Buzwah Variety gifts fresh food to ‘good neighbours’

The Good Neighbour Food Boxes contain fresh and healthy foods that Mr. Leedham adds onto his order from wholesale suppliers, including fruits and vegetables. He has given away six of the roughly eight-pound boxes to date.

Business booms as free food boxes raise community spirits during lockdown

BUZWAH – Ziisbaakdoons Daawegamik (Buzwah Variety and Video) owner Rick Leedham has given away dozens of pounds of fresh, healthy foods to deserving Wiikwemkoong citizens as a way of honouring the good work done by community members through the store’s start-up ‘Good Neighbour Food Box’ program.

“Everybody could use a little break. A lot of people here are on fixed incomes; I just wanted a chance to give something back to the community,” said Mr. Leedham.

As of press time Monday, Buzwah Variety’s Good Neighbour Food Boxes have gone home with 18 people, with more slated to be revealed on the day of this publication.. 

For the past six weeks, Mr. Leedham has posted on the store’s Facebook page, asking for Wiikwemkoong citizens to nominate someone for a box and explain why they would deserve to receive it. Favourite stories get selected to be the lucky recipients and they are invited to pick up their bounty at the store. 

The idea started when Mr. Leedham wanted to thank a deserving neighbour for their efforts in the community, as a way of being a ‘good neighbour.’ He shared that initiative on social media in the hopes that it would start a grassroots movement of other Wiikwemkoongians giving back to the silent heroes who help make their community thrive.

Unfortunately, the measure did not take as strong of a hold as he had hoped. Mr. Leedham then decided to run a public giveaway of two similar boxes through his store’s Facebook page. 

He took photos of the offerings which included items such as apples, oranges, bananas, pears, grapes, onions, green and red peppers, lettuce, cucumber, bologna and a loaf of bread. Together they weigh about eight pounds.

“It’s whatever I can get from Massey Wholesale,” said Mr. Leedham. “This past week I added in a brick of cheese. It’s hard to get around here these days so I’m paying attention to the community’s needs and struggles, and adding things they can use.” 

When photos of the boxes hit Facebook, the reaction was immediate and strong. Some 46 nominations emerged for the first week, most of which included touching stories of why that person would deserve a gesture of support.

“She has been a mom and still working at Andy’s to provide for her five children. Not only that, her husband has been busy working during this crisis too. She has such a big heart and always sees the positive,” and “she just offered to do grocery and delivery runs for people. She is awesome, thinking of others, being a great neighbour,” were just two of several messages in support of first-round recipient Becky Williams.

“There’s so many responses that I’ve had to outsource it,” said Mr. Leedham with a laugh. His wife Dawn-Marie Jacko picked the winners in the first round and the second round was handled by two volunteer judges.

Second-round winner Chantal Simon, who is an essential front-line worker in Wiikwemkoong, said her nomination was a kind gesture.

“It will help, being a mother of two and working full-time as a housekeeper at the Wikwemikong Nursing Home. It’s good to see that friends and family see how much I enjoy my job even with all this COVID-19 going on which can make work and just being out in general a little scary,” she said.

Her time away from work doesn’t always align with shopping hours, which has made getting certain supplies difficult. She expressed gratitude for the Buzwah store for having later hours and giving back to the community in this way.

Giveaways are nothing new for Buzwah Variety and Video. In recent years, the store has offered a large number of candy and snack prizes for social media contests but Mr. Leedham said it was important to now address the most pressing needs of the community.

“It’s getting tougher and tougher on the supply chain; we get a lot of zeros back on our order sheets. I’ve even heard the band sometimes has a tough time with its food box program,” he said.

Wiikwemkoong, which is home to about 3,000 on-reserve citizens, has been working hard to keep with consumer demand since it enacted a community lockdown on April 9. It runs food security programs that are more important now than ever, but the few grocery sellers have sold out of necessities due to the pressure.

“We got a shipment from Sobeys today, our new supplier, and we got things like dog food, (lactose-free) milk, which is hard to find, lots of bread and different products like cheese and butter that have been zeroed out from other grocery stores this week,” said Mr. Leedham. “That should help relieve some of the supply issues.”

Mr. Leedham shifted his store’s model to feature more essential goods when the lockdown began. He sourced additional suppliers and was able to lower the shelf prices for many of his goods due to the new contracts.

Whether it’s because of the community’s lockdown that has required Wiikwemkoong citizens to shop closer to home, the wider variety of products now available or the community showing its appreciation for Mr. Leedham’s efforts, business at Buzwah Variety and Video is booming.

“Business is great. It’s busier than we’ve ever been,” said Mr. Leedham, whose store just marked its 20th anniversary in March. “We’re working triple time. It’s stocking, serving and ordering all day and at night we work to get the place cleaned up for the next day. But I love doing this and that’s what I’m here for as a merchant. Actually, that’s what they call me around here, ‘The Merchant’.”

Mr. Leedham could not offer an estimate of how much he spends on each box, saying that he has not considered the price of this service. He said he hoped to keep offering these boxes for as long as the lockdown is in place, though he noted that the workload to keep up with the boxes and extra store traffic is intense.

Mr. Leedham encouraged everyone on Manitoulin to stay positive, stay happy and remember that everyone is facing this virus together.

“I’m doing what I love and I’m happy about it. Even though I’m starting to feel the burn, that’s no problem,” said Mr. Leedham.