Neighbourhood pantry designed by Carleton students making architecture work for community

·3 min read
Public Food, designed by Carleton University architecture students, is set to be finished at the end of the week. (Sara Frizzell/CBC - image credit)
Public Food, designed by Carleton University architecture students, is set to be finished at the end of the week. (Sara Frizzell/CBC - image credit)

Kitchens in Centretown are about to get a little bit bigger as Carleton University architecture students put the finishing touches on a community pantry they're calling Public Food.

The fridge and shelves are set into a 4-by-12-foot structure on Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) land at 415 MacLaren St.

Students stayed after their semester ended to build the project they designed for Menna Agha's seminar Architecture of Community Care.

Agha said it has to be done by the end of this week because students are leaving for the summer. The push to finish has every muscle in her body hurting — she took a break from sanding and staining the siding to talk with CBC.

The course looks at how architecture can work for a community, Agha said. "How do we design for people who usually cannot afford design help or afford to hire or commission us?"

"We've seen a lot of these pantries could be outfitted just to hold the fridge and not take up too much space on the site and those work very well and in different settings," said Thompson Nguyen, a graduate of Carleton's master's of architecture and the project manager of Public Food.

"We just wanted to envision something that could be a little bit larger."

In a workshop with community partners, students heard "dignified" and quality design was important — the site also got a disability audit, which looked at everything from the ramp to the colours of the planned mural.

Submitted by Menna Agha
Submitted by Menna Agha

Agha said the idea for the pantry was something the Glebe-St. James United Church pushed for. Volunteers from the church will be maintaining the space and OCH will provide the electricity.

"The Public Food Centretown pantry and fridge project … is another incredible example of partners coming together to help support residents and address food insecurity, which is a real and prevalent issue in our communities," a spokesperson for OCH said in an email.

Take what you need, leave what you can

The need for projects like this has become very apparent in the last few years, Agha said, citing inflation, the western part of the neighbourhood being described by some as a food desert, and the lasting economic challenges of COVID-19.

Learning from the pandemic, the open wall of shelves were designed so there were no health and safety concerns related to being in an enclosed area — it has a large overhang to protect those browsing from the rain. It's also climate controlled, so food stays good at all times of the year.

"I am new to Canada and the first thing I did here in the winter is learn the hard way — you forget your groceries in the car at night, you don't have groceries anymore," Agha said.

She said the pantry will be for everyone to take what they need and leave what they can.

"We all run out of our salaries by that day in the month and there is nothing to eat at home. Maybe I'll pass by and get something to eat," she said.

Or maybe you're leaving on your first trip in years, and there's food that's still good in your fridge. The pantry is a good place to leave it, she suggested.

Agha has a young child who won't eat everything, so foods that aren't a hit with her kid, she intends to pass along.

The back wall is green and will have a selection of herbs, onions and other edible plants available to pick as needed.