Act: Inspiration

There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch: Montreal Students Commoning and Peering food services

July 3, 2018

Ed. note: This article was originally published at P2P Foundation in 2014. A quick web search has seemed to confirm all three projects are still going.

At three of Montreal’s universities, collectives have created alternative food provision services. People’s Potato at the Concordia University established in 1998, Midnight Kitchen at the McGill University established in 2003, and Ras-le-Bol, started in 2012 and still struggling to get established at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM), distribute hundreds of meals for free. The main goal of People’s Potato is to assist in developing skills to produce, opportunities to afford, or free distribution of healthy food to students and the community. During the weekdays, 400 free vegan meals are distributed at the university and they prepare a lot of solidarity servings. A corporate cafeteria operating at the same floor as People’s Potato offers meals for CAD 12.06 (tax included) and lost part of its clients. It is not very crowded during the lunch time, whereas, a long line is made about 30 minutes before the opening of the People’s Potato. Midnight Kitchen serves up to 200 vegan meals a day and provides catering for political events. Dumpster-diving as a way to oppose food waste and vegan cooking as a way of protesting against conditions in meat and milk producing industries are characteristic to this new type of activism. In this article, I will portray three Montreal-based collectives providing lunches at university campuses for free (with an option to make a donation). Two of them, People’s Potato and Midnight Kitchen, have managed to institutionalize and sustain their activity over more than a decade. This is a remarkable success of self-organization and taking control of food production.


Embarking on cooking resistance

There is a tradition of food radical activism in Montreal. In 1998, a “commando bouffe” (food commando) was unleashed, where community activists went into the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and served themselves at the lunch buffet, bringing food to hungry people outside. Protest organizing against the Americas Summit in 2001 and the general awakening of anti-corporate movements were at the origins of People’s Potato. The collective was established in 1998 and it was run by volunteers in the beginning. This was a protest against the monopolization of food provision on the campus by a French multinational, Sodexho Alliance (present in many schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons worldwide). Their food offer was unhealthy and not appropriate for people with allergies. Once the contract came to an end, the university signed another long term contract with corporation Chartwells but according to Concordia Food Coalition group the quality of food and prices have not improved.

The story of the Midnight Kitchen Collective was similar, for which People’s Potato served as an inspiration. In their first newsletter, they write: ‘We aim to not only to critique the privatization and corporatization of food services, but also to create a space that encourages creative resistance to those processes.’ Some members of the Midnight Kitchen collective called themselves ‘militant fanatical activist cooks’ in the zine ‘What’s Cooking Good Looking.’ The origins of Midnight Kitchen are also motivated by fighting monopoly of food services at McGill by Chartwells Corp, a sub-corporation of Compass Groups. Students at McGill mobilized against Coca-Cola’s monopoly at the campus in April 2000. Their protest campaign against exclusive contracts with Chartwells prevented the signing of the contract. The seven or eight founding members of Midnight Kitchen were mainly students who started their studies in 2000. They were also involved in anti-globalization politics, and participated in the protests against April 2001 Americas’ Summit in Quebec City.  The majority of these McGill students came from the US according to Jack Norton in the aforementioned zine. At first they operated from the Catholic Students’ Center. The idea was born in the winter of 2002 and after one year the Midnight Kitchen was established as a service by Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), being financially supported by it and using kitchen space for free.

Overtake of university space from corporate control

People’s Potato discovered that part of kitchen space previously used by Sodexho/Marriot was vacant, while the major part was overtaken by Chartwells. They started to use this space for their cooking. For another two years, People’s Potato struggled with the administration to get official use of the space. It is equipped with all necessary industrial kitchen facilities. The university charges the Potato for some repairs, like painting or heavy maintenance, but they pay all of their other utilities, such as garbage removal, electricity and hot water. The status of the collective within the university structure is ambiguous and there is always a fear of losing support from other organizations and the kitchen space as no official contract has been signed. Jamiey Kelly, financial coordinator who graduated in philosophy, perceives that the main obstacles in the relations with the administration are exclusivity contracts that university has signed with multinational companies. While the university was at one point hostile to the People’s Potato, they are progressively becoming more accepting of the project. In promotions, the People’s Potato is often grouped with other student organizations, such as the greenhouse or the Loyola farm project, to promote the sustainable and communal aspects of the university as to increase the university’s attractiveness to students. The project is funded by a fee levy paid to student union, which amount to 37 cents per undergraduate credit. For 30 credits, an equivalent of 10 classes, it makes CAD 11.1 per year. Graduate students have paid a lump sum of CAD 5 per semester since 2008. Quebec undergraduate students pay for studies about CAD 3,560 a year. Fee levies can be reimbursed if an opt-out request is made. This is the major income of the collective amounting to about CAD 273,000 a year, supplemented by around CAD 4,000 of donations and between CAD 5,000 to 7,000 received from other organizations at the university. About 80 percent of income is spent on salaries (hourly wage of CAD 17.30 is high when compared to the wages in this sector).

Midnight Kitchen uses the kitchen in student union building. It was also a matter of negotiations to get the space. They got a grant of CAD 500 from QPIRG McGill (Quebec Public Interest Research Group)1 to buy commercial sized pots and pans at the very beginning. In 2007, they successfully campaigned for student levy of CAD 2.25 per student each year. In the same building, there is a room where everyone can bring food and eat there. The collective gets CAD 84,000 from student fee levies and spends 13,000 on food and 50,000 on staff.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Along with savings on rent, the collectives manage to reduce costs of food preparation thanks to volunteers and donated food. People’s Potato purchases mostly organic cooking oils, seeds, grains, and beans. They also buy non-organic vegetables: potato, onions, carrots, cabbage, turnip, and beets paying CAD 250 a week. It strives at reducing the distance food travels and paying attention to working conditions of farmers. It gets food donations at food bank warehouse Moisson Montreal, where they get vegetables such as lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, cauliflower. The proportion of donated to bought food is one to two. Another source of produce is People’s Potato’s Community Garden located at the Loyola Campus – outside of the center. Volunteers cultivate food, which is distributed at the local Food Depot.

Midnight Kitchen get their food from surplus vegetables donated by vendors and grocers, this is also seen as part of protest against food politics producing waste. Vegan cooking is more economical because storage is less complicated than in case of diary and meat products. Volunteers are involved in all four shifts: product pick-up, cooking, serving, and cleaning. Volunteers sign up for shifts through an online form but a spontaneous drop-by is also welcome. Midnight Kitchen started to employ three coordinators in 2008: an administrative coordinator, an outreach coordinator, and a volunteer coordinator, and now it has additionally two positions of a kitchen coordinator and a delivery/pickup coordinator.


Peer production is possible

The collectives are interesting examples for re-conceptualizing the mode of production in the physical world. While peer production has been demonstrated to work in the production of digital content and software, the peer production of subsistence services is a rare phenomenon. The food collectives can be described as peer production projects:

  1. Self-selected spontaneous contribution of participants: The volunteers can join collectives spontaneously and are assigned a task. For instance, during my explorative study in March 2013, I came to help at the People’s Potato without registering before.
  2. Creation of use value rather than exchange or market value: Use of the service is not conditional on involvement as a volunteer. The production is financed by fee levies but the meals are distributed for free and broadly accessible. One does not have to be a member of a respective university to receive a meal. This feature makes the cases interesting as they do not contain the clear group boundaries to determine who uses a resource or service. By producing healthy food, they contribute to creating food commons. Hygiene and safety are inspected by public authorities.
  3. Non-delegation and distributed coordination: The collectives are workers’ cooperatives with no hierarchy. The Annual General Meetings are accessible to the stakeholders and the public. The work of volunteers is coordinated by the employees of the collectives.

This project confirms that the translation of peer production principles in the physical world is possible and can bring good effects. The involvement of a high number of volunteers may be a challenge at times. There are situations when staff need to intervene because of an oppressive behaviour among volunteers: instances of verbal agression, offences, discriminatory comments, etc. Some volunteers, when asked to stop oppressive behaviour, may become frustrated or become quiet. Sometimes this results in volunteers getting upset and leaving the kitchen, though there is an attempt to establish the anti-oppressive politics without rejecting community members who don’t understand it fully.

Furthermore, the project constitutes a change in consumer producer relations. Since the workers are dependent directly on the consumers, the latter can have a say in the process of production. Through opening the kitchen to the consumers, one can potentially gain more transparency in the process of food production. This hardly ever happens in the traditional market where asymmetry of information between consumer and producer dominates. Instead of relying only on inspection from the state, consumers gain an opportunity to have insight into the conditions of food preparation. This aspects gains particular importance because of the lack of information about genetically modified food, which does not need to be indicated on packaging according to Canadian regulations. Vegan food is one of the ways to avoid these products, as over 80 percent of GMO produce is consumed through animal products, because animals are fed with genetically modified soy or corn. However, even in vegan food GMO’s can be ‘hidden’ in such additives as fructose, glucose, soy lecithin and vegetable oils. Therefore, having opportunities to influence and control food preparation is essential. Such an arrangement of production could be used to exercise control over other areas of consumption in daily life.

The struggle goes on

The collectives started from scratch, for instance People’s Potato was active without any funding between 1998 and 2000, when first grant of CAD 15,000 was obtained from the students’ union. Organization of food can also be made on a smaller scale and without fee levies. Two initiatives at the UQAM illustrate this.

Collective Agite-Bouffe, no longer in place, was launched in the times of mobilization against 2001 summit in a students’ union (ASSE). They used a room at the University of Quebec in Montreal with a fridge and electric stove to prepare 80 meals from partly dumpster-dived products and gave them away for free once a week. They were organized as an affinity group without formal meetings or coordination. The number of participants varied between 5 and 20 people. On the eve of the distribution day, the food was recuperated and a small group coordinated its processing (Silvestro 2007).

Ras-le-Bol 2, collective at the UQAM, was established in Fall 2012. They started from distributing apples and coffee to introduce students to the project. Then weekly on Thursdays they organized free diners with the help of People’s Potato who made their kitchen available. Students eat their meals in the corridors of the UQAM building and a DJ accompanies the event. Moisson Montreal gives food and financial donations to the project. The struggle for university space has been failing for the last ten years. The new dean of the university showed more sympathy for the project on the condition that the majority of the students supports it. There is a space for a kitchen but administration does not want to give it to the students.

The success of People’s Potato does not mean that corporate domination of food service is over. In 2014 the contract with the multinational company serving food at the Concordia University is coming to an end. A contract to sell of beverages in vending machines was signed with Pepsi a couple of years ago without consultation. Having learned from this students have started to mobilize in advance so as to have a say this time.

A Concordia Food Coalition has been created and three employees, Research Coordinator, Outreach Coordinator, and Business Planning Coordinator, were hired to work on the project from March 2013 on, each 10 hours a week for 16 weeks. The Concordia Food Coalition (CFC) is a multi-stakeholder steering committee composed of volunteer representatives from the Sustainability Action Fund, Sustainable Concordia, the Concordia Student Union, Concordia faculty members, two interns, and students at large. They prepared a business plan to overtake the space for provision of food services and organize food provision by a cooperative run by the students. If their business plan is not accepted, they would at least like to have stipulations on conditions, such as origin and type of food or prices in the next contract with a food provider.

Information on sources

I used the zine ‘What’s Cooking Good Looking? An Archive of Midnight Kitchen History’ created by Danielle Lewis. Information on Agite-Bouffe and history of the food activism is based on publication: Marco Silvestro (2007): Politisation du quotidien et récupération alimentaire a l’ère de la bouffe-minute, which appeared in journal Possibles 32(1-2). Information on GMO comes from Quebec group Vigilance OGM. I have conducted interviews with one member of Midnight Kitchen and two members of People’s Potato.

Katarzyna Gajewska

Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD, is an author and educator. You can contribute to her crowdfunding campaigns to help publishing the feminine utopia “Imagine a Sane Society” or other forthcoming Creative Commons books. She has brought out many articles on egalitarian communities based on in-depth interviews. For updates on my publications: Katarzyna Gajewska – Independent Scholar My publication list (selection):

Tags: alternative food systems, building resilient food systems, community food projects