Features | Food justice in Montreal

Montreal is a city that is incredibly culturally diverse, offering different culinary options on every block. Head up to Jean Talon and you’ll find yourself in Little Italy, with a pizzeria and trattoria at every block. South on St. Laurent is Chinatown, with dim sum and dumplings galore. Finally, high up on Parc, you can get your fix of poppy-seed rugelach and intricate babkas. Food is a pathway to many different social and environmental movements, and hits close to home as one of the primary ways in which we interact with our environments. Tied into the beauty and diversity of food are issues of food justice, accessibility, and security.

Food justice can be recognized as disparities and inequities in the current food system, as well as tackling and challenging the process of production and consumption of food. This includes where food is from, how it is grown, as well as the transport, processing, and accessibility of the food. It’s about looking beyond promising labels – such as “local,” “organic,” and “fair trade” – and understanding what these mean in a meaningful way.
The organic food movement can be considered part of the food justice project. Organic food definitely has its place in affecting environmental change; however, it can also produce social barriers to food because of its inaccessibility. Organic food companies have been widely criticized for producing food that is exclusively accessible to upper-class individuals.

Similarly, fair-trade products – another project within food justice – also share an upper-class predisposition. In some cases, fair trade certification is only available to farmers who pay fees upwards of $10,000, privileging wealthier farmers. Food justice often aims to fight for integrity, accessibility, and sustainability. So, for those who are curious about food justice in Montreal, consider the following a guide.

Knowing where the food comes from
Sustainability is a fundamental concern of the food justice movement. Interest in local food is growing across the province, and this is reflected in the many community-supported agriculture initiatives. Farmers markets are increasingly offering baskets of local organic produce on a weekly basis. Such initiatives are a good opportunity to familiarize oneself with local foods and where they come from, as well as to gain access to high quality, fresh goods.

Santropol Roulant is one of the places to start. It offers community-supported agriculture baskets, sourced from its farm on the West Island, and also funds urban gardening programs across Montreal. In the past, it grew vegetables on a garage rooftop in Rosemont, and it currently has urban gardens set up on the rooftop of its main office on Roy and on McGill campus. Interested in their work, I spoke with Kateri, an employee of Santropol Roulant. “[The] urban agriculture program is about linking the public to the source of their food,” said Kateri. “Seeing food in the aisles of a grocery store is completely different than seeing it rooted in the soil, and we want to link the public to the source and production of their food.”

In 2011, the collective grew and harvested nearly 1,500 kilograms of vegetables. The harvesting season lasts from April to October, and the organization is “in the midst of planting garlic and harvesting leftover chard and kale. Santropol Roulant is also in the midst of creating a new program called “Transformation: Programme à Santropol.” “All the crops they’ve grown, that weren’t sold and used in the baskets or mini-markets on the street, are transformed into products by volunteers,” Kateri told me. It has also opened a small store, in which it sells tomato sauces, pickles, jams, and various other conserves and canned goods. In the same vein, Santropol Roulant has recently started an urban agriculture program called “Les Fruits Défendus” which involves urban food picking.

“[We] approach people who are tree owners, but don’t have the time, tools, or mobility to harvest the fruit of their various trees (apples, pears, grapes, cherries, et cetera). The owners of the trees, as well as volunteers, are recruited, and the food is split amongst the owner of the tree, the volunteers, and Santropol Roulant.” This program is meant to raise awareness of urban agriculture. “There is food grown in town, and we want people to notice that,” Kateri added.

The People’s Potato is a campus-oriented, collectively-run soup kitchen that provides by-donation vegan meals and also supports local, mindful community initiatives, such as the Jean Talon market. This student-run organization used to source food from a vendor named Elaine Darcenie who sold cheap bulk vegetables, but now the initiative orders food from Moisson Montréal, a non-profit organization in the Saint-Laurent borough that provides for many food banks across Montreal.

Initiatives such as local farms, community-supported agriculture, and urban gardening are meant to raise awareness of food grown in the heart of the city. The slopes of Mont Royal once housed many farms, and organizations like Santropol, People’s Potato, and others are attempting to revive this image. Supporting local farmers and discouraging the transport of chemically preserved foods from abroad helps our local farmers and food systems. By integrating urban gardens into our landscapes, we can have access to fresh food on a daily basis and lead more mindful, sustainable lifestyles.

Midnight Kitchen (MK), McGill’s own food justice collective that offers free vegan meals in the SSMU building, also problematizes issues within sustainability. One collective member I spoke to, Vince Tao, told me that “while environmental justice is certainly an important political front for MK, in many ways the call to ‘eat local’ or ‘buy organic’ eschews a broader anti-capitalist perspective that would include migrant justice struggles, anti-globalization movements, and labour organizing in the fight against the destruction of the planet.” MK posits that the political scope of green activism is limited to changing individual consumer choices, whereas food justice goes beyond one’s personal lifestyle toward forms of collective action to confront major political and social problems.

Food Security
According to the People’s Potato’s website “Montreal rates second in terms of Canadian cities where food insecurity is an important concern.” Food security often relates to one’s access to income, and one-third of Montrealers are said to be low-income earners. A study by the Direction de santé publique (DSP) in Montreal on food accessibility revealed that forty per cent of Montrealers live in food deserts, meaning they do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables within walking distance of their homes. The best-served sectors are central neighbourhoods. However, such studies do not take into account depanneurs, specialty stores, and smaller independent grocery stores which provide other points of access to fresh food. Even from a purely geographic perspective, supermarkets are not the only food retailers where fresh and healthy food can be bought.

I spoke with McGill Sustainability Studies alumni Jane Zhang to learn more about food security. Jane told me that she has a depanneur on the corner of her street that serves fresh, relatively cheap vegetables, and while this is a viable option, she also asks herself, “[Is it] enough to serve an entire neighbourhood?” Jane argues that this would mean “a completely different question.” Vince says that food should not be seen as a commodity. “Put very simply, global capitalism creates a topography of ‘haves and have-nots.’ From a food justice perspective, we see a jagged divide between the perpetually full and the perpetually hungry. All people deserve to have access to food for the simple reason that they are alive.” Many food deserts often affect specific demographics. “The environmental movement – and especially the food justice movement – [is] led on by white environmentalists. What does it mean, and what does it mean for the people who are excluded?” Jane asked.

Jane carried out her honours research project on urban agriculture, and through her research has confronted issues of social equity in the physical and ecological factors of food production. These problems of social equity are tied into colonial history, Jane said, and how landscapes have changed over time. In Montreal, there are more and more community-based gardening initiatives like Santropol popping up, but simultaneously we see a lower level of private gardens. Jane tells me this is mainly because of changing demographics. “In the sixties, there were a lot of Italian and Japanese families installed in Montreal who would run these private gardens because of their socioeconomic status, as well as their respective histories of food heritage, and being used to growing food on their own. Now we see less of that, because their descendants are aging and are less inclined to do that type of work – perhaps because they’re simply not interested, or maybe because it reminds them of that struggle.”

The People’s Potato focuses on food access for students and the surrounding community, creating more control over the food system, and fighting environmental and food-related issues. They work through education and collaboration, and support projects that work toward environmental, and social justice. According to a People’s Potato collective member, this includes working “[against] factory farming, security in access to drinking water, and fighting the pipelines which poison the natural environment, and decimate animal populations,” on the one hand, as well as “Indigenous justice, feminism, migrant justice, and fighting racism and homophobia.” It’s a “ridiculously large project or goal,” but these are the two primary types of interests of the organization, and threats or oppression that overlap with these two sectors are targeted and prioritized (for example, for events on Indigenous justice and pipelines, the People’s Potato volunteers come to support and bring food to those events).

Santropol promotes food security through Meals-on-Wheels, “a food delivery service for fresh and healthy food to seniors or people with less autonomy and who have trouble accessing food,” according to Kateri. Santropol Roulant has about 300 clients a year that use Meals-on-Wheels. “There’s service five days a week, save Thursday and Sunday.” Clients are grateful for this since Saturdays are usually days in which food accessibility becomes particularly cumbersome. However, Kateri finds that there isn’t enough awareness of this program, and that there is a need for “those who are socially isolated and don’t have networks to get involved, and reclaim their right to fresh food.” With Meals-on-Wheels, Santropol Roulant works with food banks to “decrease loss of good food” and make use of readily-available resources in Montreal.

Jane posits that “if you think about the end goal of food security, what is it really? It’s that we want everyone to have access to healthy, fresh food. Food banks are symptomatic of a larger problem. The people who rely on food banks have to take whatever is given to them, and it is never guaranteed that what they have in stock that day is fresh or healthy. Being in a position of not being able to choose one’s food, especially culturally-appropriative food, is a big problem. I think ultimately, the end goal should be institutional, we should be looking at what is the government not doing that’s being addressed by food banks, that they need to do in the future.”

Food Accessibility
McGill and Concordia are among the few Canadian universities in which students have managed to win space for such projects. Midnight Kitchen and the People’s Potato are very successful models, however, according to Vince, “in Halifax there’s a group called ‘The Loaded Laddle,’ at the University of Victoria there exists a group called ‘the Community Cabbage’, and there are a myriad of other initiatives. Sadly, these projects have not been incorporated in the universities. Perhaps the administration at these campuses are more resilient and opposed to the projects. The creation of these initiatives definitely reflects an activist spirit and political climate similar to that of Montreal.

The People’s Potato asserts that “the key to starting non-profit food justice work in an institution is to learn to speak their language and follow their rules.” The group must have a mandate, a non-profit number, hired employees, and insurance for volunteers and the board of directors. “You try to create this perfect system, so that when the administration tries to knock you down, your foundation is solid and policies seamless.”

The choice of vegan food is a choice tied into the issue of food accessibility, but also a choice rampant with presumptions and implications. Jane states that she became a vegetarian four years ago and eventually a vegan, but is considering re-incorporating meat or fish into her diet. Her reasons for going plant-based are “the ecological side of things – being in these primarily white environmental movements in North America is one of the pathways to change that’s identified as counteracting climate change and other issues.”

However, Jane asserts that there are several elements missing in this ideology, such as the personal cultural basis to our diets. Becoming a vegetarian is taking a stance against “the meat-heavy, North-American diet,” which is not what she grew up on – she grew up on a Chinese diet, primarily based on vegetables and legumes, with a small amount of meat. Jane asserts that striking a balance would involve “considering your personal background in tandem with the political agenda you’re trying to advance.” She acknowledges that she has friends who are people of colour who are also vegetarian or vegan. “This is how it should be seen, a diversity of cuisines, which have a diversity of approaches to the plant-based diet, rather than needing to eat raw cashews and green smoothies to be a vegan.”

The People’s Potato acknowledged when I spoke with them that veganism “can be colonial and racist. There’s a lot of friction between environmentalism, animal rights, and globalization, and this idea of a baseline human dignity.” For the People’s Potato, it’s about removing barriers for access to the space. By not serving any animal products, “[the People’s Potato] can nourish Muslim students, since they won’t have to be concerned with how the meat was killed. Similarly for people with kosher diets and for vegetarians. [They] always post their ingredients on the board, so if anyone is soy – or gluten – sensitive for example, they can know.” They continued, “It’s about speaking out against the racism, colonialist ideals, and cultural imperialism that happens with ‘white ways’ of knowing the world. It’s a challenge, because our user base is mostly white, Western, middle-class, and university-educated, but I feel like we confront that, and because we do this feels okay with me. We’re aware of the socio-cultural implications.”

In this way, one can get a sense of the condition of food justice in Montreal. Montreal is a city endowed with a political climate and activist spirit, which has enabled such initiatives as Midnight Kitchen and the People’s Potato to be successfully integrated into institutions. Alternative sources of food are emphasized, such as local farmers markets and urban gardening. However, inherent in local food movements are questions of social equity and of who’s carrying out the work – whether it involves cultural imperialism, colonialist ideals, and the exploitation of migrant workers, or whether equal participation from community members, volunteers, and organizations. Veganism is tied to the notion of accessibility as well as progressive politics – and the struggle for both environmental and animal rights – but it can also be a colonialist and racist ideology, which ignores cultural particularities and sensitivities.

As the People’s Potato asserts, “Food aid should offer its services in the absence of any social, cultural, or economic judgement.” Fresh, healthy food is a human right, and such a vision is emphasized by Santropol Roulant, in its urban agriculture initiatives, and People’s Potato – as it democratizes access to food for the student body. So while you stroll up the streets of Mile End, or down the cobblestone of Old Montreal, embrace the richness and diversity of choices you are presented with – it’s a luxury of living in such a multicultural city. But likewise, be an engaged consumer, and remain aware of where your food is coming from – and whether, with your choices, you are supporting the exploitation of workers or white supremacism, or whether you are promoting an ideology of cultural diversity, sustainable local foods, and social justice.


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