A short history of the People's Potato...
In 1999, a group of students from Concordia University came together to start what has become a very successful student/community based project. What they had in common was a passion for vegetarian food and chefing combined with a genuine concern for food and anti-poverty politics. They decided to provide an alternative to the corporate run cafeterias on campus. The cafeteria service, at the time owned by Sodexho/Marriot, was judged overly expensive and inaccessible, because of the burger, coke and fries content of its menu, to vegetarian students, to students of muslim or jewish faith as well as to students of Concordia's numerous cultural communities.
After a few free servings of hearty vegetarian food, the People's Potato was born.
The founding of the People's Potato came at a time of growth for left politics at Concordia University. In the context of the emergence of a strong anti-capitalist wing in the anti-globalisation movement, students at Concordia set up various "political clubs," for example international solidarity groups and anarchist reading groups. Activity in and around Concordia's Quebec Public Interest Research Group (Q-PIRG) and the Concordia Women's Center was greatly increased. For a few years there was even a radical-left elected executive at the Concordia Student Union (CSU). Within this left-emergence, the People's Potato and like-minded organizations such as the Frigo Vert were able to counter the longstanding criticism that radical politics aren't practical. Not only did they bring forward anti-poverty and food politics to the student body, they implemented them on a large scale — everyday.
A workers' co-operative
The soup kitchen, commonly known as "The Potato," hasn't looked back since. It has grown from a small volunteer run collective to a worker's co-operative employing approximately 15 people. There is no hierarchy in the co-operative, as every member/worker takes part in equally in decision making at weekly collective meetings. Every member is expected to "guide and give direction to the project" and "work in a self-motivated fashion.” The lack of hierarchy by no means translates into a lack of efficiency; the People's Potato serves over 500 hungry students and folk every weekday, maintains a vibrant educational program (regular workshops, newsletter) as well as an affordable good (organic) food bag program and an outdoor serving for the homeless and coordinates massive volunteer participation in the project. An elected Board of Representatives reviews the collective's activity, making sure it is in the spirit of the project's original mission and in line with various rules of its constitution. The Board of Representatives is made up of service users and volunteers, insuring that an organic link with the People's Potato exists before this more formal relationship takes shape.
Beyond an organizational model that seeks to eliminate hierarchy in the workplace and promote participation is also a hiring policy of new workers that is based on employment equity. In the past years, the People's Potato has consciously tried to hire people from backgrounds historically and currently disadvantaged on the job market. Although it is nowhere near perfect and sometimes misunderstood, the employment equity hiring policy has made the People's Potato workers' co-operative more accessible to queers, women, people of colour and the disabled in the past years. Recently, collective discussion has indicated that hiring will also be more open in the future to non-students and people who don't have english as first language as an effort to break out even more of the "Concordia activist ghetto.”
Opposition and conflict
Obviously, the emergence of this type of project did bring up a considerable amount of opposition and conflict.
One of the first, and a rather important one, was with the existing Sodexho/Marriot (now Chartwells) cafeteria service. Not only did the People's Potato gain its kitchen space through bitter negotiations with Concordia administration from out of the abundant mainstream corporate space, it also gained a good amount of their customers! This in fact to the point where Chartwells decided in 2001 not to provide a cafeteria service for students any more, and to concentrate on what could be described as a catering service for Concordia's administration and high-brass. The flipside to this conquest of space and clientele by the People's Potato was that Chartwells was now well positioned to rid itself of much of its staff. One can imagine Chartwells workers being a tad pissed off at this student initiative that was being pointed at as the reason they were losing their jobs. The People's Potato was wise enough to recognize that the problem in itself was the Chartwells corporation and not the ordinary workers of Chartwells that were indeed those being directly exploited by the multinational. A small "save their jobs campaign" was initiated but achieved limited success, as most jobs at Chartwells were either lost or transferred elsewhere. It should be noted however that the class politics of the People's Potato were well applied with their siding against the corporation but with the workers.
Throughout the years, most conflict involving the People's Potato has revolved around funding and space. Although the project is directly funded by a levy from student dues to their union, this money is first accumulated by Concordia's administration then distributed to the People's Potato and other student-funded organizations. This results in the administration having the control to withhold funds and the opportunity to make accounting mistakes (that have been numerous). Many times, the People's Potato has had to fight the administration (using a variety of pressure tactics from letters to protests to occupations) just to access money that was already granted to them by the student body! More recently, with a right-wing executive at the head of the student union, the "Potato" has had to wage battles just to be part of negotiations on 7th floor space of the Hall Building (where the kitchen is) with the student union and university administration. The student union executive seemed convinced that it could negotiate space on the 7th floor without input or a mandate from the People's Potato and other student groups. In October 2003, a meal was served in the executive's office — shutting it down — to remind the executive of the union that it couldn't act against student interests. The position of the People's Potato is to grant the entire 7th floor space to student projects (including the "People's Kitchen" and eating area), a position that contradicts the plans of the administration, which seeks to renovate and build income generating conference rooms. This is but one of many examples of battles for space and funding. Even though the People's Potato is an established and respected student/community based project that has proven its usefulness to the Concordia community, the larger fight against capitalist interests in the university is far from over.
The importance of building alternatives
The People's Potato has inspired similar projects at other universities and schools in Montreal and in the rest of Canada. Its importance and the interest it inspires is multi-faceted. In terms of addressing student poverty, it has set a standard for countering hunger amongst a student population. As the cost of education increases in Canada every year, students from low-income, working class backgrounds will have to find (or initiate) places such as the People's Potato that are able to remedy problems occurring from poverty while fighting back against them. In terms of building non-hierarchical workplaces and offering decent employment to students/workers from different social backgrounds, the chosen workers' co-operative model shows itself to be one of the best in the context of capitalism. For anarchists and anti-capitalists in general who may be reading this publication, it offers a glimpse of how a self-managed workplaces could function in a revolutionary society.
To finish, it is important to note that a project like the People's Potato cannot live on its own. It depends firstly on the funding of the student body, organized into an imperfect but essential student union. It also depends on the countless hours of volunteer work put in by supporting students and community members. It's not enough to have a great idea to build an alternative project, what's needed is organization, collective resources and dedication.