owner who’d like to host a community fridge on your property, you’re able to maintain a fridge on someone else’s property, or you’ve simply got an extra fridge on your hand, you can reach out to Burnaby PCN to get involved. 

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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