Finding a sense of community at McGill University in Montreal, where classes (at least in the first year) are half the size that my entire high school population was, is tough. However, students occasionally have torn their eyes away from their laptops long enough to create niches within the school that contribute to its sustainability, both environmentally and psychologically.
The Midnight Kitchen is a vegan food collective that creates one of these niches. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 60 to 90 students stand in line for a soup-kitchen style lunch. Some twiddle the $2 coins with which they plan to meet the suggested donation while discussing their classes and their plans for the weekend. “I think one of the most important aspects of the Midnight Kitchen is that it creates a community,” says Noah Ratzan, a member of the collective.
Volunteers for the Midnight Kitchen (there are no paid positions, although the group is considering hiring a strategic planner) collect food from local markets and grocers right after closing time. The group doesn’t retrieve any food from dumpsters for fear of alienating potential patrons; instead it arranges with merchants to collect leftover food before it goes in the dumpster. When possible, volunteers do these pick-ups by bike, although cold Montreal weather sometimes necessitates taking a cab. The next day, shifts of volunteers work all day to prepare and serve the food.
The Midnight Kitchen is run cooperatively, with all members having equal opportunities to share their opinions. For each day in the kitchen, one member volunteers to coordinate, and several others help him or her. Many who come to eat decide that they should give more than the suggested $2 donation, and “spontaneous volunteers,” as Noah calls them, commonly help wash dishes and put away food. “Decisions are mostly made by consensus, but in the kitchen, the coordinator gets the last word,” Noah adds.
The founders of the Midnight Kitchen, Noah tells me, weren’t particularly partial to veggies. In fact, rumor has it that some were rather passionate meat eaters. However, all original members of the collective believed in the importance of reducing waste and increasing sustainability by feeding as many people as possible as efficiently as possible. Both in terms of costs and eating restrictions, they decided that serving food consistent with a vegan diet was most sustainable. The Midnight Kitchen avoids serving nuts so that students won’t have to worry about such allergies, and the group’s avoidance of dairy products means that lactose intolerant students can also dine safely.
The group is now at its carrying capacity, serving about 80 people a day. The People’s Potato, a similar group at Concordia University in Montreal, serves 200 to 300 students five days a week. This older, more established group recently qualified as a nonprofit soup kitchen so that it can get food from a government food distributor, and it has multiple paid positions to take the stress off students who are trying to run the program while taking classes.
“Why do you think environmental movements like this tend to start at Concordia rather than McGill?” I asked Noah.
“Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” he responded, quoting Thoreau. McGill is known among its students for having many layers of bureaucracy. “It feels so difficult to affect change. A lot of people feel like there’s no reason to try to affect change. Pretty much everyone I know complains about there not being any good food on campus, but they’re not thinking that there’s anything they can do about that. It’s very frustrating.”
Noah had never thought of joining one of McGill’s extracurricular groups until his senior year, after he spent a summer with a program called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). From that experience, “I learned that food is the basic necessity, and if you’re going to revolve around anything, it should be that.”
I usually go to the Midnight Kitchen on Wednesdays after physics class. I almost always see a few people from my dorm or friends from an environmental group. The Midnight Kitchen’s food is great, and the sense of friendship among the people who attend is equally important. “I think that’s the best thing about it — the community,” says Noah.
Sidebar: Valuable Leftovers
A recent study shows that Americans throw out nearly half of their food. Discarded table scraps and rotted food in the back of the fridge add up to an average of $590 in wasted food per family per year, or roughly $43 billion nationally. According to United Nations’ figures, America’s wasted food would feed over 10% of the world’s 835 million starving people. Researchers point out that reducing waste by freezing, canning or eating leftovers would also reduce the amount of land under chemically-intensive cultivation, reduce landfill input, reduce methane (a potent greenhouse gas), and save money for consumers.
Source: Organic Bytes #46, 12/17/2004; www.organicconsumers.org/organicbytes.htm.