Saint-Henri food bank operates like a grocery store, but free of charge

Montreal's Welcome Hall Mission is meeting the growing demand for food with a unique concept.

Welcome Hall Mission takes new approach to feeding Montrealers living below the poverty line

One of the Welcome Hall Mission's new clients, Salami Shade Tawakalitu, is a Nigerian asylum seeker who arrived in Canada last year. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

Inside a food market in Montreal's Saint-Henri neighbourhood, people grab a grocery cart and fill it up with items from the shelves.

When they're done shopping, they go to a checkout line and their groceries are bagged. Then the clients leave — without paying.

The market is called Marché Bon Accueil. It's actually a food bank run by Montreal's Welcome Hall Mission and it opened more than a year ago.

The customers there are all low-income earners and how much food they can take is based on family size.

"This is an opportunity for people who are below the level of poverty to obtain free groceries and to get healthy, fresh food that's surplus in Montreal," said Sam Watts, the organization's CEO.

"We have enough food in Montreal to feed everybody — more than enough."

More asylum seekers in need

Salami Shade Tawakalitu, an asylum seeker from Nigeria, says the free market is sometimes they only way she can put fresh, healthy food on the table. (CBC)

The Mission says it feeds more than 800 people on days when their market is open.

Watts says the popularity of the Marché Bon Accueil may be based in part on the supermarket-like experience, but it's also meeting the needs of more asylum seekers in Montreal.

The mission used to count 600 asylum seekers among its clients, but in the last two years, that number has ballooned to more than 6,000.

Salami Shade Tawakalitu, a Nigerian asylum seeker who arrived in Canada last year, is one of the mission's new clients.

She said there's plenty to choose from at the market.

"Chicken — we cook chicken. Sometimes they give us rice," Tawakalitu said. "Bread is there, tomatoes are there to cook, potatoes are there. So, I'm happy."

They come by bus for 90 minutes.- Sam Watts, CEO of Welcome Hall Mission

Tawakalitu was working, but is now trying to find a new job. In the meantime, she says the Marché Bon Accueil is helping her through a difficult time.

"Now, if I didn't have this, and there's no work, what are we going to do?" said Tawakalitu.

'We like to lose clients'

Next March, the Welcome Hall Mission plans to open a second market in Montreal North.

Watts says that northeast area of the city doesn't have enough resources for food assistance, leading some to travel all the way to the Marché Bon Accueil in Saint-Henri.

"Already, 1,500 clients of ours are coming from that area. They come by bus for 90 minutes," Watts said.

"They're hauling a lot of groceries back with them. It takes them roughly half a day to do this. So we thought, well, why not go to where they are?"

Watts says that while it's heartwarming to help Montrealers in need, he's also saddened by the scope of the demand for free food.

"We're starting in our own small way here at Welcome Hall Mission on a pathway that's going to lead us towards ending hunger in Montreal, and we're crazy enough to think we can do it," Watts said.

"Unlike a normal grocery store, we like to lose clients, for all the right reasons."

About the Author

Matt D'Amours


Matt D'Amours is a journalist at CBC Montreal.


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