The People’s Potato Worker’s Collective has been serving hot lunches to students since 1999. Every weekday of the school year, 13 staff and as many as 30 volunteers pull together a meal that will serve over 300 students for free or by donation. Alex Diceanu, one of “the Potato’s” full-time employees shared the principles of the collective’s approach.
“The Potato” is a worker-run project that follows the constitution of the Concordia Food Collective. Following the principle of worker empowerment, daily tasks are shared between workers on a rotating schedule, and business policy is voted on at weekly meetings.
“We function by consensus,” said Diceanu, “but we don’t shy away from delegating responsibility.”
Special portfolios, such as administration, kitchen management or education, are designated to teams of two employees. Since there is no management, there is “a sense that it belongs to all of us,” said Diceanu, who has worked there since September. “We want to be here, we believe in what we’re doing. That makes it a nice place to work.”
The Potato provides hot vegan meals from 12:30 p.m. until the food runs out, usually around two o’clock. Meals are free or by donation. Staff and volunteers start work at 8:30 a.m., and the line up starts forming as early as 11:00. “If the collective was to serve any more meals, it would need more resources,” said Diceanu.
As a registered food bank, The Potato operates on a meager budget and relies heavily on their 70 volunteers. Donations put in the drop box generally cover the cost of food supplies not obtained from Moisson Montreal or other charitable organizations. The core of the budget comes from a 25-cent per credit student levy, charged to undergraduate students. “That works out to about $7 a year per student,” said Diceanu – not much to pay for even one healthy square meal.
But this not-for-profit organization is far from square. The Potato’s mandate promotes healthy nutrition, socialist food politics and environmental responsibility, so they buy bulk, compost and recycle, and support local agriculture and small business.
The daily vegan menu contains whole grains and fresh vegetables. “Every day we serve a soup, a stew, a grain and a salad,” said Diceanu, pointing out the care taken to combine proteins as part of a balanced meal.
Although the vegan diet is promoted as part of a healthy and low impact lifestyle, the main reason that the collective avoids animal products is to keep the kitchen democratic. “It’s the only way to be accessible to the entire student body,” said Diceanu.
Accessibility is a main priority, yet the People’s Potato is challenged by their inaccessibility to those outside the student body. Diceanu said it’s hard for homeless people to come on campus because “security and administration react as soon as they do. We have to go to them.”
The Potato goes out into the streets to serve food to the homeless and to show solidarity at events by like-minded groups. They also share their space with other community groups who need a kitchen, such as Food Not Bombs, and the Muslim Student’s Association during Ramadan, and they run cooking workshops and set up information tables at events such as the World Food Day fair.
At present, their kitchen on the 7th floor of the Hall building is an “informal donation” on the part of the university. They have a vehicle to run daily errands and a garden on the Loyola campus. They are in the process of moving their office from the 6th floor of the Hall building to a room adjacent to the kitchen, which also houses their book collection.
As part of their educational mandate, the Potato runs a small library, and distributes thematic books at cost. Their popular cookbook Vegan on a Shoestring is published by AK Press.
Their employment equity policy ensures that job postings are made on- and off- campus, purposefully distributed to communities that represent traditionally disadvantaged groups. “We understand that activists often tend to be privileged people, so we are careful with the wording and placement of our ads so as not to shut people out,” he said.
Diceanu found his job by word of mouth, “through the activist community.” The prerequisite for the job is an aptitude for cooking, but an appreciation of the constitution and procedures of the collective are desired. Because it is not just by providing good food, but by setting a good example that the hard-working staff and volunteers of the People’s Potato intend to share their message.