New Niagara Falls-based agency focuses on increasing access to healthy food, job training for vulnerable
The name of Helen Castonguay’s new venture — the Cultivating Hope Foundation — succinctly sums up what she’s hoping to accomplish.
The president and executive director of the new agency, which has applied for federal charitable status, has a goal of cultivating both figuratively and literally in Niagara.
In offices in a federal immigration building on Portage Road in Niagara Falls, Castonguay is growing nutrient-packed microgreens and herbs destined for local charities and low-income families while she finalizes an agreement to begin growing healthy produce in a spacious former chicken barn locally.
But Castonguay is also planning to cultivate hope among vulnerable people in Niagara, such as those experiencing homelessness, to help them help themselves to a better life through job training that could include landing jobs on Niagara farms, and skills such as resumé writing and interviewing.
Castonguay, who used to run a farm and country store, decided to use her agricultural expertise to help provide fresh produce to local food banks, where produce is also a top ask among clients.
“We’re focusing on food insecurity,” said Castonguay, who has known what it’s like to struggle in life.
“I have been in a position where I couldn’t afford to buy fresh vegetables,” she said. “I had to buy a minimum amount of cheap food, and often that’s packs of mac and cheese or just pasta.”
She said lack of access to healthy food can have a spiralling effect on someone’s life.
“It kind of snowballs,” she said. “It can affect your self-esteem, your emotional status, you can get depression and you get health issues.”
As her agency grows and hires staff, Castonguay plans to begin training the vulnerable and has already committed Cultivating Hope to being a certified living wage employer with the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network.
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“As an organization trying to help reduce food insecurity in the Niagara region, we felt it was essential to be a part of the solution in any way possible,” she said. “Our employees must be the first to benefit from what we are trying to do as an organization.”
Castonguay said she hopes to attack problems such as homelessness at the root of the problem, getting people on the fringe of society into the workforce so they can support themselves and their families on an ongoing basis, and connecting them with other agencies offering important services such as physical and mental health care.
“We want to be a hub where somebody can come in, we can assess them, find what their needs and issues are, and find what this person needs to be a healthy, productive citizen and to have a life they’re proud of and how they can support their family,” she said.
Castonguay hopes to work with local post-secondary institutions to find out which sectors and jobs are most in need of people to fill vacant positions, so she can tailor training.
“That’s the population we’re trying to help: those who don’t have the ability or the means to look at these different options they don’t even know exist,” she said.
Castonguay hopes her agency will become self-sufficient financially by selling produce.
But Pam Farrell, executive director of the GROW Community Food Literacy Centre in downtown Niagara Falls, said Cultivating Hope is already donating microgreens and herbs to clients at her charitable agency, helping low-income families in Niagara’s most disadvantaged area.
“To be able to have something like microgreens, which you could only get at specialty stores and wouldn’t be affordable (for clients) is priceless,” said Farrell.
“Her products help bring healthy food within reach … and most importantly are available throughout the year,” said Farrell. “To be able to get those fresh every week, we’re just so blessed that she’s supporting us.”
For more information visit https://cultivatinghope.ca/.
Original Article: https://www.niagarathisweek.com/news-story/10403552-cultivating-hope-tackling-food-insecurity-homelessness/