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People's Potato

The kitchen from heaven

Collective kitchen launched by Concordia students nears 11th anniversary

by Hedley Richards

MONTREAL, March 11, 2011– Since 1999, the People’s Potato, a collective kitchen operating within Concordia University, serves about 400 meals per day to students during the fall and winter semesters, thanks to the hard work of collective members and volunteers and the support of the student union.

Just a block east of the shiny new John Molson School of Business, the many volunteers and collective members of the Concordia student’s collective kitchen are pioneering innovative forms of social enterprise.

“The reason the People’s Potato is vegan, nut-free, no alcohol ever in the kitchen... is for it to be accessible to as many people as possible... no matter what religion they follow, no matter what gender or allergies [they may have]: there’s no milk, there’s no eggs, there’s no nuts,” says Amy Dramilarakis, a member of the People Potato’s collective. “Wheat-free Wednesday is because we’ve noticed that... there’s been more and more people who are allergic to wheat.”

“We, at the People’s Potato, strive to promote the following values...: non-hierarchy, anti-racism, anti-sexism, queer positivity, anti-poverty, anti-ableism, anti-oppression, egalitarianism, ecological sustainability and integrity, anti-capitalism, worker self-management,” states the organization’s constitution, which is available online, along with its annual report (http://peoplespotato.blogspot.com/). A trip to the People’s Potato kitchen shows visitors how efficiently these values are put into practice.

The People’s Potato, or simply “the Potato” as volunteers and collective members sometimes call it, operates on the seventh floor of the Hall Building, at 1455 de Maisonneuve West, in peacefully “occupied” university space.

The Potato is located on the same floor as the Concordia Student Union, which supported the launch of the Potato almost 11 years ago, at a time of heightened student engagement within the university.

A dozen or so tables are set in front of a serving counter over which the soup kitchen’s catchy name is written in large letters. Carla Klassen, a Concordia geography, planning and environment student, underlined in her 2008 honours thesis how the early “branding” of the Potato helped ensure its “stability and autonomy”.

Visitors entering the kitchen at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday are struck by the calm ambience of the kitchen. Dozens of people work around the large kitchen table chopping beans, garlic... Others transport large bins of potatoes and broccoli without hurry, but with quiet purpose. Music plays softly in the background.

The kitchen is well equipped and extremely clean. Large boiling pots stand apart in a caged area. For safety reasons, the area is restricted to staff. The atmosphere is calm and everything is on schedule. The team can look forward to serving another meal to 400 students starting at 12:30.

Food preparation is shared between volunteers and staff, known as “collective” members. Over 11 years, the People’s Potato has evolved from a grass-roots student organization into a formal worker’s collective supported through a Concordia Student Union fee levy. Students contribute 37 cents per credit.

Student volunteers usually arrive around 11:30 a.m. They help to prepare the meal, then sit down to eat together with collective members before the Potato starts serving students. Volunteers take turns to serve food and to clean dishes.

The Potato counts on some 150 dedicated volunteers, both Concordia students and members of the community. “I love volunteering here! I love doing my job, because it’s my favourite job in the planet,” says Lizzie Angiyou, a smiling long-time volunteer from Longueuil, who is undaunted by the 1 hour 25 minute subway-and-bus commute she must make to reach the Potato. Angiyou typically starts at 9 a.m and leaves after noon, Monday to Friday.

“I like to meet new people,” says Matthew Brotherwood, another volunteer who has been coming to the Potato three days a week, for seven years. Brotherwood also studies French and computers at the Galileo Adult Centre. Brotherwood especially enjoys preparing and serving food to the students.

Once the crunch of lunch preparation has eased, collective members are able to take a few moments to share their thoughts.

“Everybody has a right to a decent meal in order to feel...good about themselves, to feel human, to feel part of society as a whole,” says Amy Dramilarakis. “I’m just a collective member... Staff members are on the same position, we’re all collective members... but the way we organize the working of the Potato, to make our jobs a little more efficient... is we have different portfolios.”

Dramilarakis explains that whoever is responsible for the kitchen portfolio is responsible for “making sure there’s always food in the kitchen, making sure that we also have aprons, making sure we have something on our head, making sure we’re not breaking health violations, communicating with health and safety [officials], communicating with the government to renew our permits.”

The Potato counts on donations, the student fee levy and the support of Moisson Montreal. “They’re a big help,” says Dramilarakis. “They’re a major supplier of food for all the food banks in Montreal, all the soup kitchens... And even the Good Food Box that we supply, every two weeks, people can buy it, it’s a group purchase of fruits and vegetables, that’s their initiative.”

The Potato also purchases vegetables and all-organic beans and grains. “Even though it’s organic, it’s fairly accessible in the way that we buy it,” says Dramilarakis. “The price is not so bad. We buy big bags.”

The Potato has other projects besides the daily soup kitchen for students. In the summer, it helps coordinate an organic garden at the Loyola campus of Concordia University. Volunteers have access to the fruits and vegetables produced by this garden, though “the bulk of the food goes to... the NDG Food Depot, which is a food bank,” says Dramilarakis.

Within the People’s Potato collective, decisions are made by consensus. It’s the “kitchen from heaven,” says Marli Santos, a volunteer and mother of a Concordia student. “It saves lives... It’s not only feeding people but also nurturing the heart... My son used to come [here]. I was very happy that he had this as a reference, to come everyday.”

“I’m very happy with the way it [the People’s Potato] worked out,” says Dramilarakis. “Our kitchen is very eclectic. I like to see that it’s a space on campus where you see all these different people from different age groups, different origins...  and everybody is working together and everybody is just sitting down, sharing food and I find it an essential part of life, like eating is a very important part of life. People don’t realize the importance of just sitting down and eating a meal together and how it is reflective of our society. People who don’t eat together... there’s not much after that, it’s a total communication breakdown. I feel that in order to build a strong community, you have to sit down and work and eat in community.”

Such sentiment is echoed by other collective members and volunteers. “All volunteers are very nice, devoted,” says Raj Misra, a Concordia alumnus, who has been volunteering at the People’s Potato for five, six years. “It’s another way of keeping in contact with Concordia... I don’t come here to be happy [...], because if you want to be happy, you are creating expectations [...] I just come here to serve and do whatever I can, with devotion, and that’s it.”

“It motivates me to go to my classes,” says Joëlle Gagné-Marchildon, a Concordia Fine Arts student. “It’s the only place where you can actually eat for free, on the campus, and you can also help... and you meet people... really amazing people.”

Wes Colclough started volunteering at the People’s Potato in 2009, while completing a Master’s of Art History at Concordia. “There’s a collective and there’s a communal element to it,” says Colclough. “The collective element relates... more to the political structure of the People’s Potato, which is very egalitarian... decisions are made through a consensus, in the collective, which is really important.

“Volunteers make up a lot of the labour and a lot of the spirit of the whole thing. And there is a kind of respectful, mutual reciprocity which occurs between the volunteers and the collective, as well as between the people who eat here and the volunteers and the collective and the board.

“The communal aspects of it are really fascinating as well... it relates basically to a more dispersed or pervasive atmosphere, ambience, style and will, a collective desire, more psychological, more cultural... beyond politics in a way, which binds us and we come together for a reason that is in our hearts.”

The People’s Potato’s is planning to offer anti-oppression training to its collective members and volunteers soon. “We’re training ourselves, we’re learning from other people who are concentrating on anti-oppression activity so that we can learn... we can teach ourselves how to treat one another on an egalitarian, inclusive manner,” says Colclough.

Heather Nagy was a volunteer for two years before becoming a collective member. “I was only 19,” says Heather. “It was my second year living on my own... I came from Toronto. I wanted to learn how to cook...and also I wanted to get more into the community. I had just moved to Montreal, I didn’t know too many people yet.


“A lot of people always ask me...ʽHow do you get anything done?’....but...because we are a collective and ...we’re all in agreement ...we actually do increase productivity and ...cohesion of our coworkers ...”

Dissenting views are welcome. “I think that knowledge always comes from dissent, and from contradiction,” says Nagy.

Sharing the People’s Potato’s resources and experience is an important part of its activities. “We get a lot of requests from other organization,” says Nagy. “Probably five a week, all year... so we end up spending quite a bit of time talking about that, and we always do it on a case-by-case basis...[We ask] ‘What is the event? Is it free and accessible to all?’”

The People’s Potato collaborates with other university collective kitchens throughout the country. Several People’s Potato representatives participated in the recent “Hot Yam” retreat to share experiences with other students and activists. “Collective kitchens are happening all over the place. The food movement is very strong in Canada, in North America right now,” says Nagy. “We always receive emails from other universities wanting to start-up soup kitchens, so I think that we are known... as an established collective kitchen... We were also featured in Maclean’s magazine in 2005, as the, I think, the second best food choice on campus in Canada.

“We always have to keep an eye on our budget... and we’ve made some big improvements in the kitchen this year... we’ve had our floors painted, we’ve got a brand-new custom oven, so we’re constantly trying to reinvest and trying to expand our programs as well.”

The Potato’s recent projects include the “Potato Peel” a 35-page “zine” put together with a lot of help from Culclough according to his colleagues. “We had to turn away submissions,” says Nagy. “It’s amazing to feel so loved and to have people want to contribute to that as well. For people to feel like they are part of something.”

For Nagy, one of the most important aspects of People’s Potato is “...allowing people a safe space where they can come and they can cook and be social and be merry... There is so much value in having this space [especially] on a university campus.”

The entire People’s Potato daily operation is geared toward preparing a healthy meal for students by 12:30. “When you’re ‘cheffing’, every minute counts,” says Gaby Pedicelli, an experienced cook and former cafe owner and manager, who has been a collective member since September 2009.

Once the crunch is over, though, Pedicelli is happy to share her experience as a member of the People’s Potato’s collective. There is a science to making the kitchen run smoothly. For instance, Pedicelli explains, the two chefs and the “prep” who oversee the preparation of every meal each wear a small red heart, so as to identify them to the many volunteers who might need some help.

One of Pedicelli’s favourite portfolios is the education portfolio, through which the People’s Potato reaches out to high schools and CEGEPs in the Montreal area. According to Pedicelli, the Potato’s inclusive atmosphere and accessible kitchen lend themselves particularly well to internships by students who have special needs. Interns have come from the “Adam’s P.A.C.E” (Post-Secondary Alternative Community-Based Education) program of the Champlain College Saint-Lambert, and the “Perspectives 2” program for 18 to 20 year-olds that are finishing high school, among others.

Collective members rotate through portfolios, explains Pedicelli. Some, such as the kitchen portfolio, require the work of several members. Others, such as the People’s Potato van, only require one person. No member keeps the same portfolio more than two years, in order to give everyone a chance to try everything.

An important role of the collective members is what Pedicelli calls “bottom-lining”, i.e. ensuring that the essential is taken care of, such as buying food, and complying with CSST regulations. Bottom-lining helps guide the efforts of the many volunteers, who typically number 20 in the kitchen.

According to Pedicelli, the biggest challenge in a collective kitchen is space and funding. “Our working budget every year is about $250,000 that we get from fee levies,” says Gaby. “There’s salaries in there... just the kitchen budget for food is $18,000 a year, because all our grains and beans are organic... it’s more expensive, but it’s better quality, and we wouldn’t be able to do that without fee levy.”

In a university marked by rapid growth and turmoil at the top, the People’s Potato has thrived for more than a decade and looks toward the future with confidence. In its kitchens, a new kind of leadership is quietly cooking up new recipes for social enterprise, marked by a sense of justice and inclusiveness.

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website admin,
17 de fev de 2012 13:23