Packages of beans, tomatoes, carrots, apples and pesto fill the freezers at Sam’s Place, a used book store, café and performing arts venue in the Winnipeg neighbourhood of Elmwood.
Freezing fruits and vegetables is a new experience for 18 year old Sasha Homenko. “I like working in the kitchen. It’s fun and I’m good at it. It’s like playing house.”
Homenko is among 75 volunteers sharing and gaining skills at Sam’s Place, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Manitoba activity that is striving to become a self-sustaining enterprise with a strong community outreach focus.
Healthy living begins with wholesome food, says manager Jennifer Dijk. That is why she is passionate about creating awareness of the availability of locally grown food and the benefits of whole, unrefined food, such as whole grains and dried legumes. This is especially important in the Elmwood neighbourhood where people living in low income households have limited access to grocery stores that stock fresh, affordable produce. “The neighbourhood has become a food desert—we are trying to find ways to help people deal with that reality,” says Dijk.
Sam’s Place is run mainly by volunteers. About 75 per cent of them are under the age of 30, says Dijk. Volunteers work in the kitchen, serve customers, sort and price books, work with the sound system and more.
Although Sam’s Place is successful in developing its outreach components, the revenue continues to be about 15 per cent below operational costs, says Ron Janzen, newly appointed executive director for MCC Manitoba. “We are still on the path to make it a sustainable operation,” he explains. An evaluation of the business operations was completed in October. Janzen anticipates a new business plan with strategies and recommendations will be announced in early 2013.
“I have a lot of confidence that Sam’s Place can be a success in terms of both its café/bookstore business model and social enterprise objectives,” says Janzen. “It is one of the most innovative things that MCC Manitoba is doing. It is already having a significant impact by engaging the community and constituency, in particular the youth and young adults.”
Homenko learned about Sam’s Place through searching for jobs on the Internet. She started volunteering in February 2012 when she was in Grade 12 to gain work experience. Now a student at the University of Manitoba, she says she has gained more than food handling skills.
“I was shy when I first came here,” she says. “I’m way more confident now and more comfortable around people. This place has helped me a lot.”