By Natalie Walsh
One thing I’ve learned in my travels to community gardens throughout North America is that there are many ways gardening connects people.
Some gardens are collection of individual plots, other gardens cultivate as a team and share and still others are even more collaborative where volunteers come together to grow food for the less able in their neighborhood combating both hunger and isolation.
That is the case in Montreal where Santropol Roulant, called “Roulant” for short, grows fresh produce for the local Meals-on-Wheels program serving more than 100 people a day.
“We strive to become a living expression of the change we want to see in the world, rather than simply an instrument for that change.” — Santropol Roulant core principle
They define their program as an intergenerational food hub growing, preparing and delivering food with the purpose of increasing food security while providing a unique opportunity for youth and seniors who “do not necessarily cross paths regularly in everyday society to meet and build relationships,” the website reads.
The organization believes that it is these relationships that strengthen “not just our community, but also an entire future.”
And there are many offshoot initiatives underway that aim to bolster similar programs through the sharing of information and practical know-how. One example is a specially designed insulated and waterproof backpack that holds up to 10 meals and allows them to be delivered safely by a bicyclist. Created by the textile prototyping service Protogear, the pattern is available to any Meals-on-Wheels program that wants to use it.
An Unexpected Setting
Located in a very urban environment, Roulant grows vegetables and herbs in large raised beds that anyone can harvest in a pedestrian walkway called Terrassas Roy. This space serves as a “front porch” gathering place for community events and activities.
The organization also grows food in dozens of portable containers that have water reservoirs capable of supplying the plants for two days in the heat of summer. “Enough for the weekend,” Marie-Anne Viau, urban agriculture manager said.
Both of these settings are innovations that serve hundreds of people. But the garden most likely to turn heads and expand minds is the rooftop garden where rows upon rows of vegetables grow and hives of bees have a safe haven.
Roulant puts community as the first consideration and in every regard works to be inclusive and responsive to what is needed in a fast-paced urban environment where neighbors may not otherwise interact.
While on a recent trip to Montreal, I was fortunate to see Santropol Roulant firsthand. By good fortune, I arrived during their annual open house, where they share what they are accomplishing with hundreds of people who come to enjoy music, shop the vendors, dance and commune. From the youngest playing in sandboxes to the disabled, to families and the elderly, their mission of creating a social fabric was evident.
Connecting Students and Seniors
The concept began over 20 years ago with the idea of feeding those with limited autonomy by bringing together young people from McGill University and local seniors. The idea flourished and many different community-building initiatives sprouted, including story telling, oral histories, recipe exchanges, the sharing of talents and time.
Other initiatives grew as well, including food preservation, a bike shop, a mycology collective, vermicomposting and a general store where preserved goods, t-shirts, honey and organic vegetables grown here and at an affiliated farm are sold.
Viau said that today many of the volunteers still come from the university but many also come from the surrounding community. The sign-up sheet on the main floor had a schedule of chores with volunteer names scribbled in for three-weeks time. The local participation is strong. Viau believes it is a desire to be part of the culture of Roulant that supports strong involvement.
And there are many ways to volunteer. Roulant is a closed-loop system where food is cultivated, prepared and distributed. Food scraps are fed to the worms, which make compost that is returned to the garden. “It is a cycle, not a perfect one, but still I think that if every organization was doing their part for reducing food waste and try to make a loop like we do, it can create a really big change for our environment, our health and our food system,” Viau said.
There are literally dozens of ways to volunteer and share talents through workshops, special events and beekeeping. It is more than weeding and watering. Volunteers learn to pickle vegetables, create spreads and jams, ferment foods and dehydrate herbs and vegetables. Some of these items are sold to raise funds.
And the volunteer system is flexible.
This is key, Viau said as young people often can’t commit to a set time each week. But the option of signing up for a task as schedules allow lets them fulfill their desire to contribute and be part of the Roulant.
The building at 111 Roy East has a long history, with past lives including a fish depot and artists’ workshop, Viau said. It was renovated in 2011 to accommodate the mission of Roulant with a large kitchen and the strength to carry the weight of the rooftop garden. “15 tons of earth were lifted to the 1500 square foot rooftop of the building and formed into beds on top of a membrane,” the website reads.
A second rooftop garden space is on the terrace and holds over 50 self-watering containers, a small greenhouse and outdoor kitchen for cleaning vegetables. (For information and DIY instruction on self-water containers search youtube’s videos)
According to the 2018 annual report, about half of Roulant’s financial support come from private and public foundations and government grants. The remainder includes Meals-0n-Wheels programming, peri-urban and urban agriculture, individual donations, corporate gifts and monies generated from their own sources.
“In order to further diversify funding, the Roulant works to develop initiatives that can bring in funding to support other programs and activities” including a catering service, event space rental and frozen meals for purchase by the general public.
In many ways, Roulant has served as an inspiration for ways to expand community building as they grow:
• Les Fruits Défendus, an urban fruit harvesting collective, connects fruit tree owners in the city with volunteers who harvest and care for the trees, adding to food security.
• In 2012, Santropol Roulant began growing food at a certified organic farm in nearby Senneville. It further supports the production of fresh produce for the kitchen, organic baskets and farmers’ market, “making organic produce accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic status, level of mobility, or degree of autonomy.”
• Each season, the farm hires and trains young farmers.
• The rooftop garden was made accessible to everyone with the construction of a new elevator and decking which permits wheelchair access and the use of this space for workshops.
• International connections. The concept of growing food for programs such as Meals-on-Wheels is taking hold in America. In the last decade, similar programs in Iowa and California have taken root.
To learn more visit https://santropolroulant.org