Montreal 'Food Pirate' feeds hundreds in city's east end right from his doorstep
Zaidi started as a dumpster diver and now trucks surplus food in from around the region to feed those in need
Three nights a week, as many as 300 people stop by Raïs Zaidi's home in Montreal's east end.
"My spot in front of my house, here, is more well known now," said Zaidi, who is often seen with a battered tricorn hat resting on his long dreadlocks.
"The whole neighbourhood knows about it."
Zaidi calls himself "Le Pirate Vert" or "Food Pirate" in English. He, along with his partner, dedicates his time to feeding those in need, working not just with non-profit organizations, but also on his own — setting up a food distribution station in front of his place on Dézéry Street in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve that has grown popular in recent months.
"I give out surplus food for free to those who need it," he said.
He collects donations from food banks, food distributors and grocery stores from around the Montreal region. Some companies and organizations he visits regularly, others he visits only when they contact him to offer overstock or soon-to-expire goods.
"Normally, we get enough to fill a small, cube-van type of truck," said Zaidi. "There could be weeks where we get pallets full of stuff. We could get 50 cases of green peppers."
But what he collects is varied and it's hit-and-miss. He gets everything from hygiene products to fresh fruit and canned goods. Sometimes, his collection comes up short, and other times he is overwhelmed by donations.
From dumpster diving to trucking around city
Zaidi got his start as a dumpster diver back in 2011 and that's when he realized the enormous amount of food being thrown away.
He later learned of a food bank in the west end that, once its members are fed, throws away its excess food.
Zaidi decided it was time to take action. He began building a network of donors in and around Montreal. He and his partner drive near and far to load up their van and bring it back to Zaidi's place to give the food away.
At first, his neighbours were wary of all the people coming around to pick up food. But eventually, they realized it was for a good cause, Zaidi says, and now some of them pitch in.
Many Montreal organizations have food to give away, he says, but not everybody can afford to make the trip to each location. So, he serves as a middleman, ensuring those in need are fed.
"We're trying to fill the missing gap between those who have the food to give and those who want that food," he said.
Before the pandemic struck, he says, most people using his service were from the area.
However, after nearly a year of public health restrictions that have brought swaths of the province's economy to a standstill, Zaidi is seeing a sharp increase in demand.
"More and more people from around the city are writing to me like, 'Oh, how does it work? Do I have to live nearby? Can I come pick up?'" Zaidi said.
"Every two days, there's somebody who is writing or asking. There's a definite need."
People come by car, others on foot, he says. They are of all ages, and it's hard to gauge their reason for seeking food just by looking at them, he says. He doesn't judge, but instead assumes they are there because they need food.
Zaidi only asks that nobody hoards what he has to offer.
Donations have slowed since the holidays, but Zaidi and his partner are doing everything they can to ensure those in need have something to eat.
Making sure nothing is wasted, even at food banks
Serge Gingras, who works as a logistics co-ordinator at the Banque Alimentaire d'Anjou, said Zaidi's efforts help ensure no food is thrown away.
"For us, it's important to not waste anything," Gringas said. "If we can help those people, that's great."
Gringas said the food bank receives large amounts of food, and fills emergency relief baskets. All that is left over gets picked up by Zaidi and his partner.
Food relief is needed in the community as there is plenty of demand, Gringas says. There's a need for food donations and volunteers, he says.
"If you don't know what to do with your life because it's a pandemic, try volunteering," said Gringas, noting he started as a volunteer before becoming a staff member.
"Volunteer work is good for your health."
With files from Sharon Yonan-Renold