Monday to Friday, come 12:30 p.m., a line of students winds through the hallway that leads to the fourth floor clubs lounge in the Shatner Building. Tupperware in hand, they await the arrival of Midnight Kitchen—McGill’s free vegan lunch service. What few are aware of, however, is that Midnight Kitchen is more than just a food program for students.
In 2002, seven McGill students, who were members of the GrassRoots Association for Student Power (GRASP)—a student movement in response to globalization, corporatization, and privatization across university campuses—founded Midnight Kitchen. The purpose of the initiative was to combat the contracting of McGill’s food services to large corporations. For the founders of Midnight Kitchen, food distribution was an avenue through which they could exert their political voices. From the beginning, their goal was to provide healthy and affordable food to students on campus that was outside of the mainstream, capitalist food system. Although most students know Midnight Kitchen for its bean soups, brown rice, and apple cakes, the food it serves is merely the surface of the organization’s anti-capitalist, anti-oppression political mandate.
Many students who frequently eat lunch at Midnight Kitchen, including Katie Keyes, U3 Arts, were surprised to discover that it has a political mandate.
“Honestly, I didn’t look too far past the free food,” Keyes said. “It’s not very well advertised. I knew they were funded by [the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)], but I thought they were a vegan or environmental group.”
Far from solely a vegan food service, Midnight Kitchen was founded as a response to privatization on McGill campus. In 2002, McGill had slowly started contracting out food services to different corporations, from Aramark, to Chartwell, and now Compass Group. Although it’s hard to imagine, McGill’s campus cafeterias were once run by the different faculties in which they were located. These faculty cafeterias were phased out one by one, until the Architecture café, the last faculty dining hall, was closed in 2007.
Wade, who has been a member of the Midnight Kitchen Collective for three years and is now a paid employee, explained that these contracts still affect students today.
“McGill’s corporate catering contracts continue to prevent small-scale and/or student-run food initiatives from having a secure place on campus,” Wade said. “Actually, one of the big reasons SNAX sandwiches were banned was because of McGill’s contract with Compass Group.”
Wade stressed that not only do these contracts create increasingly standardized, expensive, and inaccessible food on campus, but the corporations that McGill works with are part of an oppressive global power structure.
Compass Group, one of the world’s largest food contract service companies, provides food for oil rigs and prisons across the country. It recently been linked to issues over food quality for prisoners in Saskatchewan. When the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU) lost its contract to Compass Group in a government effort to save money, the prisoners were served uncooked food. The conditions were so bad that more than 50 inmates embarked on a hunger strike.
Wade noted that Midnight Kitchen’s mandate stands in strong opposition to the mistreatment of prisoners.
“We believe that everyone deserves basic access to food, including those in prison,” Wade said. “Food should be accessible to all, and these corporations strictly limit what’s available to these already vulnerable and marginalized people.”
This is not only of importance in the prisons of Saskatchewan, but assuring that on McGill campus students have adequate access to food that caters to their dietary needs and financial capacity. According to Wade, for the same reason of accessibility, Midnight Kitchen maintains a strictly vegan and nut-free menu.
By serving free vegan lunches, Midnight Kitchen seeks to cater to the people for whom it is more difficult to obtain food such as the disabled, low-income students, and religious minorities with dietary restrictions. According to Wade, these people are most at risk in the mainstream food system. Midnight Kitchen seeks to dissect these capitalist structures not only through the food they serve, but the structure of the collective itself.
Wade explained that the Midnight Kitchen collective is organized around an anti-oppressive mandate where members are all treated equally within a non-hierarchal system. Whether one is a new or old member of the collective, they are afforded the same right to voice their opinion and vote on matters concerning the Kitchen.
“We focus on systemic power and oppression and know that these are inseparable from capitalism and colonialism,” Wade said. “These systems interacting cause the oppression and marginalization of certain people, and we as a collective are aware of this. At a structural level, Midnight Kitchen is non-hierarchical, and aims to hire marginalized folks, such as people of colour, trans, queer, or disabled people. This is pretty important to us, and something we take very seriously in the hiring process.”
Midnight Kitchen assures that everything from the beans to the lettuce aligns with their anti-oppressive mandate. Their free lunch servings are composed of food donated by Moisson Montreal, a non-profit food bank. The food bank gives the collective food in bulk on the sole condition that it be passed on for free. Wade pointed out that even the food itself is sourced in accordance to their political mandate.
“When we get food from Moisson Montreal, it’s excess food,” Wade said. “No corporations are profiting from us using it—in fact it would have [otherwise] gone to waste.”
However, Midnight Kitchen is not constrained to the fourth floor of SSMU. Around campus it seeks to bring their anti-capitalist anti-oppression politics to a variety of “solidarity servings” for groups Midnight Kitchen feels align with its mandate. It has provided food for the events of groups such as Demilitarize McGill, the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG), CKUT radio, and Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS)—all on the condition that these events remain free and accessible to all. In collaborating with these groups, Midnight Kitchen hopes to extend the reach of their mandate, and support other marginalized groups on campus. In an effort to increase the political presence of Midnight Kitchen on campus, the collective will be hosting a variety of events this semester that expose the political orientation of the organization. In the coming months, there will be workshops, closed dinners for certain marginalized communities, and the return of “Put Your Politics Where Your Mouth Is”—a series of collaborative workshops that look at the politics of food distribution.
Katie Tully, U3 Arts, was not particularly bothered by the political nature of the organization.
“I don’t really have a problem with it, because even though they have a political mandate, it’s ultimately more of a student service,” Tully said. “Where else am I going to get food I can afford on campus?”
Tully’s statement echoes the sentiment of many students lined up outside the fourth floor clubs lounge for lunch; regardless of its politics, it can’t be denied that Midnight Kitchen answers a desperate call on campus for food that is allergen free, affordable, and healthy.