This is part of our Healthy Communities Initiative series, showcasing how the $31 million investment from the Government of Canada is supporting communities as they create and adapt public spaces to respond to the new realities of COVID-19.

Since 1991, the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) has been supporting hundreds of immigrants and refugees, providing safe, affordable housing and programs to help newcomers integrate. 

One of its programs is the Community Housing Grocery Shuttle. Led by tenants, the program offers families reliable rides to and from grocery stores.  

“We work primarily with newly-arrived refugee families, [and] it’s really challenging for families,” says Carol Reimer, an IRCOM program manager. “There’s a lot of single parents with school-age or younger children, and so it can be super challenging to go to a grocery store.” 

There aren’t many grocery stores in inner-city Winnipeg, where IRCOM is based. “That means traveling a fair distance to get to an affordable store, needing to buy large quantities of food, and then taxiing back,” Reimer says. “[There’s] a lot of added cost and inconvenience.” 

The pandemic worsened matters: on top of rising food costs impacting more than two in five Canadians, COVID-19 measures made it more difficult than ever to get around.

“Especially in the beginning [of the pandemic], there was a lot of fear,” Reimer says. “People were afraid to go to the grocery store, especially with their little kids.” She explains that there was a perception that you couldn’t take your kids to the grocery store — something that’s particularly challenging for single mothers without access to childcare. “People were really feeling cut off.” 

On-and-off throughout the years, IRCOM has been offering a shuttle that would take tenants to grocery stores. “It’s really dependent on funding, and it’s always been short-term funding,” Reimer says. “It’s been hard to sustain in a consistent way.” 

Kicking into High Gear

That’s where the Healthy Communities Initiative (HCI) came in, funding community-led solutions to adapt local services in a way that meets people’s needs during COVID-19. Distributed by Community Foundations of Canada and local community foundations — in this case, Endow Manitoba — Reimer and her team applied for the funding, receiving over $5,000.

With this community-level funding, IRCOM was able to hire a tenant to act as a grocery shuttle coordinator. The coordinator connects with their neighbours to arrange weekly Saturday trips, and drives IRCOM’s van to and from the store.

Reimer says that the current grocery shuttle program is entirely funded by HCI. “The program would not be possible without it,” she says. “This is a program that we really value and we’re really, really happy when we’re able to do it.” 

First and foremost, the shuttle gives people access to more affordable stores, which is vital for large families on a fixed income. “We’ve got children’s seats, so that if [tenants] need to take their kids, they can,” Reimer says. “It’s been really, really helpful, especially in the winter. In Winnipeg, [winters are] very harsh, and that’s a huge adjustment for every family that arrives.”

During COVID-19, the Community Housing Grocery Shuttle has gone a long way towards making tenants “feel a little bit more comfortable, so they didn’t need to rely on public transit,” Reimer says. “It also provides extra employment for another newly arrived person.” 

The shuttle also creates space for community connection — something that’s been sorely lacking during COVID-19 lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. “People are now getting to know each other, getting to know the leaders in the building,” Reimer says, adding that single mothers have been especially isolated. “Just emotionally, knowing that there’s somebody trying to look out for you, I think has been really important,” Reimer says. 

For the Community, By the Community

Since 2020, Canada’s immigration numbers have steadily decreased — but, for the communities that IRCOM serves, numbers are slowly ticking back up, with the organization welcoming lots of new families. That means the Community Housing Grocery Shuttle has become increasingly popular, with more work for the shuttle coordinator. 

“People come [to Canada] with incredible education and experience, and a drive to work and to contribute to our community,” Reimer says. “When we’re able to give space for that — and then to be able to pay somebody — I think it is really powerful.” 

Reimer explains that, by being able to hire a shuttle coordinator from within the community, “it not only honors the people that come with all these strengths, but it pays into their family and into their future, giving work experience that will lead to other jobs.” 

Community-level funding like HCI is important for sustaining projects like the Community Housing Grocery Shuttle. “It helps to create an interdependence,” Reimer says of the shuttle program. “Instead of being a charity model, where we’re handing down, we’re able to say, ‘I need you, and you need me. We both have a lot to give.’

[It’s] going to build stronger families, stronger communities,” Reimer continues. “That’s exactly why Canada needs immigration — it’ll help to build a stronger country.”

The Community Housing Grocery Shuttle is a prime example of what resilient communities can achieve, especially when dealing with the fall-out from COVID-19. “You’re connecting with the community [and] building social connections to help people recover emotionally and spiritually, which is a huge need right now,” she says. “A lot of people are struggling — we need the community.”