Accessability to healthy foods in western St-Henri: A summary and analysis of local food security initiatives

On Wednesday the 24th of February, Solidarité Saint-Henri hosted a food security conference and workshop at the CRSC Saint-Zotique. The motivation for the conference is the inaccessibility of fresh fruits and vegetables in Saint-Henri. The problem, particularly acute to the west of Sainte-Marguerite street, is that produce is both physically remote and expensive.

The event itself was a learning experience with numerous community groups present with stalls promoting their work, whether it be groups that hold cooking workshops for children, collective kitchens, produce box schemes and others that have some connection to the quality of life in the community. The evening started with a variety of speakers that explained the situation in Saint-Henri, what initiatives are already planned and what may still come in the future. Another organization from Ville Saint-Pierre presented their plans for a co-operative grocery store and collective kitchen.

Although there will be more seasonal markets this summer than last, the organizer’s favoured solution is to open a cooperative grocery store somewhere in the western half of Saint-Henri. Its mission would be to provide affordable and quality fresh food where people currently have no place to purchase food other than the various dépanneurs. The workshops, after the initial presentations and a light meal, focused on what form a food coop would take and the extent of community involvement that would be needed.

The forum was well attended and there was plenty of goodwill – I think everyone recognized the need for accessible produce. There also seemed to be consensus regarding promoting a food culture, that is to promote the use of fresh (as opposed to processed) foods and to teach cooking skills where those are lacking. There is a lot of promise, but the organizer’s should guard against trying to be all things to to all people. There are already cooking workshops and collective kitchens, for instance, and while it would make sense for these groups to cooperate it would be difficult for a cooperative grocery store to also provide all these additional services. A coop should focus on providing staples, at least to start. Any aspect of the food business, whether the farm, the distributor or the store, is difficult with very thin margins and little room for error.

For a coop to be viable it would need a steady clientele and it should perhaps start as a buying group until a customer base is built that would justify a retail location. Such a retail location needs to be well-thought out as it would need to serve western Saint-Henri but also be accessible and in an area that already sees some foot traffic – perhaps near where the public library is located. Maybe most importantly, it should take on a narrow mission (provide affordable staples) but do it incredibly well with the educational component limited to tastings of produce people may not know how to prepare.

The organizers seem to be taking the Ville Saint-Pierre initiative, which is yet to open for business, as a model which I think is unwise as it tries to do too much at once. There are successful independent grocers and food coops in Montreal and it is these successes that should be taken as a model for a cooperative grocery store in Saint-Henri.

By Michael Grant, Projet Monréal member, ALA Sud-Ouest


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