Features  Banking on Our Bellies

Midnight Kitchen and the Battle for Food Security

What’s the deal with Midnight Kitchen?

Most McGill students know Midnight Kitchen (MK) as a service that provides free vegan and nut-free lunches to students. Our daily lunch servings are comprised of hearty soups, refreshing salads, rice, and our infamous cake. For over 15 years, Midnight Kitchen has been a source of affordable food on campus for students. However, renovations to the SSMU building have forced MK to relocate and majorly scale back.

On a typical day in our kitchen at the SSMU building, cooking would start at 9 a.m., as staff and volunteers sorted through vegetables, planned the menu for the day, and crafted a delicious meal. Around 12 p.m. a lineup of roughly 200 people would accrue in front of the serving tables, snaking out of the serving room, around the third floor hallway, and down the stairs. Tupperware in hand, students anticipated a delicious hot lunch. The menu of the day would be announced and serving would begin. Music would pump through the kitchen as students ate together, taking a much needed break from the stress of classes.

Lunch was cooked with produce donated by Moisson Montreal, a non-profit food bank that distributes industry surplus to other non-profits for giveaway. In other words, most meals prepared by MK used food that would otherwise have been thrown away. Not only was our daily lunch service a sustainable source of healthy and affordable food for students, our kitchen created a special atmosphere where people could connect, learn new skills, and decompress from the stresses of academic life.

Phoebe Pannier

Since the closure of the SSMU building, we have been renting a kitchen off-campus and focusing on other components of our programming: a garden to grow produce for our weekly food bank, educational workshop keynotes, fulfilling catering requests for underfunded McGill groups and community organizations, and funding student and community groups through our discretionary fund. We have developed a new weekly meal pick-up program that operates on campus out of 3471 Peel, but we have shifted from serving about 1,000 meals a week to 300. (See our website to find out more and register for meal pick ups or the food bank.)

MK’s mandate is grounded in an anti-oppressive, holistic approach to food justice. We acknowledge that food and environmental injustice are inextricable from issues of social justice. Canada’s food system is built on the theft of Indigenous peoples’ land and the exploitation of Black and Brown peoples’ labour. It is crucial to understand this history as we consider how to move forward in a time of mediatized environmental crisis. Let’s be real; the crisis is nothing new. It has existed since the formation of “Canada.” In order to address the climate crisis at its roots, we must fight the ongoing legacy of Canada’s colonial governance on Turtle Island and abroad, which exists hand in hand with massive devastation caused by Canadian corporate enterprises that exploit the land and labour of the Global South to drive profits north.

A 2015 survey of over 1,300 McGill students revealed that 80 per cent of students felt food options on campus are unaffordable.

MK opposes approaches to climate justice that are not rooted in intersectionality. We are critical of “zero waste” rhetoric that directs attention away from the systemic causes of food injustice to place responsibility in the hands of the individual consumer and how they can make “better choices” within capitalism. It is ironic when big corporations such as Compass Group promote “zero waste” in their cafeterias, yet contribute directly to environmental destruction by collaborating with infamous polluters such as Nestle, Pepsico, KraftHeinz, and Kelloggs.

Food insecurity at McGill

There is a myth that food security is not an issue at McGill; however, a 2015 survey of over 1,300 McGill students revealed that 80 per cent of students felt food options on campus are unaffordable. Five years later, the landscape at McGill has not changed. It is not uncommon for students to go hungry when trying to balance tuition payments and housing costs. The correlation between nutrition and mood is well documented. The financial aid office at McGill has a handy “Cheap Sheet” that lists cheap food options on campus. However, most of them aren’t healthy options. (Can one entirely subsist off samosas, hot dogs and ice cream cones?) Yellow Door, Snax, and Midnight Kitchen are the clear stand-outs in terms of healthy, on-campus meals.

In researching for a Rad Frosh workshop this year, it was revealed that the Dean of Students’ office was unaware of the changes to Midnight Kitchen’s services since the SSMU building closure. With reports showing a direct correlation between food insecurity and poor health, as well as ability to focus or excel in work or other activities, why is McGill neglecting to invest in food security initiatives? Shouldn’t a postsecondary institution help their students excel by providing them with resources for food security? Concordia University has both student groups and the administration working together to provide emergency food vouchers, two daily lunch programs, food banks, breakfasts, and lists of resources. Why don’t the most vulnerable McGill students have similar resources?

With reports showing a direct correlation between food security and poor health, as well as ability to focus and excel in work and other activities, why is McGill neglecting to invest in food security initiatives?

Midnight Kitchen has existed for over 15 years, trying to answer this question and feeding people along the way. We are a vital student service and have been attempting to meet student needs despite all of the challenges brought on by the construction.

Phoebe Pannier

Since the closure of the SSMU building…

The SSMU building has been closed for construction since March 2018. The repairs are a necessary evil; however, this has meant relocation of all student services and clubs. The SSMU building is sorely missed. Clubs and services such as MSERT, the Union for Gender Empowerment, the Flat Bike Collective, and SACOMSS have faced hardships due to the construction. Cited are a lack of storage space, access to rooms for training, gender neutral washrooms, and accessible entrances for mobility-impaired users, among others. This is unacceptable!

The first time MK was informed of the building closure, we were told that the re-opening would happen in January 2019, with the possibility of accessing the second floor cafeteria early while the rest of the building remained closed. This was an imposition we felt capable of contending with; presumably, the unique needs of our service would be prioritized. They were not.

Due to the closure, MK had to find a new location. Ideally, our temporary location would be a wheelchair-accessible industrial kitchen on campus with a room that we could serve meals out of. However, the search for an on-campus kitchen to accommodate us was unsuccessful. The new kitchen, located on St. Henri, has only one tenth of the fridge space, no freezer space, and one fifth of the dry storage space of the old kitchen. Additionally, we are currently paying upwards of $23,000 per year to rent this space.

Since we are not on campus, we have to personally deliver to McGill for distribution or have groups venture to St. Henri, where our new location is, for pick up. Other inconveniences include the inability to host volunteers, hurried food deliveries with confused taxi drivers, endless trips to the grocery store to restock our tiny shelf, and various storage nightmares. All of our new programming has been developed with no clear end in sight. McGill has continually disrespected Midnight Kitchen, as well as all the other clubs and services in the Brown building, by giving “vague updates like ‘it’s not looking good,’” according to SSMU’s VP Student Life, Billy Kawasaki. Construction has been pushed until January 2020, a year from the planned re-opening date.

McGill has continually disrespected Midnight Kitchen, as well as all the other clubs and services in the Brown building, by giving vague updates. 

Part of the problem is poor management and inconsistent communication, but we can’t help but feel that another (big) part of it is the de-prioritization of student wellness. In particular, given that there are so few services addressing food insecurity at McGill, leaving MK without an on-campus home creates a huge gap in support for students. We would argue that this is indicative of a broader pattern of the prioritization of profit over student wellness.

There was a time when things were different…

It is hard to imagine, but McGill once had numerous student-run food services on campus. According to the Coalition for Action on Food Services (CAFS), until 2001, nearly every faculty had their own student-run cafeteria or convenience store, the profits of which would help fund the faculty student association. In 2000, McGill made moves to consolidate food services under the control of the university administration. By 2001, cafeterias operated by AUS, SUS, MUSA, and EdUS were losing their right to exist.

In early 2004, McGill was seeking a single food service provider that would monopolize all cafeterias and food services on campus. Students, staff and faculty organized to demand consultation throughout the process. CAFS was formed to advocate for local businesses and student-run operations on campus. To this end, they consulted with the administration, expressing concerns over possible monopolies on food services and demanding consultation and direct involvement in all related matters. They held round-table discussions, drafted petitions, and organized boycotts. Despite the efforts of CAFS, the administration ultimately signed an exclusivity agreement with the Chartwells brand, operated by Compass Group. Chartwells is a multimillion dollar corporation that dominates food services in postsecondary institutions across Canada and the US. It has a history of abusive labour practices (cited in concerns put forward by the Canadian Union of Public Employees) and investment in contracts with armed forces, prisons, and the oil drilling site Chevron.

Student-run cafes were gradually shut down, culminating in the closure of the cooperatively-run Architecture Cafe in 2010. In the meantime, the five-year exclusivity contract has shifted from Chartwells to Aramark and back to Compass Group in 2014. The result of the privatization of McGill food services is a lack of diverse and affordable options on campus and loss of student autonomy over food services.

The Midnight Kitchen Collective was formed in 2002, in the midst of the privatization. MK was an active supporter of CAFS and collaborated in organizing against the Chartwells contract. Our mandate continues to be rooted in a tangible anti-capitalist and anti-colonial approach to food justice. We secured control over our own kitchen, rent-free, at the SSMU building in 2006, and a fee levy through referendum to support hiring staff and expand the quality of our services in 2007. Our main service has been providing hot, vegan, nut-free lunches to between 200 and 300 hungry students daily, from Monday to Thursday in the SSMU building. We have also hosted skillshares and workshops, welcomed dozens of volunteers, and catered to McGill groups and beyond with our solidarity servings.

Forward movement

What if there were more student-led food initiatives on campus – student-run cafes and cooperatives that offered affordable food and supported small businesses from the Montreal community, independently operated student spaces, supported by the university, where students could socialize and organize?

What if there were more student-led food initiatives on campus […] independently operated student spaces, where students could socialize and organize?

We are inspired to imagine the integration of student needs with a larger vision for a world without oppression and domination. In doing so, we draw inspiration from the revolutionary movements around us. We are inspired by past student organizing, most recently during the 2012 Quebec student strike; by the Concordia Food Coalition’s efforts to create a community food system at Concordia outside of the pursuit of financial profit; by life-giving projects like the Kahnawà:ke Environment Protection Office, whose mission is to foster environmental leadership within their community. The struggle continues, and we’re here to provide fuel for the fight!

Phoebe Pannier

Midnight Kitchen is a non-profit, worker and volunteer-run collective that operates out of Tio’tia:ke (unceded Kanien’kehá:ka territory) dedicated to providing accessible food to as many people as possible. We aim to empower individuals and communities by providing a working alternative to current capitalist, profit-driven systems of food production and distribution. We oppose privatization, corporatization and other systemic processes that both cause and perpetuate marginalization of certain people. We will provide popular education on issues of social, environmental, and food (in)justice, both inside and outside the collective, and provide space for the exchange of ideas within the community.

We oppose both violent, status-quo food systems as well as green-washed, individualized “lifestylist” approaches that direct attention away from the systemic causes of poverty, environmental destruction, and lack of access to food. By taking the initiative to produce and distribute food in our own communities, we act in the pursuit of social and environmental justice and will support others who share these goals. Our approach to food justice is grounded in anti-oppression with a mandate to center marginalized people.