April 22, 2021
Bottles of water, cans of lentils and packages of pasta and rice line the shelves of a newly built wooden pantry. The pantry contains the ingredients needed to make a variety of meals, helping to bring food and hope to those who peruse the pantry shelves.
MealShelter 365 is a grassroots community food pantry initiative founded in 2018. Since its start, Paul Blais and his team have installed 10 food pantries in the communities of Cranbrook and Invermere, including at one BC Housing site. Accessible 24/7 and stocked with non-perishables and bottled water, the pantries allow anyone to take what they need, anytime they want, without stigma.
“Some people who are food insecure feel embarrassed about going to the food bank or asking for help,” Blais says. “These pantries are great because people can access them any time they need. And people can drop off items as well.”
The pantry project is a personal mission for Blais, who found himself homeless in Cranbrook for about a month after a car accident wiped out his savings. Through the help of local community members and organizations like Operation Street Angels, he was able to bounce back and find housing.
"People have been really good to me," he says. "I just want to pay it forward."
The program is completely community driven. Local sponsors like Home Depot and Rona supply many of the materials needed to build the pantries. Volunteer Gerry Frederick then helps build and install them. Blais keeps the organization running smoothly behind the scenes. He finds appropriate locations to situate the pantries, coordinates more than 30 volunteers, and solicits donations.
Aside from the community pantries, Paul has also started a “Pay it Forward” campaign in the community. People can purchase a meal to be kept “in reserve” at participating local restaurants. The reserved meals can then be accessed by people in need.
“The reason I have had success is not because of me, but because of the incredible people and businesses that have pitched in to lend a hand,” Blais says. “Together, we’ve been able to achieve amazing things.”
MealShelter 365 maintains a number of community food pantries in Cranbrook and Invermere, including one at the Community Connections Society building at 209A-14 Avenue North, the site of a future BC Housing shelter.
Paul Blais (left), founder of MealShelter365, and volunteer Gerry Frederick show off one of the wooden pantries that provide 24/7 access to non-perishables for people in need. (Image taken prior to COVID-19 pandemic)