Juliette Nwigudu checks the bread selection at the Welcome Hall Mission in Montreal on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette
Since moving from Nigeria to Montreal last spring, Olubunmi Akinboade has visited several food banks to make sure her family has enough to eat.
But when she saw the new setup at the Welcome Hall Mission this summer, she had never experienced anything like it.
Instead of waiting in line and moving from station to station to receive food chosen by staff, Akinboade was able to grab a shopping cart and browse the aisles as if she was visiting her local grocery story.
In an effort to give clients a more dignified experience, the Welcome Hall Mission has changed the way it hands out food to those in need, switching from a traditional food bank to a grocery store-like operation.
So after arriving at her designated appointment time and scanning her membership card, Akinboade browsed through the new grocery store on Tuesday morning, picking up several loaves of bread, yogurt and other food items that caught her eye.
“This place is unique,” she said. “It’s great to pick what you want and see the food clearly.”
The walls of the grocery story, called the Marché Bon Accueil or Welcome Hall Market, have colourful pictures of fresh fruits and vegetables to enhance the shopping experience and the store is filled with numerous items, such as feta cheese, salad dressing, potatoes and crackers. It also has refrigerators where customers can help themselves to portions of pork and chicken.
The food items are colour-coded so shoppers know how many they’re allowed to take based on the size of their family.
When shoppers are finished, they head to the checkout where volunteers scan the items and help pack their shopping trolleys, or in Akinboade’s case, her suitcase.
The mission moved to a grocery-store setup because they wanted to provide clients with an authentic shopping experience and “elevate their sense of self-worth and dignity,” said Samuel Watts, the mission’s executive director and CEO.
Mission staff had been toying with the idea of opening a grocery store, and the plan was finalized after Watts joined the organization last October.
“When someone comes to a food counter, they are often not in a good place in their life,” Watts said in an interview. “We want to give them an experience that’s just the same as you and I have when we shop. We want to serve more people with greater dignity and talk to them as they’re checking out. That way we find out if they need a job or need to take French lessons.”
Watts said he knew the move to a grocery store setup was going to be successful when he watched a woman pick up and examine three bags of potatoes before dropping one in her cart.
“That’s what I do when I go shopping,” Watts said. “It was a goosebumps moment to say: ‘We hit it.’ We are giving them choices and they feel like this is normal.”
The Welcome Hall Mission in St-Henri has been serving disadvantaged Montrealers for 125 years. The organization has 145 full-time employees and 550 volunteers who aid new immigrants, families and young people who need a helping hand or are facing poverty or homelessness.
Each week, the food bank serves 2,263 people who need food assistance. About 75 per cent of the food is perishable, and Watts said they aren’t in the business of handing out dented cans.
“If we wouldn’t eat it, we don’t give it out,” he said.
The Welcome Hall Mission will officially inaugurate the new market on Wednesday morning when it shows off the grocery store to the media.
Many of the Mission’s clients are new immigrants who are finding their feet in Montreal. Hundreds are professionals who haven’t been able to get a job in their chosen field or are just settling in, said Kathryn Stephens, the Mission’s director of public relations.
“We recognize our clients as being just like us — we see them as peers,” Stephens said. “These are courageous Montrealers who are up against big challenges, and if we can be there for them while they are transitioning to better things, they don’t need to feel ashamed of that.”
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