These community groups are helping Montrealers find fresh, nutritious food

Failing large-scale government intervention, the solution comes in bits and pieces — by groups working to give people more varied, healthy options near where they live.

Shared kitchens and distribution networks help fill the gap between food banks and residents' needs

Montreal community chef Gordana Zafirovic cuts vegetables during meal preparation for Carrefour Solidaire's zero-waste project. (Submitted by Oona Barrett)

This story is a collaboration between Concordia University's journalism department and CBC Montreal.

In her bright orange kitchen tucked behind a grocery store, chef Gordana Zafirovic creates healthy meals out of surplus food. Every week, she transforms goods sourced from food banks into about 400 nutritious meals for the neighbourhood.

Her biggest challenge? Improvising with limited, sometimes unhealthy, ingredients.

"Every single individual should have the right to access healthy food," she says, her hands busy preparing chickpea curry. She moves efficiently, chopping vegetables destined for the stock pot boiling on the stove. The fragrant blend of spices wafts through the air, the gentle hum of the fan whirring overhead.

Zafirovic heads the zero-waste initiative at Carrefour Solidaire, a community group fighting food insecurity in south-central Montreal.

The pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity. Moisson Montréal reported a 42 per cent increase in food distribution in 2020-2021, to meet the rising demand. And with inflation at a 30-year high, prices may push more people into precarity. Food bank clients say fresh, nutritious food is lacking, with those in need expected to take whatever donated goods they can get.

Barbra Doganieri picks up lettuce from Le Pirate Vert in Montreal's Hochelaga neighbourhood. (Submitted by Oona Barrett)

Failing large-scale government intervention, the solution comes in bits and pieces — by groups working to give people more varied, healthy options near where they live. They're repurposing food that would otherwise go to waste, and setting up community kitchens.

Food banks fall short

Food banks are one of, if not the main resource for accessible food. They are an essential service — but the system isn't perfect.

According to general director Richard Daneau, about half of Moisson Montréal's food donations are fresh — meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables. The rest of the goods at Montreal's largest food bank are non-perishable, things like canned beans, dried pasta and cereals. This statistic has improved in recent years, as the outfit prioritized sourcing fresh produce.

Verdun resident Timm Sima has relied almost entirely on food banks for the past six years, with nearly all his income used to pay his rent. From his experience, the variety falls short.

"Even if you do theoretically have components to make up a meal, it's always the same components," says Sima.

Timm Sima packs vegetables into his trolley after visiting the Réseau d'Entraide de Verdun. (Submitted by Oona Barrett)

Système Alimentaire Montréalais works to ensure healthy and affordable food for all. Project manager Erika Salem acknowledges that while food banks are undoubtedly a resource, there is a limit to what they can provide.

"Most of the time, it doesn't respond to their actual needs," says Salem.

Building solidarity through cooking

Community kitchens provide a place to learn how to cook well-balanced meals with limited ingredients. Since 2007, Sylvie Paquin has been working at Carrefour d'Entraide Lachine, a local organization concerned with food security. She organizes weekly cooking sessions with three to eight participants, each taking 10 servings home.

Participants learn new recipes and discover ingredients they wouldn't use otherwise. Before the pandemic, Paquin held after-school cooking classes with students between eight and 12 years old, offering a space to prepare meals and eat together. The chef introduced them to healthy alternatives to their favourite foods.

"Once, they asked for 'junk food.' I made them oven-cooked carrots, turnips and parsnip sticks.… They couldn't believe it, they really liked it," she says.

Having visited a community kitchen, Catherine Vaudeville sees its benefits.

"This was a real life-saver when it was really bad," says Vaudeville, who visits a food bank every week. "I don't want to cook tonight — oh there it is, already done!"

Inspiring healthy creativity

Given the unpredictable supply of food banks, clients are left to find resources to supplement their diet and learn to make good use of what they have.

Seeing this lack of consistently fresh, healthy goods, food bank users then have to be inventive. Sima often turns to a Facebook group to trade his unwanted items with dumpster divers, who typically score fresher food.

Raïs Zaidi, 'Le Pirate Vert,' runs a food-distribution station in Hochelaga to give away free goods from grocery stores and food banks around the city. (Submitted by Oona Barrett)

Le Pirate Vert, otherwise known as Raïs Zaidi, bridges the gap between food banks and community needs.  What started as dumpster diving has expanded to a full-fledged redistribution service. Zaidi visits several food banks throughout Montreal to collect fresh produce and leftover goods that he then transports back to Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.

"Each place has different food on offer, so once it is brought together, you have it all," says Zaidi.

From there, residents can choose the food they not only need but also want to eat.

WATCH | Gordana Zafirovic hopes to inspire home cooks:

How cooks turn food bank donations into delicious and nutritious meals

4 months ago
Duration 1:19
From lifeless canned goods to a surplus of rutabagas, each week chef Gordana Zafirovic transforms food bank donations into about 400 servings of nutritious and delicious meals. Video by Aashka Patel, Oona Barrett and Véronique Morin.

Back at the Carrefour Solidaire kitchen, Zafirovic is hoping to offer some inspiration for those cooking at home. Her meals incorporate a wide array of spices and ingredients to create tasty meals — like Shepherd's pie topped with mashed turnips instead of potatoes — showing just how versatile food can be.

"It's very rare that we follow a recipe. It's always improvisation," says Zafirovic.

"You always have to come up with different approaches, different ideas, to replace the ingredients you don't have."


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