On the corner of Roy and Coloniale lies a distinctive white building with painted blue and green leaves climbing its walls. Santropol Roulant hasn’t always looked like this; they just recently painted the building, and only moved into their current location in 2011. Nevertheless, since their conception in 1995, they’ve been doing pretty much the same thing: building community through food.
When you boil it down, they are a community-based organization that works in social inclusion, providing meals on wheels to the elderly and food security through urban agriculture. But as soon as you step into their urban gardens in the middle of the plateau, you realize Santropol Roulant is so much more than that.
I toured the urban gardens with Carlo Primiani, Santropol Roulant’s urban agriculture co-manager, and like any good reporter I arrived a little early for the interview. After sitting down on the inviting blue sofas in the lobby, I was greeted within seconds by a smiling volunteer who had come to resupply the coffee table near where I was perched with a freshly baked batch of extra brownies from that day’s meal delivery service.
“Want one?” He asked, handing me one with a smile. Feeling like a fraud—because everyone knows there’s no such thing as free home-cooked brownies in the real world—I accepted. I suspected he thought I was a volunteer that deserved a brownie, but I was quickly corrected when he placed a sign beside them that said, “please take me!” with a smiley face. My interview hadn’t even started and I was already learning what Santropol Roulant was about—sharing, welcoming community, and really, really good brownies.
When Santropol Roulant opened in 1995, their idea was to make an intergenerational food delivery service: elderly people who had a lack of autonomy could be provided with organic and local food regardless of their financial capacity by volunteers from all walks of life. In the last 20 years this idea has given birth to what Santropol Roulant is today—an aggregate of volunteer collectives all working together to operate the outreach programs.
The meals on wheels program is composed of young volunteers who walk, bus, drive or bike to deliver anywhere from six to sixteen meals during a shift. These volunteers travel in pairs, and are easily distinguished by their bright red Santropol backpacks, but even without these they are known in their communities. Doormen and neighbours learn to recognize the volunteers, who stop sometimes to chat with the elderly to whom they are delivering the meals. Volunteer Coordinator Ben Finkelberg tells the story of a Polish volunteer who was randomly paired with an elderly Polish gentleman. Their connection over their language and culture extended beyond the meals on wheels program and the volunteer regularly started visiting in her free time.
In conjunction with Meals on Wheels, a variety of collectives exist to foster community. Santro-Velo, a volunteer bike shop running out of the back of the Santropol Roulant, provides free bike repair lessons to locals, giving them the skills to fix their own bikes. Not only do they provide community members with lifelong skills, but they further the mechanical knowledge and leadership skills of their own volunteers. Volunteers in the Apiculture collective make honey and tend to the bees that pollinate the gardens, but also learn about the importance of maintaining healthy bee populations and training new beekeepers. Those in the Agriculture collective water, seed, and harvest the vegetables at Santropol Roulant’s rooftop gardens, the gardens on McGill Campus, and the Senneville farm. Moreover, they engage in local and organic agriculture, while ensuring that the fruits of their labours remain accessible to all regardless of socio-economic status, level of mobility, or degree of autonomy.
Simply put, every collective thoughtfully engages with their community beyond the simple action of giving. When you understand the spirit that goes into everything Santropol does, the time and effort of so many volunteers is unsurprising. “The majority of the work is done by volunteers,” Carlo says with pride. “It totals to something around 40 volunteer hours per day.”
Every day, the urban gardens are a bustling hive of activity as volunteers scurry to prepare upwards of 100 meals for delivery all over Montreal. These meals are tailored to the needs of their recipient—the entire kitchen is sulfite free, with vegetarian and gluten free options. Below the Meals on Wheels program lies a foundation of sustainability—they grow the vegetables, make the meals, compost what’s left, and then use this compost to plant more. Santropol Roulant doesn’t just do good, they are good in everything they do.
“We’re trying to make a more closed food cycle. It’s never going to be fully closed, but we’re aiming to show that you can get closer to that ideal,” Carlo says as we overlook a pile of composting worms in the basement of the Urban Gardens. “Some kids that come here for tours have never seen carrots pulled out of the ground before. That’s cool to see.” I laughed with him, until I realized that I too had never seen a carrot pulled out of the ground, at least not outside of Bugs Bunny. Living in the heart of Montreal, it’s easy to forget where the things that feed us come from, but Santropol Roulant is a living reminder that we are part of a much larger cycle.
If you want to support Santropol Roulant but don’t have the time to volunteer, stop by their market on Tuesdays at 4 pm. Alternatively, their downtown location is equipped with a little shop where you can drop in any day of the week to purchase honey from the rooftop bees, fresh lettuce, herbs, or pickled veggies. The organization’s solidarity model means that anytime you purchase their goods, you help fund the meals or vegetable baskets of someone who can’t afford it. And frankly, if you are what you eat, I think we’d all be served well by munching on a little of the goodness coming out of Santropol Roulant’s gardens.