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Food buying co-op benefits Bayline residents’ budgets and bodies

Purchasing groceries in bulk and delivering them to communities by train provides access to fresh, healthy food without the added expense of travelling back and forth to Thompson.

If you’ve been grocery shopping lately, you know just how big of a bite just buying food can take out of your budget.

Now imagine paying for a train ticket, cab fares, and up to $12 a box to ship your purchases back on top of that, all while trying to squeeze in a doctor’s appointment on the same day so you can make the return trip.

That’s the reality of living in Northern Manitoba’s Bayline communities along the Hudson Bay Railway and it was an expensive proposition long before post-pandemic inflation drove the costs of everything higher and higher.

Fortunately for residents’ wallets and bank accounts, the Bayline Food Buying Co-op makes getting affordable, nutritious food easier.

It started with an idea 10 years ago but now runs like a well-oiled machine, thanks in part to co-ordinator Donna Sanoffsky, who oversees the logistics from her home community of Wabowden.

“The thing that makes it work is the communication,” says Sanoffsky, who is one part of a network that includes store managers, Via passenger train workers and pickup and delivery personnel in each of the communities along the rail line.

Saving money by buying bulk on behalf of all the residents, the co-op also benefits from shipping prices that are only 25 to 30 per cent as much as a person might pay to send their own smaller food shipment on the train — $3 per box as opposed to $10 or $12.

Living in Wabowden, it’s expensive enough to gas up and make the trip to Thompson for groceries, Sanoffsky says,, but her employment with the Bayline Regional Roundtable showed her how much more difficult it was for those in communities without year-round road access.

“None of them have a store,” she says. “There’s so many things that they have to deal with just to get out to the store and buy a bag of groceries.”

And if you can’t accomplish all your errands in Thompson within the space of a few hours, you’ll have to pay for accommodations until the next train back a couple of days later.

“A person that’s on Old Age Pension or social assistance, they don’t get much money,” says Sanoffsky. “If they have a doctor’s appointment and if they want to shop, sometimes they can’t even do that because they’ll have to stay a night in a hotel and wait for the next train. So there goes that cheque.”

More affordable food isn’t the only thing the co-op delivers to its members, however. Because it is dedicated to healthy, nutritious groceries — “we don’t send unhealthy foods to communities,” Sanoffsky says — it’s helping people to better manage their health problems, particularly diabetes, which is rampant in the north.

“A big problem was that they weren’t being able to get a lot of healthy foods into their community,” Sanoffsky says.

Better still, the deliveries from the co-op can help members expand their palates by including ingredients they might not buy on their own, along with preparation tips.

“If people are new to, say, avocado, I have a recipe that they can use to try something new,” says Sanoffsky.

Being exposed to a wide variety of healthy foods at a young age can benefit people as adults and the Bayline Food Buying Co-op is also spurring greater interest in nutrition overall.

“We're trying tp push gardening as well,” Sanoffsky says. “I go into the schools in the communities and work with the kids and start planting with them. I go in and do food programs with them to teach them how to cook. No one was going in there and doing that kind of thing before so it’s changed lots of things. Everyone’s just happy when you get off the train, excited to see you. That’s such a good feeling.”

While she may be the one who keeps an eye on everything to ensure it’s running smoothly, Sanoffsky says the program only succeeds because of support from so many others, including Joey Chubb, Sylvia Brightnose and Pauline Cordell. 

“I have workers in each community that meet the train and then take the groceries off and hand the food out to the people,” she says.

Via workers are also integral to food distribution and don’t even need prior notice to pick up orders.

“As long as I’m at the train, they see me, they know my truck, they know,” she says. 

The program has also benefited from donations, like one from the Gillam pharmacy.

"All their medicine comes in these big white styrofoam coolers and they donated 60 of them to me and those really come in handy,” Sanoffsky says.