Amidst Pandemic, Punk Project Provides Food For Anyone, Anonymously

A spotlight on the Feed the Hen/Nourrir Henri Project, a community-based alternative project fighting food insecurity in the St. Henri neighborhood of Montreal.

By Emma Anderson, Science & Policy Exchange

The community fridge and pantry (Photo by author).

Nutritious and sufficient food should be a human right. Yet even in Canada, people still fall through the cracks. While traditional food aid services do their part, I believe that diversity is key to ensuring food accessibility. Alternative projects can have greater flexibility, allowing them to capitalize on community engagement through social media and word-of-mouth quickly. As a resident of St. Henri, I was humbled to see the momentum and impact of the Feed the Hen/Nourrir Henri project after stumbling upon its Facebook page. In my opinion, projects like this serve a triple purpose; providing accessible food, reducing food waste, and fostering community.

At the side of an inauspicious tree-lined street, just off Notre-Dame West, stand a fridge and a pantry, outdoors, in public, freely accessible.

The community fridge (and pantry) is stocked daily by a small army of volunteers, who post through Facebook to inform the group of what’s to offer. The donations often include soups, stews, sandwiches, wraps and desserts, paid for by the volunteers themselves, usually handmade and sometimes vegan.

The food is free for anyone to take, anonymously, at any time; no questions, judgment, and strings.

The only request is that no one hoards food. Within a few hours, other volunteers will post a status update, “the fridge is empty.” Just a few hours later, someone else will have replenished it.

“Status of the fridge at 15:55. Still full.” (Photo by Frances Chan Paré)

The fridge is one component of the self-described “punk” project, Feed the Hen/Nourrir Henri. Claude Chevalot, known as the “Blue Hen” of St. Henri, runs the project and was interviewed for this article.

The Blue Hen of St. Henri, Claude Chevalot (Image by Claude Chevalot).

She is quick to deny ownership, “It’s a community project, entirely supported and managed by the community.” Indeed, after observing the Facebook group, the fridge seems to be organically maintained through a rare level of self-organization between volunteers. With no schedules or overarching direction, the fridge is filled and emptied daily.

Claude conservatively estimates (“for a rare time in (her) life”) that the fridge provides at least 500 meals a week. The fridge caters to a diverse clientele; “people living on the fringes, lots of punks, men coming out of prison.” However, it is only one component of the project. After taking over the project during the Pandemic in February 2020, Claude “read a lot of comments from single mothers who would get to an empty fridge.” In response, she started weekly food baskets for people who couldn’t get to the fridge, single parents and those with reduced mobility.

A year ago, the project, founded by Darren Gerbrandt, was small. Claude and her partner would spend Saturdays putting together 15 baskets in their tiny living room, and volunteer drivers would deliver them. Claude is proud to say “that the drivers are the same as the very beginning.” Amidst the pandemic, the project gained momentum. Soon, “more people got involved, and… started to fill the fridge on their own initiative.” Many who use the service also lend a helping hand.

Food basket preparation (Image by Claude Chevalot)

Now the baskets feed over 100 people a week and include more than one meal per person. Whereas the fridge is stocked by individuals, the baskets rely on partnerships with local merchants, such as Super Marché Avril. The project does collect money for the baskets, mainly to buy milk, eggs and cheese. However, it’s very little because they “also want to reduce food waste.” Instead, they collect excess food from merchants, using it to create baskets of fresh food and volunteer-cooked meals so they “can give a break to single parents.”

The pandemic has led to an increase in food insecurity across Canada, with one in seven struggling to put food on the table. It’s amidst this that the Feed the Hen project exploded in terms of size and impact. In a recent essay in CBC Montreal, Nilufar Al-Shourbaji asked if over 58% of food in Canada is either lost or wasted, why are people going hungry? As Nilufar put it, “We can anonymously drop unused shoes or clothes into neighborhood bins, and then they are given to someone who wants them. Why can’t we do that with food? Let’s invest in shelves, or a fridge or anything to keep perfectly good food out of the garbage and in someone’s stomach.”

Well, this is precisely what is taking place with the Feed the Hen project in St. Henri, and it could be replicated elsewhere. The key to its success, says Claude, is “that the community is rallying together and (using) word of mouth…. We seem to cast a long shadow; there are over a thousand members on our Facebook group.” However, there are challenges, the project’s flexibility is due in part to its (lack of) status; Feed the Hen/Nourrir Henri is not a registered charity. This complicates getting donors, as they can’t emit tax receipts.

Furthermore, their growth is limited; while Claude would like to expand the basket program, she is constrained by space. To grow, they need “a space large enough to work safely, ideally with a kitchen, or at least running water.” Despite these hurdles, they make do, finding inventive ways to operate that rely more on the community’s altruism rather than tax incentives.

While the pandemic has increased the need for the project’s services, it may have also increased involvement. With the lockdown severing many of our usual means of connection, new ways of fostering community and connection are sought out.

As Claude puts it, “this project is about food, that’s the facade, but when you give food, you give love. We know each of our families. If they’re going through a hard time, we try to help. And if you don’t have to spend every single dollar on food, you can pay your bills, buy winter boots for your kids, or even, once in a blue moon, buy a luxury coffee and just watch people that go by.”

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