Montreal·Personal Essay

There is enough food to go around. So why am I seeing people go hungry?

My parents are too honest to overcharge for food at our restaurant, so they didn't. If we had it and you needed it — you were getting it. I never knew any other way.

Restaurant Nilufar offers affordable, healthy food — but the need is too great to be met by just one business

When Restaurant Nilufar opened in 1994, falafel pitas were just 99 cents. Twenty-six years later, they are $2.49, making them one of the most affordable places to eat in Shaughnessy Village. (Submitted by Nilufar Al-Shourbaji)

Editor's note: In the first week since this article was published, Restaurant Nilufar received enough donations to pay for 225 sandwiches as part of its falafel-it-forward initiative. Find out how to contribute here.

Food needs to be easily accessed by everyone. Whether you are wealthy or not, whether you're nice or you're mean — hunger is human. What I have come to know is that food is not accessible to a lot of people and that's becoming more and more prevalent.

I have been coming to downtown Montreal with my mum since 1994, the year my father opened Restaurant Nilufar (named after me). I work here, I studied here and I have lived here. That whole time, I have seen the need for good, healthy food from the neighbourhood. It is probably the only constant in my life from which I cannot become desensitized.

I now run our family restaurant. And while I feel blessed to work in the neighbourhood, I also feel cursed having to see so many people go hungry knowing there is enough food to go around. My parents are too honest to overcharge for food, so they didn't. If we had it and you needed it — you were getting it. I never knew any other way.

When we opened in 1994, our falafel pitas were 99 cents. Today, 26 years later, they are only $2.49. Making sure we could feed the most people possible was our culture, and it still is.

Nilufar with her parents Nasrin Talab and Bashar Al-Alshourbaji in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue in the 1990s. (Submitted by Nilufar Al-Shourbaji)

Over the years, we have had the privilege of seeing many of the same faces almost every day. A few may have even seen me crying on the opening of the restaurant on Halloween in '94 — I was a little kid and I couldn't understand why I was stuck at my parents' business, giving away free food to strangers when I could have been trick-or-treating.

Now I know I was meant to be there. We used to have two floors when the Habs still played at the Forum. At the time, the people I would see were mostly hockey fans, polite tourists and of course the loyal regulars that lived in the area. By the time the Habs moved to the Bell Centre, the neighbourhood was seeing a growing number of homeless people.

The number of hungry people and amount of homelessness has only increased. Once paying customers can no longer afford to. If it wasn't for us, they might not have been able to eat. I care about everybody who cared enough to walk through our doors, but when the economy went downhill, caring became one of the hardest parts of the job.

Getting approached by someone who you knew so well, who now doesn't even recognize you, is really hard to see. I've known some of them almost my entire life. Should I just have to normalize the fact that the grocery store down the street is dumping out food and my old friend Adam is asking people for their leftovers?

Customers can pre-buy sandwiches for those in need, and they're tracked on the restaurant's 'falafel-it-forward' board. (Submitted by Nilufar Al-Shourbaji)

I started a "falafel-it-forward" initiative where customers could pre-pay for a falafel sandwich for the next person who comes in down on their luck. We are lucky enough to have generous people give us $10 or $20 and sometimes even $50 toward the tally board. But even then, the need for food still outweighs the donation money we receive.

So, we feed them ourselves.

Even as a child, I knew that food was a privilege. In Grade 1, I wasn't allowed to take strawberries to class because I didn't have enough for everyone. My mum explained to me that if everyone in the class wasn't able to afford fresh fruit, it wouldn't be fair to make them want something they could not have. I learned young that if you have good food, make sure you can feed the people who can see it.

The restaurant has been at the same location on Ste-Catherine Street West since 1994. (Submitted by Nilufar Al-Shourbaji)

The thing is, how much can I really do? The number of people in need, just in our own neighbourhood, is inexplicably high. For a society that claims to be so forward thinking, why can't we evolve with food accessibility?

At the very least, let us not throw it in the garbage.

Last year, CBC reported that approximately 58 per cent of food produced in Canada is "either lost or wasted." That is nothing short of jaw-dropping. We can anonymously drop unused shoes or clothes into neighbourhood bins, and then they are given to someone who wants them. Why can't we do that with food? Let's invest in shelves, or a fridge, or anything to keep perfectly good food out of the garbage and in someone's stomach.

How can we dispose of something that seems so scarce? The stereotype is that it is only homeless people who are hungry. It is not. They are your fellow students, families who have lost their jobs, people who have come to Montreal to seek refuge and asylum. There needs to be a way for people to leave their untouched pantry food, where grocery stores and restaurants can take their perfectly good but unsold food, for those who would eat it.

There should be a place in every borough, where people can go and get food for themselves or their friends or their family. Where they don't have to wait in line, where they don't have to give a name or an address that they might not even have.

Food needs to be accessible to everyone, period.

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Nilufar Al-Shourbaji is the manager and co-owner of Restaurant Nilufar. She is of Syrian and Persian descent and as of 2016 she launched her signature line of vegan and gluten-free products including Falafel Royale, now available in more than 40 locations across Montreal.


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