Not easy to access culturally appropriate food in Calgary


Jean Claude Munyezamu

A Calgary organization that delivers culturally appropriate food hampers to mostly African newcomers is struggling to feed over 600 families on its wait-list — and that number is expected to continue growing.

The program at Umoja Community Mosaic, which provides and delivers food twice monthly, was created when COVID-19 hit Canada in March 2020.

“When the pandemic happened, our people were in trouble,” said Jean Claude Munyezamu, executive director of Umoja.

The idea behind the program started when a single mom, who had a three-day-old baby, was unable to access the food bank because it was closed.

Munyezamu then made calls, provided her with food and noticed a deep structural gap in Calgary’s food security system.

“What we found was that there was a gap in food security because the food people eat [is] not necessarily what they get when they’re poor,” he said. “So what we started was giving … people food that they eat.”

Since the program’s inception 21 months ago, Umoja has provided and delivered food hampers to over 850 single mothers, seniors and families. But with a rise in food costs, many people still out of work and a lack of funding, Munyezamu says the organization is struggling.

He says the group is hoping to raise at least $150,000 to feed families for the next three months and provide extra support during the holidays, with the help of Calgarians.

Knowing exactly where clients are from, and what type of food staples they eat in that region, is what makes Umoja’s food program unique, says Munyezamu.

“If you’re from central, east Africa — Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo — then you’re going to have cassava flour rather than baking flour or anything else.”

Food serves as a convener, comforter and a source of culture for many ethnic minority cultures, says a release sent by Umoja.

During turbulent times, such as moving to a new country and living through a global pandemic, having access to cultural food is especially important.

“Basically, we are giving people food they would buy if they had money,” said Munyezamu.

Veronica Tsegaye has been using the program for nearly a year now.

She’s a single mom of three kids, originally from Eritrea. She lost her job in health care before the pandemic began and now relies on food banks to feed her family.

“Right now, I don’t have work. It’s hard for the kids,” said Tsegaye.

With the cost of food rising across the country, Munyezamu says the organization is paying 30 per cent more for food compared with last year.

Not only does that mean Umoja is paying more for food — it means more people are coming to Umoja for support. Many people are returning to the food program after no longer needing it previously.

Roughly $50,000 is spent on the food program each month. A portion of that budget used to be funded by various organizations, as well as by the City of Calgary and Government of Alberta.

Aside from newly announced funding from the United Way, the program depends almost completely on donations.