Burritos, Bicycles and Broken Barriers

Burrito Project Montreal Feeds Homeless and Hungry

  • Photo Erin Sparks

  • Photo Brandon Johnston

The Burrito Project is attempting to break down the barriers between those living on and off the streets—one burrito at a time.

The collective distributes as many burritos as it can to the hungry and homeless every Sunday, with the aim of establishing bonds across social divides in our shared city spaces.

One of the project’s members, Sky, explained that the organizers of the project do not want to be identified by name in articles about the collective, as the entire initiative would not be possible without volunteers and donors.

“We don’t like to take credit, because we recognize that it’s our community that makes this possible.”

The Project

Sky and six of his friends started the Burrito Project Montreal in September 2011, when the collective fundraised enough money to try a first run.

Since then, the project has established a relationship with Concordia co-op Le Frigo Vert, which has agreed to sell a portion of the vegan burritos rolled every weekend to generate revenue. The money raised—in addition to occasional catering contracts and weekly tortilla donations from Burritoville—has enabled them to continue.

The project will be celebrating its one-year anniversary on Sunday.

Participants meet every week on Sunday at the People’s Potato kitchen on the seventh floor of Concordia’s Hall Building. They prepare ingredients to make salsa, bean mix, bean paste and rice from scratch, at a productive but enjoyable pace.

The sensory experience of cooking is heightened by the quantity and mass of the ingredients.

“At this scale, cooking is more like painting than following a recipe,” said Sky.

Once the components are ready, sitting in industrial-size stockpots, an assembly line is formed to roll the burritos. Participants sit down to enjoy the fruits of their labour before cleaning up and splitting into teams of two or more on various distribution routes—backpacks laden by a
couple hundred warm, hearty vegan burritos.

Volunteers self-organize into tasks they feel comfortable with and are free to take a break when they want. The atmosphere is akin to friends cooking a meal at home.

“That’s what’s great about the collective—they don’t have to do it,” said Sky. “Same with our volunteers: they choose to come out; it’s something they want to do.”

On the Streets

That said, the strict weekly commitment the Burrito Project holds itself to isn’t always to keep up and running. Organizers have found themselves without volunteers.

“We once rolled about 200 burritos between two people, and it took eight hours,” said Sky.

Requiring even more dedication still is the next step—one that demands delivering the burritos in the winter, sometimes in -25 C weather.

“The people who are in the collective with me, they’ve stuck it out,” said Sky. “Last year both [Christmas and New Year’s Eve] fell on Sundays, and they took those days to do deliveries.”

The Burrito Project Montreal collective seems to find motivation in strong convictions to bring together social interaction and food in an anti-oppressive mission. Their mandate is as much enmeshed in the act of distributing burritos as in the way they do it.
The project aims to create a context of engagement that is different from existing organizations.

“Soup kitchens require people go to this facility and line up. It’s very impersonal and there’s sort of a top-down model,” said Sky. “The people who are ‘privileged,’ behind the counter, serve the people who are supposedly less privileged who just pass by and that’s the end of the interaction.”

The idea is that by approaching people right on the street, an equal footing is established.

“We both physically and figuratively break down a barrier by being on the same turf,” said Sky. “That means a lot to us and from seeing the reception, [the people on the street] like it as well.”

They also make sure to respect people’s choice to not want the food.

“We don’t want to make assumptions about people’s positions,” said Sky. “Before asking if they want a burrito, [we] ask, ‘Hey, what’s up, what’s going on?’ Because that’s the important connection we want first.”

A Part of the Community

Sky does not refer to the Burrito Project as a “charity.” The word implies the very power dynamics they want to subvert. There is obviously a two-way exchange happening, and participants gain a lot from the experience; at times immaterially, but sometimes quite literally.

“I’ve had people on the street actually give me stuff back,” said Sky. “I had a sandwich I didn’t want and he had a cookie he didn’t want so [we traded.]”

Community-building is an essential aspect of the project, and their attitude allows them to open meaningful lines of communication.

“Word is on the street that these people are going to come by on Sunday with burritos that are big and good and warm,” said Sky. “That matters because it means we’re building trust with people on the street—that’s exactly what we want.”

The project has gone through different phases, depending on the amount of regular volunteers and seasonal needs of people on the streets.

There was a point when, beyond delivering burritos, they also distributed books donated by the Concordia Co-op Bookstore, socks and gloves. This was facilitated by the presence of more regular members.

Now, of the seven original founders, only three still live in Montreal.

“We don’t have many volunteers, and that’s one of our biggest limitations,” said Sky. “What we really need is people who will join the collective and come week to week, help organize events and be in regular contact with volunteers.”

With a stable infrastructure in place, the organization has the flexibility to grow, and they’re inviting more people to join their community.

“More people means the project can grow more. We don’t know what we can do unless we see more volunteers showing up.”

To volunteer, email burritoprojectmontreal@gmail.com. Don’t worry, they don’t bite—instead, you’ll probably get to bite into a delicious vegan burrito in exchange for your help, and your time.

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