As the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, one community organization in western Newfoundland pulled together to create a new meals-on-wheels program for seniors and other residents who were self-isolating. The Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital Heritage Corp. (BBCHHC), a social enterprise in the town of Norris Point, N.L., just outside Gros Morne National Park, initiated a meals-on-wheels program, drawing on volunteers and staff.
Decades of dedicated community building initiatives by the BBCHHC made it possible to respond quickly to the rapidly changing circumstances brought on by the pandemic. The Cottage Hospital’s meals-on-wheels program proved to be a vital service to this area of Newfoundland where a grocery run often means driving more than 100 kilometres and older residents are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity.
The meals-on-wheels program came together in the space of a few days in mid-March 2020 and offered high-nutrient and affordable meals that were delivered up to three days a week. As an organization, the BBCHHC responded to this community need by drawing on its existing connections in the community. Organizers used a community kitchen located in the old Cottage Hospital, and worked with local food distributors to get fresh ingredients.
This was no small feat in the early weeks of the pandemic when transportation to Newfoundland, an already precarious process in winter, was disrupted. In some instances, volunteers and supporters drove to Deer Lake (70 kilometres away) or Corner Brook (120 kilometres away) to buy groceries.
Serving the community
When the Cottage Hospital was closed and left vacant in 2001, the BBCHHC formed to take it over. Once the province transferred the building to the non-profit, it began fundraising to renovate the site into a community space and social enterprise.
The Cottage Hospital was designated a municipal heritage site in 2003 and is the thriving heart of Norris Point and the wider Bonne Bay area. Today, the Cottage Hospital includes a library, community kitchen, a local radio station, a hostel, meeting space, treatment rooms rented by medical professionals and office space that can be used by local business start-ups. It also hosts local farmers and craft markets and there are plans to establish a community-run daycare.
The meals-on-wheels program built on the skills, facilities and networks of the Cottage Hospital community hub. Pre-pandemic, the Cottage Hospital was running a community kitchen program with free cookery classes that focused on high-nutrient, plant-based food. Funded through Food First NL and provincial job creation grants, the cookery classes were open to residents aged 35-75 and aimed to support dietary change in a region with high rates of chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
In rural Newfoundland, where the gas station is a key grocery provider, and driving an hour to reach big-box grocery stores the norm, difficulty accessing affordable fresh food often means food insecurity. As the impact of COVID-19 became apparent, funding for the cooking classes was repurposed for the meals-on-wheels program.
The class chef began preparing boxed meals like lentil stew, split pea soup and quinoa salads. The BBCHHC secured further funding to purchase the personal protective equipment (PPE) and storage containers needed to run the program.
Overcoming rural isolation
The Cottage Hospital’s response to the pandemic holds valuable lessons for other rural and remote regions. First, increased food security means tackling issues with community programming and using social capital. The Cottage Hospital’s ability to provide dozens of free and low-cost meals is based on having the community assets to respond: the volunteer and business networks that are necessary; the programming and grant management skills to develop a new program; and the community activism to respond within days of a regional public health shutdown.
In addition, the old hospital itself has been key to the meals-on-wheels program, and to numerous other initiatives in the Gros Morne area. The converted building provides a physical space for a range of local activities, within a heritage site that has social and cultural meaning for many area residents. Finally, the organizational structure of the Cottage Hospital — that it is a non-profit social enterprise — has created an entity that deliberately and actively reinvests in its community.
The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has recognized the potential of social enterprises for regional economic growth and rural sustainability. In a time of crisis, the Cottage Hospital’s example demonstrated that resilience is built on the social, physical and — in this case — culinary skills, of rural communities.