The Whitecourt Community Lunchbox has been a fixture in schools for 17 years. Since the beginning, volunteers have impacted residents throughout the community and have brought in staff members from all walks of life with a safe, inclusive working environment. Creator Tara Baker, now the Vice-Chair of the Whitecourt Community Lunchbox Society, and current chair Trish Gilmore, recently spoke about exciting things coming to the organization.
As most know, one of the most significant sources of income for the group is collecting bottles for recycling, which was why they built a garage right behind their building at 4904 52 Avenue. Having the space to sort, properly organize and utilize amenities like running water and heat in the winter made the garage a must-have item that they are continually grateful to have. There are over 100 Whitecourt Community Lunchbox bins that they regularly empty throughout the community. This fall, they hope to build on their recycling by introducing a new way to collect.
“We got a grant through Pembina Pipeline to start a curbside recycling program. The idea came from going around and doing residential pick-ups. We need to grow, and we know that people’s time is important,” explained Baker. “The containers will have wheels for ease, and residents will be able to text a number when their bucket is full.”
With the downturn in the economy, Baker said they had taken a bit of a hit. “We have noticed a difference in what we have coming in. That means that we have to adapt and be innovative and start different programs, which is where this idea comes in,” said Baker.
They think there might be a small sign-up cost, such as a very minimal lease, as a deposit on the bin. “This way, if you decide to opt-out of the program and give us back our bin in good shape, you will get your deposit back,” explained Gilmore. Baker said that the fee would not be a barrier, though. “Those who couldn’t afford it, we would work with them to get around that because we are all about supporting everybody.” While the finer details still get worked out, the program itself will roll out very soon.
Baker said they have another big plan in the works too. “We don’t have a kitchen, and we are not allowed in the schools, since COVID, so right now we buy lunches from IGA. They are beautiful lunches and are all healthy, but it’s at a higher cost. We’ve adapted to that by doing curbside pick-up of bottles and working hard to keep that sustainable. But our ultimate goal is to have a kitchen.”
Four years ago, the Whitecourt Community Lunchbox purchased the lot right beside them, where there is currently a dilapidated home. “We are actively seeking to build our kitchen next door. It’s been a long-term goal for us! It’ll be accessible, open, bright, and cheery, and it’ll improve the streetscape,” explained Gilmore.
Baker said when they searched for a kitchen to use to make their lunches since they couldn’t use the school facilities, they found that there was nothing available that was inclusive for people with disabilities. “Every design aspect will be accessible so it could be rented for a birthday party or if a senior wants to do a canning class. It would be an extension of the support centre and a space to prepare our lunches. It would be a functional, accessible space for people to rent at a very reasonable cost which would support the program as a revenue stream.”
They anticipate it to be a couple of years in the making and are pushing full steam ahead on it. “We have grants put in for it all over the place,” said Baker. The big thing about the kitchen is that it would be self-sustaining. “The cost of that isn’t going to come from the bottle program because we are still working on this being sustainable, and building the kitchen is not going to drain on existing funds. That will be stand-alone, sustainable,” she continued.
“It also creates employment opportunities because we used to have part-time employees help with the lunches, and it used to be a gathering place for us. We want to get back to that,” said Gilmore. “My ideas are that at Christmas time, once we have the kitchen built, we could do cookie bakes and cookie exchanges. I have so many ideas for what we can do once we have that space.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for having the kitchen, said Baker, is that during the peak of COVID, community kitchens didn’t close down. “We are forward-thinking on having a space to run programs so that we are not reliant on other spaces, such as schools.” She added that it would increase their volunteer base too. “Not that bottles aren’t awesome, but not everyone wants to sort bottles, and there are a lot of people in the community that used to help make lunches. It’s been ok for IGA to make it for us and us paying it, but that’s not our long-term plan,” said Baker.
From humble beginnings starting at Little Big Fort to winning the Scotiabank Game Changer Award and launching the bottle program, the Whitecourt Community Lunchbox Program provides food support at some level to all schools, plus the library and preschool. Last year alone, the program supported over 5000 students, which included providing nearly four thousand lunches. In just the first four days of school this year, they have already delivered over 120 breakfast and lunch packs combined.
“The impact of this program is that it is all-inclusive. It removes being hungry and gives each kid an equal opportunity to learn. We fundraise, provide the supplies, and it’s almost anonymous for kids to take part. We feed kids from age four or five to age eighteen or nineteen, and we’ve been doing it for 17 years,” said Baker.
“We remove the shame and the stigma. When Tommy, Susie, and Sally are all participating, it doesn’t matter which of the three needed it the most and no one will know. We don’t ask who. We don’t as why. We provide the service in the hopes that as many kids that need it will be reached,” smiled Baker. “And these new projects will help us keep doing that for years to come.”
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press