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Community comes together in time of crisis

By Don Fennell

Published 12:59 PDT, Mon August 17, 2020

Business at Banh Mi Tres Bon restaurant in Richmond was doing well early in the new year. Then on March 22 the tables were turned upside down.

That’s the day the order came down to close due to COVID-19, leaving owner Lan Do heartbroken.

“The biggest challenge was letting our staff known of their temporary layoff, and being uncertain of a return date,” he says. “We made the decision to close our doors sooner than many businesses because we believed in protecting the safety and health of our team.”

But the sudden closure also left the restaurant with an abundance of food. Do was anxious to give it away rather than see it go to waste and that led to some unexpected serendipity.

Janice Lambert, executive director at Richmond Family Place, had just been conversing with a nutritionist at the local health department about the cancelling of in-person programming and the immediate shifting to virtual support for families. But one of the priorities yet to be realized was food security for the most financially vulnerable families, some dependent on Family Place’s meal programs. Soon after, Lambert got a call from Ian Lai of the Richmond Food Security Society.

“(Lai) mentioned he was talking to Lan Do, and Hajira Hussain at the Richmond Food Bank Society, as well as a couple of chef colleagues who also wished to help during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lambert says. “This then led to food bank donations being provided to the chefs, and also to the restaurant, and then used to make healthy, nutritious meals for recipients.”

During this time, Lambert also heard from Connections Community Services Society. Since its in-person programs also stopped due to COVID-19, it was offering the use of a van and staff to deliver the meals.

“This pandemic has stretched everyone in the world in ways we couldn’t foresee,” Lambert says. “We have always worked very collaboratively with many non-profit agencies in Richmond, but have not seen this level of generosity. This gives us hope for the future that is uncertain in so many ways. People want to help, but they don’t know how.”

Considered an essential service, Richmond Family Place’s dedicated team has continued to work through the necessary changes. Lambert says it is fortunate its grants were approved for the current year, but revenue from its thrift store and cancelled golf tournament will seemingly not be forthcoming. The first quarter of unearned revenue also coincided with a notable rise in demand for services that will challenge the organization.

“There have always been financially-vulnerable families living in Richmond,” suggests Lai. “These families have maintained their anonymity going about their day-to-day lives working as hard as possible without everyone knowing. But as a result of COVID-19, we have seen an increase people requiring some assistance. Dignity has been key in meeting the demand. And as work begins to resume, and schools come back online, I see an adjustment in the numbers being served.”

Lai also lauds how Richmondites have united in the face of adversity, and come to support each other. New partnerships have formed, and organizations have cross-pollinated for the greater good.

“This is an amazing process to be involved in, and I am proud to say I am a Richmondite. Our community is resilient and rich in resources.”

To help meet the community’s needs, Richmond Food Security has altered many of its programs and put its education streams online. Its community building initiatives will continue as planned, including building two community gardens in the next month. Additionally, it has been using three of the largest school gardens exclusively for community meals while more than 275 seed packages have been distributed from its library for new and existing gardeners to participate in the food system.

Richmond Food Bank has always been about community, and through its Match Maker initiative, the Richmond Food Bank was happy to play “our little part” in supplying chefs with surplus food, says executive director Hussain. “This initiative is best reflected in the statement ‘We are all in this together’ because it brought various organizations together for one common purpose—ensuring that people had access to good wholesome food during their time of greatest need.”

Hussain says the food bank is indebted to its donors who continue to step up, and to its its volunteers for their ongoing support.

“I would like to believe that our clients are being able to sustain their families’ health through the nutritious grocery assistance they are receiving through the food bank,” she says. “So, we are essentially creating community each and every day that we are open.”

But while grateful for the support, the food bank too is being challenged. Donations of non-perishable food have dropped significantly, coinciding directly with a decline in food drivers and fundraisers by community groups. That has forced the food bank to purchase more food. And each client is already forced to spend upwards of an hour in line to be served.

During this challenging time for the food bank, Do and his staff were honoured to be able to step up and help. Since re-opening June 1, Banh Mi Tres Bon has been busy and Do is grateful.

“The pandemic has taught all of us that we can’t back down when tough times are upon us,” he says. “We must be creative and innovative on how we can continue with the vision we have put forth. (This has given) us an opportunity to reflect and how we can do better as we pivot into the new normal.”

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