Nikayla Reize knows a little effort can make a big difference in addressing food insecurity in her community. In her case, all it took was a fridge, freezer, a small pantry, and some hard work.
Reize is part of a volunteer group that runs The Common Cupboard, a free community pantry in Calgary's Bowness neighbourhood. Tucked into a modest shelter beside a community garden, The Common Cupboard is accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for those in need.
The pantry's goal is to create food security for Bowness residents, build community, and allow for barrier-free access to food that isn’t always available through other programs. The Common Cupboard is always open, and no one has to sign up or explain their economic situation to anyone – just show up and take what you need or donate if you can.
The project was inspired by a similar community pantry in the Crescent Heights neighbourhood, and Reize hopes the difference The Common Cupboard is making in Bowness will encourage others to think about the small ways they can help their own neighbours.
"The dream is that if other people see it, they realize you don't need to be a big organization to do really good things in your neighbourhood," she said. "You just need a small group of people with a little bit of a dream for making the neighbourhood a nicer place for everyone."
To build a community pantry, it takes a community effort
The Common Cupboard started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Reize saw a need to address gaps in food security for children and families, seniors and low-income residents of Bowness, and reduce food waste by building a space for individuals, organizations and businesses to donate fresh, refrigerated or frozen food they don’t need.
Volunteers were already growing fruits and vegetables through the garden where members decide what to plant, and each commit an hour or two a week to tending the garden. With more produce than they could eat, the collective started giving food away.
"But if you're a mom with hungry kids, 12 zucchinis isn't immediately what you need," she said. "So, we decided to put up this shelter beside the garden, so that we could keep it filled with yogurt, eggs, pasta milk, meat, cheese and all the things people need."
Building the pantry was a community effort, with an estimated 50 people contributing what they could, including donating shingles, constructing the shelter, putting up siding and pouring concrete to make it wheelchair and stroller accessible. After working on it for almost a year, The Common Cupboard opened in the summer of 2021.
"There's no part of this that has just like been me doing it all. For anything to happen, especially during COVID, it really took a community effort," Reize said.
A thank you to help keep the fridge full
Reize's efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Jeremy Robinson, a TD branch manager in Calgary, nominated Reize to be recognized as part of the 2022 TD Thanks You campaign, which rewards TD customers and colleagues who are making a difference in their communities and bringing people together, without asking for anything in return.
In June, Reize was surprised at the community garden by other volunteers from the garden and pantry and local TD employees, who gifted The Common Cupboard $2,500 in gift cards for local grocery stores, garden boxes, smaller gardening tools, as well as strawberry and asparagus plants for the garden.
"It's amazing that with that extra money, we can keep the fridge fuller. It makes a huge difference for a small group like us," Reize said.
Reize estimates around 100 people visit The Common Cupboard each day. The fridge is restocked three times a day, and always empties out. The pantry runs on food and monetary donations, but it doesn't have to be much – anyone who happens to be driving by the pantry on their way home from the grocery store can drop off a couple of bananas, yogurt cups or anything else they can spare.
"If everybody in the neighborhood did that once a week, it would be full," she said. "We're not trying to be superheroes and change the world. We're just trying to be a little more generous in our local context."
Last Thanksgiving, Reize worried the fridge would be empty as people focused on preparing meals for their own families. But that weekend, someone – Reize still doesn't know who – packed the fridge with homemade pumpkin pies and placed a note on each one.
Each one said: "I'm thankful to be your neighbour."
TD Thanks You, Nikayla.