Culture  Catering to all

With wide-reaching distribution, Montreal food banks do it differently

Montreal’s food banks play a crucial role in helping a diverse group of people feed themselves.  MultiCaf and the NDG Food Depot are two such spaces, both providing aid in various forms to people residing in their respective neighborhoods.

MultiCaf, a food resource that services residents of Côte-des-Neiges and several surrounding neighbourhoods, runs multiple programs aimed at feeding a variety of people.  MultiCaf runs a food bank, a community centre, a Meals on Wheels program, and a low-priced cafeteria, all of which operate out of a single building on Appleton Avenue.  The cafeteria serves a free breakfast and charges $1.50 for lunch.  Frequent visitors can purchase a $25 card for twenty lunches.  The cafeteria serves 260 meals per day, five days a week.  However, for many, MultiCaf is more than just a food resource.  Visitors often come for the free breakfast, stay for lunch and to socialize in the cafeteria, and use other resources that the centre provides, including a computer room.

While some food banks require their visitors to provide proof of income, proof of residence is the only qualification for visitors acquiring food from the NDG Food Depot or MultiCaf.  Katy Cavanaugh, the administrative assistant at MultiCaf, pointed out that certain factors that may be used to judge eligibility, such as whether a person is employed, are often an improper indicator of need. “It’s hard to judge, because what if you have a couple, both working minimum wage, living in an $800 a month apartment with three kids, and they can’t make ends meet?  I mean, they’re working,” she said.

One MultiCaf visitor, who chose to remain anonymous, has been using the food bank and cafeteria services for the past two years.  Without enough money to pay bills for dental surgery following a car accident, she was forced to begin visiting MultiCaf.  She admitted that she never expected to become a food bank visitor, having earned her undergraduate degree at Concordia and spent years working for a lawyer.  “I would never have thought when I was making my fancy salary a few years ago that I would need a place like this, but I do,” she said.

Another MultiCaf visitor, Merle Reisler, has been coming to the centre for the past 30 years.  “I’m the founding mother of MultiCaf,” she said.  “I like the whole concept.  I wish there were more of them, but there aren’t.”

The MultiCaf food bank distributes food baskets three days a week.  Visitors receive several bags of goods: bread, fruit and vegetables, canned goods, and dry goods.  In addition to food items, MultiCaf distributes bags containing household necessities such as toilet paper.  Seven hundred families visit the food bank a month, and the size of a food basket depends on the number of people in the household.

Visitors to the food bank do not fit any single profile, and include recent immigrants, people living on minimum wage, students on loans or bursaries, and retirees whose pensions do not cover the cost of food and other necessities. They also include a wide range of ages. In fact, a third of the people benefitting from MultiCaf food baskets are under the age of 18. “It’s a mix of homeless, temporarily low income and permanently low income,” said Cavanaugh. “We see people with doctorates that come here.”

The NDG Food Depot also provides varying levels of assistance to its visitors.  “For some it exists when times get tough and a little food assistance is all they need, for others it is a lifeline that has been a regular part of their lives for years,” said Mathieu Forget, the intake coordinator. Forget believes that the Depot’s commitment to providing healthy food sets it apart from other Montreal food banks. Food baskets are pre-approved by a dietician, and are aimed at providing an adequate amount of vitamins and nutrients to the consumer.

“We make sure to have fresh produce year round, and put aside a fraction of our annual budget to ensure items such as milk, tuna fish, and eggs are included in every basket, since these items are rarely donated in sufficient quantities,” Forget said.  In addition, the Depot offers food baskets specific to people with dietary restrictions and preferences, including halal, kosher, and vegan.

Both the Depot and MultiCaf reduce food waste by collecting food that would be disposed of otherwise. MultiCaf receives day-old bread from neighbourhood bakeries, as well as food items with superficial flaws that are often deemed unsuitable by food sellers, such as dented cans.  Fruit and vegetable vendors contribute produce that is a day old but still in fine condition.  MultiCaf also receives goods from large corporations such as Kraft, through the charity Moisson Montréal. Other food items come from food drives. Every day, MultiCaf staff visit local hospitals and pick up food that is left over from the previous day.  This food is served at the centre’s cafeteria, and the cafeteria food that is left at the end of the week is given to visitors for free.  Many visitors bring Tupperware containers and eat this food over the weekend.