Les Complices Alimentaires, which was founded in March of 2020, is a non-profit organization that is working towards improving accessibility to fruits and vegetables for citizens in the region. It also aims to reduce food waste, create unique employment opportunities, and foster a sense of community solidarity. This February marks the rollout of its first food-access project.
Covering all five MRCs and 61 municipalities in the Montérégie-Ouest, the organization began when four different groups across the region applied for funding for similar projects at the Direction de la santé public du Quebec (DSP). The DSP brought these groups together to collaborate on a large-scale project to address food insecurity in the region, and thus Les Complices Alimentaires was born.
“We are one of the largest projects tackling food insecurity; we want to be a new partner in the region’s food system,” says Nathalie Collin, the collective project manager. “We want to make fruits and vegetables accessible to those in vulnerable situations, and we’re doing this with pay-what-you-can vending stations throughout the region.”
These vending machine-style “smart freezers” are the first project being rolled out by Les Complices Alimentaires. They offer different price points for people to buy frozen fruits and vegetables. Collin explains that those who can pay for the four-dollar bag of blueberries, for example, will be subsidizing the cost for those who can only afford to pay for the one-dollar bag. “We want it to create a sense of community solidarity,” she says.
Freezer location will be strategic as well. Cost is not the only obstacle to fruit and vegetable access; simply getting to a grocery store can be difficult if one doesn’t have a car, or access to public transit, or even proper sidewalks. Even without these barriers, there remains the obstacle of storage, as fresh produce goes bad quickly. Dealing with all of this takes time and effort, which not everyone has, whether due to multiple jobs, job hunting, childcare, health issues, or a plethora of other circumstances.
These concerns have been taken into consideration with regard to freezer placement throughout the region. “We’re going to be setting one up in Hemmingford at the post office, and we also plan on putting some at thrift stores, community spaces – places that people go with frequency,” says Collin. “We’re also working to put these freezers in areas that are within 20 kilometers of a grocery store, areas we’d call food deserts.”
The organization is taking a unique approach to food sourcing as well. It is collaborating with area farms to recuperate produce that isn’t sold to grocery stores due to damage. It is also working with grocery stores and restaurants to obtain unused fruits and vegetables that are still good and edible but destined for the waste bin. Now, Les Complices Alimentaires will clean and prepare the produce, freeze it, and distribute it to the freezers across the Montérégie-Ouest.
It has also taken an unorthodox approach to building the team of workers which is recuperating and transforming the produce. “We hire people who may have an atypical work history, an atypical schedule, holes in their education, or disabled people who have a hard time getting hired otherwise,” says Collin. “We do this because to fight poverty, we need to meet people where they’re at, as well as give them opportunities.”
At the end of February, Les Complices Alimentaires will be delivering the first two regional freezers – one to the Hemmingford post office, and one to the MRC du Haut-Saint-Laurent office in Huntingdon. It is also working on building more partnerships with agricultural producers throughout the region, as well as securing more kitchen space to transform more food. It hopes to have 10 freezers throughout the Montérégie-Ouest by the end of 2024.
Once the first freezers have been in place for a time, Les Complices Alimentaires plans on doing a survey, likely in the fall, to see how they have been working and if they are meeting the needs of the communities. This is the most important part of the project for Collin. “So many projects are made for these communities, without ever consulting them,” she says. “We’ve already done a lot of outreach, so we believe the plan we’re going forward with is the right place to start, but we hope to get to know the communities we serve better, to better support their needs.”
To keep up with the progress of this innovative project, follow on Facebook at Les Complices Alimentaires.