ATHABASCA — A locally-owned-and-operated bakery committed to combating hunger continues to receive support from the community.
Claire Van Hout, owner of VanHout Bakery in Athabasca, runs the Bead to Feed program which provides hot meals to those in need, no questions asked. Hungry customers only need to take a prepaid bead from the communal container and present it as payment for hot soup and a bun.
Van Hout started the program in April 2020 to combat the rise in financial instability and uncertainty felt by many after the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions. More than three years later, the need remains piping hot.
“It’s kind of sad how successful it is, because it’s not just the homeless that are using our program, its people that just can’t make it until the end of the month,” said Van Hout, adding those are the busiest times for the program, which can see anywhere from 14 to 22 meals per day served.
According to the Athabasca Native Friendship Centre, there are only two food resources in the area — food security packages are available at the Friendship Centre, and a food bank run by the Good Samaritan Mission can be found 13 kilometres northeast of town. Athabasca County also provides a Meals on Wheels service to senior citizens and individuals with disabilities in the area.
But as far as Van Hout and other community members are aware, her bakery offers the only free, hot meal to anyone in need. Athabasca Rotary Club president Natasha Kapitaniuk said a similar volunteer-led program was offered by the Anglican church but was discontinued when COVID-19 restrictions for public gatherings started in March 2020.
Kapitaniuk said Van Hout’s dedication to the cause is an inspiration.
“What’s important is not just programs in the community, it’s community that cares about their community, and this is an example of that,” said Kapitaniuk. “Claire saw a need and meeting it was no questions asked, and just trusted hopefully it can continue the more the community steps up to give a hand.”
Beads can be purchased at the till for $5 a piece, and Van Hout said many of her regular patrons pitch in when they can. The program has also received support in the form of donations from Stonefish Rentals, Lolly Pop Thrift Shop, and multiple churches and prayer groups in the area.
“It’s really brought a sense of pride in me, and how the community has responded to it. Not only the ones in need, but the ones who have a little extra that can help out,” said Van Hout.
The Athabasca Rotary Club recently joined the list of community donors pitching in $200 and 30 water bottles July 26. Kapitaniuk said club members initially planned on purchasing water bottles for Bead to Feed participants to keep and reuse but decided on a more grassroots approach to sourcing the donation and members looked inside their own cupboards for items to contribute and donate money to cover meals and drinks for program patrons.
“We all have more than enough. We don’t have to spend money on buying those things when we have them,” said Kapitaniuk. “When it comes to community initiative, we’re big on supporting existing programs. We’re not out to recreate the wheel — if something’s been working really well as Bead to Feed has been, it’s in our passion and our drive to help keep that going.”
Despite creating the program as a response to the impacts of COVID-19, Van Hout said Bead to Feed isn’t going anywhere, adding her stance on generosity comes from her parents, who she said never let a neighbour go hungry. VanHout Bakery opens in the early morning, and hot soup is ready by 3 a.m. for anyone in need.
“As long as people are hungry and as long as I can stand and feed them, I’m going to feed them,” she said. “There is no shame to come in for a bowl of soup … we’re not looking for anything beyond a smile and a happy belly.”
Lexi Freehill, TownandCountryToday.com