Nourishing a Community: Urban Agriculture at Santropol Roulant

Posted by Monica Allaby on September 09, 2015 1 Comment

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It’s late August and the rooftop vegetable gardens at Santropol Roulant, a vibrant non-profit organization located in Plateau Mont-Royal, are in full bloom. A hidden gem in one of Montreal’s most populous and dense neighbourhoods, the rooftop gardens are an urban oasis enjoyed by the Roulant’s staff, volunteers, and members of the community throughout the summer months. A surprising and delightful contrast amongst a palate of concrete and brick, Santropol Roulant’s gardens are brimming with life.

Carlo Primiani, Urban Agriculture Co-Manager at Santropol Roulant, explains that the Roulant’s urban agriculture program is designed to not only support local and organic agriculture in Montreal but to ensure that sustainably produced food remains accessible to all regardless of socio-economic status, level of mobility, or degree of autonomy.

“As the importance of local and organic agriculture became more widely discussed, urban agriculture became attractive to the Roulant because we felt it was important that our clientele, who are not necessarily mobile or able to afford fresh produce, have access to it,” says Primiani.

Since its inception in 1995, the heart of the Roulant’s work has been its meals-on-wheels program. With the help of a dedicated staff team and over a hundred volunteers each week, the Roulant operates one of the largest meals-on-wheels programs in Montreal, ensuring greater food security among the elderly and building a rich social fabric by fostering intergenerational relationships.  5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, volunteers prepare and deliver meals by foot, bike, and bus to people living with a loss of autonomy.

The urban agriculture program at the Roulant was initiated in 2002, as a partnership with the Montreal sector of Alternatives Action and Communication Network for International Development, an organization that was seeking to explore various agricultural techniques in an urban setting; the program has since become an integral part of the Roulant’s work in Montreal, nourishing its meals-on-wheels program.  

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With the support of Alternatives, the Roulant launched the Rooftop Garden Project, a patchwork of rooftop vegetable gardens in the Plateau neighborhood. When the organization moved to a new location at 111 Roy East a few years ago,  it focused on building and maintaining the garden that now thrives on its rooftop, which is part intensive rooftop garden and part terrace container garden. With beautifully painted murals on its walls and a faint buzz of bees, the Roulant’s rooftop garden has become a truly special community space.

Since 2007, the Roulant has also managed a project called Edible Campus on McGill University’s downtown campus. The Edible Campus was a collaboration between McGill’s Faculty of Architecture’s Minimum Cost Housing Group and Alternatives, creating over 1,000 square feet of productive growing space next to McGill’s Burnside Hall. The project transformed a neglected concrete terrace into an innovative and thriving vegetable operation that introduces students and members of the community to the possibilities of growing food in an urban setting. 

In addition to supporting its meals-on-wheels program and modelling a sustainable food system, Primiani explains that the urban agriculture program also plays a part in breaking social isolation.

“The urban agriculture program perfectly compliments our mission to break social isolation through food. Part of the solution can be gardening itself, which can be an important tool to help people find community,” says Primiani. “We tend to see volunteering as a means of giving to society, but often times volunteering in itself is a gift. The gardens are an extension of that.

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Niamh Leonard, Director of Development at Santropol Roulant, takes a break from managing funder relations to get her hands dirty in the gardens on top of the building.

Along with its urban agricultural sites, the Roulant rooftop and the McGill gardens, the organization is currently operating a farm located in Senneville, on the western tip of the island of Montreal. As the newest and most expansive site, the Senneville farm produces the bulk of the Roulant’s agricultural yield. In total, Santropol Roulant is now growing 2 acres of certified-organic vegetables, which is divided amongst two farmer’s markets, 100 CSA baskets, and the kitchen for meals-on-wheels.

Over the years, the Roulant has gained a breadth of experience in urban agriculture. While the urban agriculture sites may be much smaller operations than the Senneville farm, Primiani explains that there are particular challenges to growing vegetables in an urban setting.

“One of our main challenges at McGill is the intensity of the wind, as we are growing next to a fifteen-story building. We have had to move many plants because they weren’t thriving as a result of winds,” he says. “We also have stresses on our crop from animals, like squirrels and raccoons. Animal pressures are less intense on the farm because it is a much larger operation; however, we’ve had an entire crop destroyed by squirrels at our McGill gardens.”

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Looking at the years ahead, Primiani and the team at the Roulant are excited about increasing accessibility to the gardens:

“The Edible Campus gardens are highly accessible because they are in a dense area downtown, and are easily accessible by public transport and there is also a wheelchair ramp. Working in the gardens however is much tougher,” says Primani. “We would like to build raised planter bins so that people who are less mobile can garden as well.”

Through the Rooftop Garden Project and the Edible Campus, the Roulant demonstrates the viability of urban agriculture as a solution to minimizing the environmental impacts of food transportation; however,  Primiani believes that it is only part of the solution, cautioning, “I don’t feel that farming and urban agriculture are exclusive options: both are equally important components of a sustainable food system.”

The passionate team at Santropol Roulant will continue to do their part in building a resilient food system and show the compatibility of urban and peri-urban production in Montreal, growing food that nourishes its programs and the community.

To get involved with agriculture at Santropol Roulant and discover other volunteering opportunities, visit http://santropolroulant.org/en/volunteer-with-us/

 

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