It all starts with food: How co-ops are transforming Quebec’s food deserts

Grenier Boréal in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan

In French, the word for food processing is the same as the word for sweeping social change: transformation. Alex Beaudin dreams of doing both.

Beaudin, 25, is the coordinator of Le Grénier Boréal, an agricultural co-op in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, a village of around 450 people in northeastern Quebec, 550 miles northeast of Montreal. Longue-Pointe is one of about 20 villages strung like beads on a necklace, between Route 138 and the vast St. Lawrence River. The highway and the river are the villages’ lifelines, and depending on either one for supply shipments — as the Nord-Côtiers do — can be maddening. 

Ferry service is unreliable; a damaged ship can cause weeks of disruption. Beaudin says Route 138, which covers the 800 miles from Montreal to the village of Kegaska, is also occasionally blocked by debris or construction. The short local growing season, the lack of competition between shipping companies and the logistics of transporting food up the coast make many fresh-food products prohibitively expensive. Even when everything works as it should, Beaudin says, “People just don’t want to eat turnips that have been on a truck for twelve hours.” 

Le Grenier Boréal (“the arctic cellar”) is one of more than a dozen food co-ops that have sprung up in recent years to bring fresh greenery to Quebec’s food deserts. In Inuit communities in Arctic Quebec, the Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec (FCNQ) has run community corner stores, outdoor outfitters and other enterprises for generations to keep food prices manageable, and the trend is catching on in rural communities in other parts of the province — buoyed, Beaudin says, not only by backlash against high food prices, but by a growing “back to nature” movement among young people.  

Beaudin and his colleagues manage several greenhouses and a pick-your-own program where residents can learn to prepare the berries and mushrooms that grow naturally in the area. They also provide food literacy programs and supply products and advice to village grocery stores — many of which are co-ops themselves — planting the seeds of what Beaudin calls “a little food revolution.” 

One-stop shop

There were once three places to buy groceries in Baie-Johan-Beetz, a tiny village an hour east of Longue-Pointe. By 2005, there was one — and it closed when its elderly owners couldn’t find anyone to take it over. The nearest corner store was in Natashquan, nearly an hour away; the nearest supermarket was in Sept-Iles, three hours west. Julie Plante, who teaches at the tiny village school, met with her neighbors to figure out a solution. “We realized fairly quickly that a co-op was the only way to go,” she said. What followed was a team effort worthy of a feature film. 

“We wanted to find land that went up to [Route 138] so we could serve people coming up the highway,” Plante says. “When we were looking for a piece of land, I realized that my own property went out that far.” Plante and her neighbors cleared and weeded the land bit by bit, filling holes and ditches with gravel from a nearby construction site. Building was the next step.

“All we wanted was a small building, but one day the mayor showed up at our meeting with an architect and told us that if we built bigger, but following sustainable development standards, we would be eligible for all these subsidies,” says Plante. 

The final project involved not just a small grocery store, but a community hub with a greenhouse, a gas station, an internet café, a postal counter, a conference room and an outpost of the state-run liquor store. The co-op also gets a five-figure subsidy from the city council in exchange for use of the conference room, as Baie-Johan-Beetz has no city hall. 

The co-op’s three full-time employees are supported by about a dozen volunteers who stock shelves, fix broken equipment and drive to the surrounding towns to pick up special orders. When a freezer broke, one volunteer drove it to town for repairs while others stored the food in their own freezers. “People are so happy not to have to go to the city for every little thing,” Plante says.  

But Plante takes issue with outsiders who refer to the North Shore as a food desert. “Nature is very generous to us,” she says. “People’s fridges are full of fish and meat, we have gardens and wild berries,” she explains. “But we can’t raise cows for milk, and there are a lot of vegetables we can’t grow. You need a store for that.”   

A store… and a greenhouse. Working with Beaudin and Le Grenier Boréal, Plante and her co-workers built a greenhouse where volunteers — which sometimes includes the five students that Plante teaches at the village school —  grow cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, asparagus and other vegetables throughout the short North Shore summers. “The taste of fresh vegetables is so different from vegetables that have been on a truck,” says Plante. “People love it.” 

She is quick to point out that maintaining the food co-op is “not a walk in the park.” “We can’t offer huge discounts, and if someone makes a special order, we can’t promise it will be there tomorrow morning,” she says, before rushing off to her shift at the cash register. “It’s also a lot of work. But it’s not just a grocery store — it’s our place.” 

Montreal’s markets

At the other end of Route 138 lies Montreal, a city of two million people. On the surface, the concrete jungle of Montréal-Nord and the riverside village of Baie-Johan-Beetz, couldn’t be more different. Instead of a forest of mushrooms and berries, Montreal-Nord is a forest of apartment blocks, most holding more than the entire population of Baie-Johan-Beetz. But the problems faced in Montréal-Nord, one of the city’s poorest districts, and on the North Shore are surprisingly similar. 

“We have food stores that close because they aren’t profitable, and if you have a car, you drive further and further away to get to the supermarket,” says Olivier Lachapelle, coordinator of Panier Futé, a food distribution co-op in Montréal-Nord. “If you don’t have a car — and we have a lot of elderly people and immigrant families for whom a car would be a huge luxury — it’s much harder.” 

Panier Futé coordinates a volunteer-run bulk purchasing group where members have access to a range of fruits and vegetables for 15 to 20 percent cheaper than market price. In summer, they organize regular farmers markets, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables almost to people’s doorsteps. 

“The main challenge to food security in Montreal isn’t accessibility, it’s poverty,” adds Anne-Marie Aubert, coordinator of the Montreal Food System, a municipal round table of nonprofits and government bodies created to address food insecurity. “We have a poverty rate that’s higher than many Canadian cities, and also a very high rental rate as opposed to home ownership, which [exacerbates] food insecurity, because rent is a non-negotiable part of your budget.” She also observes that in areas with high immigrant populations, like Montréal-Nord, or high populations of less educated people, food literacy is also a concern. “The food is there, but if you can’t afford it or don’t know how to cook it, you can’t access it.”  

Aubert and other urban food security activists believe that food co-ops and the city’s highly touted community garden program, in place since the 1970s, are band-aid solutions to the wider problem of urban poverty. “We’re not actually attacking the root causes, because it’s not in our power to do so, but we are helping people cope,” she says. 

Like Aubert, Lachapelle believes that the fruit and vegetable baskets he distributes can’t solve the wider problem of urban hunger. “We’re not a food bank, and we can’t fight all the causes of urban poverty,” he says. “But we believe that food has an impact on fighting poverty. If you eat well, you’re in better health and you might be able to go back to work or do better in school. We have immigrants who volunteer with us and become more employable because they have work experience and feel better about themselves. It all starts with food.” 

Ruby Irene Pratka

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ruby Irene Pratka

Ruby Irene Pratka is a freelance wordsmith based in Montreal... for now. She speaks English, French, Russian, and some Haitian Creole. Her work has taken her around her adoptive province