Freeing Food: Atwater Community Pantry. “Take what you need. Leave what you can.”
Over the years, food has become increasingly expensive and inaccessible. Climate change, transportation problems, labour issues, supply chain disruptions and pandemic-related complications have all contributed to the increasing prices of groceries. In turn, food insecurity is a growing concern, yet often neglected. A report by Statistics Canada indicates that 1.15 million Canadian children under age 18 are affected by food insecurity. That is the equivalent to one in six Canadian children.
When considering food insecurity, you might be thinking about people who can’t afford clean clothing, or housing. Although it is true that people who experience food insecurity may not have stable housing, this is not the reality for many who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. A student who has forgotten their lunch or is unable to pay for one at school, for example, is experiencing food insecurity. Food insecurity is hard to spot, which makes it harder to fight.
In December 2020, a friend of mine, Liam Gaither, sent me a message over Discord about an idea used by organizations in Montreal to combat this issue. He saw that the Atwater community was composed of people from many different economic backgrounds and, with the presence of Dawson, concluded that food insecurity and food waste would logically be an issue in the area. With time, he rounded up some more friends and got the support of Dawson and it’s Green Earth Club to make the initiative a reality.
After many months, the Atwater Community Pantry went up for use in October 2021! You can find it at 2111 Avenue Atwater, across the street from Dawson. It is on the property of la Congrégation Notre-Dame. Along with Liam, a team of students is working hard to maintain the pantry: Juliana Saroop, John Nathaniel Gertler, Camelia Barkou, Luka Vincelli and myself.
A community pantry is essentially an outdoor wooden pantry. It’s a space where anyone can drop off food or hygiene products they don’t need, so that someone else can come take what they’re lacking. With its entirely non-judgmental system, anyone can discreetly take what they need. Anyone who has the means to donate is invited to do so if they wish to.
The beauty of this initiative is that it serves everyone in the community. For restaurants and cafés, it’s an opportunity to redistribute food that would usually be thrown out after one day, thus reducing food waste and contributing to a circular economy. At the same time, anyone experiencing food insecurity can benefit from this community resource.
Mutual aid is a strong component to the project’s values. Whereas “charity” is giving from a higher tier on the social hierarchy to a lower tier in a unidirectional sense and seen as altruistic or philanthropic, Liam explains that, “‘Mutual aid’ is different because it can occur from the same social tier. It encourages people to get involved because they help themselves by helping others. It’s two-directional.”
Considering that the pantry is on the property of a Congrégation and that the houseless population in the area is largely Indigenous, it’s important to recognize this aspect of mutual aid. The goal of the project is to offer a community driven network of solidarity to combat the unequal distribution of resources, symptoms of poverty and social isolation. Over the summer, the team spoke with the CDN’s social justice representative to discuss their goals. Although the CDN has researched the institution’s history and found no evidence of being a residential school, there are always other opportunities for la Congrégation to decolonize their institution and always more work to be done.
Since its inauguration on October 27th, the pantry has received donations from Dawson’s gender advocacy group, The Hive, as well as from Resilience, a day center for houseless people, and la Congrégation Notre-Dame. The pantry always needs donations, whether food or hygiene products, so if you have anything to give, please consider doing so! To see what donations the pantry accepts, check @atwatercommunitypantry on Instagram.
Juliana Saroop, a second-year in Nursing and a student working on the project, is looking forward to the future of the pantry: “I think this is just the start. Right now, we are on a one-year lease with CND, which means we’re testing whether this is a good area for a pantry. We’re hoping to extend it and maybe expand into a bigger pantry or a fridge, maybe have events like community suppers which would let everyone get to know each other and share.” If you are interested in joining the team of volunteers that keep the pantry clean and well-stocked, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Juliana’s right: This is just the start.