Driving toward better health

Ralph MacKenzie volunteers driving the Dartmouth Community Van.

By Margaret Angus

The first-time volunteer Ralph MacKenzie arrived at the Stairs Memorial Food Bank in North Dartmouth and offered to drive clients home with their groceries in the Dartmouth Community Van, the room erupted in applause.

The van was introduced in 2012 thanks to the vision of then city councillor Jim Smith. It serves as a resource for several non-profit community groups in Dartmouth, allowing them to enhance their offerings to clients and lower their transportation costs.  

“People wave when the van drives by,” said MacKenzie.  “I don’t know if there’s anything that impacts on so many people with as simple a program as this.”

Martin Walker, past president of the Stairs Memorial Food Bank, said food bank volunteers have seen a decrease in the number of heavy food items left along the road by clients facing a long walk home.

The van also delivers grocery items to food bank clients who are unable to leave their homes.

“Without home delivery, I have no idea what would happen to these people, but it wouldn’t be good,” said Walker.

Food bank clients aren’t the only ones benefitting from the community van, operated by The Public Good Society of Dartmouth.

“One of our biggest problems for years was transportation,” said Joe Gibson, executive director of the Freedom Foundation, a residential program for men recovering from addictions. “Every month on grocery day we would have to travel by taxis. The van has been a godsend to us.”

Gibson said the group also uses the van to take clients on day trips to the beach in the summer and to self-help sessions in the city. The Freedom Foundation is home base for the van and its staff manage bookings.

Other van users include Among Friends Social Club, Dartmouth Family Resource Centre, the Dartmouth Seniors’ Centre, Adsum House, Christ Church and First Baptist Church Food Banks and Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Connections Dartmouth.

Community non-profit groups apply to be users of the van, each group providing their own volunteer driver and paying $0.20 per kilometre for mileage. Walker said that while the Stairs Memorial Food Bank initially wondered how they would come up with $500 a year for mileage, they now can’t imagine not having the service, which transports 25 to 35 clients each week.

Recently, with the support of a Nova Scotia Moves Grant, the Dartmouth Public Good Society partnered with Dartmouth Mental Health and the Dartmouth Family Resource Centre to shuttle clients to local, affordable grocery stores at month’s end. “Participants are able to save as much as 50 per cent on their grocery bills and have an opportunity to make healthier choices,” said MacKenzie.

Occasionally, the Dartmouth Community Health Team provides cooking classes for clients who attend local food banks. The community van provides free transportation for those who attend, removing a barrier that has kept some from taking advantage of these programs in the past.

Since the community van launched in 2012, it has transported more than 11,000 passengers and travelled almost 30,000 kilometres. It’s become a regular fixture in the Dartmouth North community.