'How do we find comfort in food?': Seniors in Vancouver get unique Chinatown grocery support

Deanna Cheng
·Contributor
·4 min read
Produce, eggs and milk are displayed on a table beside some packaged grocery goods with Chinese writing.
The Hua Foundation released a guide on how to partner with like-minded organizations and communities to deliver culturally appropriate groceries to seniors during a pandemic. The framework is accessible and free to any community leader who wants to replicate the system across Canada. (Christina Lee/ Hua Foundation)

Driving around Vancouver, Kira Yee is trying to locate a Hannah sweet potato that has light tan skin and yellow flesh for a local senior.

She regularly hunts down special food items that are not available in large Western supermarkets for seniors in Chinatown who are in need of food aid during the pandemic.

“The standard Western grocery staple is so different from the Asian diet,” says Yee.

The standard Western grocery staple is so different from the Asian diet. Kira Yee

Yee volunteers with the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, in connection with the Hua Foundation. The Hua Foundation is a Vancouver Chinatown non-profit that has come out with a free program guide on how to deliver culturally appropriate groceries to seniors via existing mutual aid networks during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hua Foundation food programs manager Christina Lee said she and her team began documenting the process of the Chinatown Cares program when they started it because they wanted other community organizers who may not have experience with running a program of this size to have a resource. The operation is adaptable to a community’s need, scaling up or down.

“Our knowledge is shareable,” says Lee.

In partnership with Bao Bei Brasserie restaurant and other community organizations in Chinatown, they deliver groceries and hot food to 30 to 35 seniors on a weekly basis. Their peak was in April where they delivered to roughly 60 community members.

Lee says it took about a month and a half before everything was running smoothly.

Having an established network with seniors is important and it’s one of the reasons why the Hua Foundation partnered with the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, she says. The society had a fairly large network built from their intergenerational programming in the last couple years.

“It can be very difficult for people to ask for support and aid,” Lee says. “It’s a lot easier for people to feel comfortable doing so if they already have connection to the service providers they’re working with.”

Finding comfort and security in food

When it comes to discussions about food security, Lee said people forget different communities have different security needs.

Thanks to a GoFundMe campaign, the goal of the Chinatown Cares program was to provide fresh produce that’s familiar to Chinese seniors such as choi sum, daikon radish and ginger, especially when neighbourhood food hampers often provide items not culturally appropriate such as dry spaghetti and pasta sauce.

“Not everyone is comfortable going to the food bank,” Lee says. “And not everyone is comfortable eating what the food bank has.”

She says this program is an option for Chinese seniors to have the dignity of choice and the ability to eat food that feels good to them, that feels good to their bodies.

“Especially in a pandemic, when everything feels like a mess, how do we find comfort in food?” says Lee. “And should we not all have that right to find comfort in food?”

Putting ideas into action

Food requests and lists are finalized every Friday. Yee and her team pick up the groceries over the weekend, including certain items which can be difficult to locate in Western grocery stores, such as Chinese yellow rock sugar, or items that are prohibitively expensive outside of Chinatown, such as pea tips at $5 or $6 per pound. On Monday, Yee’s team delivers the groceries to seniors with no-contact protocols in place.

The place of operation is at Bao Bei Brasserie, where hot food is prepped and offered as an add-on because some seniors have mobility issues when it comes to cooking.

Yee says the appreciation, warmth and connection she has with each senior have really stood out to her during her work, despite some language barriers. “I’m fluent more in Cantonese than Mandarin but I can get by,” says Yee.

Yee’s advice to organizations who want to replicate this program is to be flexible and patient if they have never done this before and ensure all partners are in line with each other. “Communicate with your staff to ensure orders are in, addresses are correct and labelling of the bags are the appropriate names,” says Yee.

For volunteers, her advice is to make eye contact and greet seniors warmly. “If the person has mobility issues, always warn them, ‘Be careful with the eggs in the bag. Don’t drop it.’” says Yee. “Hold the door for them whenever there’s a walker to ensure they can get in and out with the groceries.”

The program is funded until December and the Hua Foundation will then reassess the needs with their community partners.