The Kohlrabi Collective: Creating a Connected Local Food System

The Sandbox

Inspired by his experiences as Farm Manager at the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens and Coordinator of the McGill Farmers’ Market, Matthew McCormick imagined a more integrated and resilient food system at McGill. Photo by Monica Allaby.

Eating local is no easy feat in Downtown Montreal but nonetheless, McGill University students have proven themselves to be champions of the local and sustainable food movement. In the last ten years, a handful of dedicated student groups emerged to make local food more accessible to both the McGill and Milton-Parc community. The McGill Farmers’ Market, the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens (MSEG), and Organic Campus are three student-run projects that were independently established to produce, promote, and distribute local food at McGill.

Regardless of sharing similar mandates, there had been little attempt to realize and act upon the potential to form collaborations between these three groups. That was, until the Kohlrabi Collective was created in Winter 2016. The Collective was formed through an Applied Student Research project initiated by Matthew McCormick in Fall 2015. Inspired by his experiences working as an MSEG Farm Manager and a McGill Farmers’ Market Coordinator, McCormick began to imagine a more connected local food system in which groups shared resources, knowledge, and campus connections to achieve their common goal. He explained, “After working with MSEG and the McGill Farmers’ Market, I recognized that student food groups were working towards similar mandates, without coordinating their efforts.” Throughout Fall 2015, he met with student food leaders to discuss how they could work together in mutually beneficial ways to increase access to local food grown and distributed by McGill students.

The Kohlrabi Collective is Born

Through his research, McCormick found that the three student food groups were encountering a number of barriers that could be remedied by working together. The student farmers were spending countless hours preparing fields for planting and harvesting, which reduced the time they had available to spend on marketing and community engagement. On the downtown campus, the McGill Farmers’ Market was struggling to meet growing demands for community-supported agriculture baskets and Organic Campus had recently lost its partnership with a local farm that supplied vegetables for the group to sell in Shatner Building.

The obvious solution was to unite to groups in an official business partnership, in which produce from the Student Gardens could be sold to the McGill Farmers’ Market and Organic Campus. “In establishing a collective, we came up with new ways to improve the unique services provided by each member group,” said McCormick. He appropriately named the Collective after the kohlrabi,  a temperature-tolerant vegetable that grows well in variable climates. He said that the kohlrabi “embodies the spirit of Montreal’s local food movement, and is a symbol of strength and resilience.”

In Winter 2016, McCormick was awarded a grant from the Sustainability Projects Fund to officially establish the Kohlrabi Collective. Funding was used to purchase equipment that would increase the efficiency of farming operations and facilitate the transportation of produce from Macdonald Campus. In Summer and Fall 2016, the McGill Farmers’ Market was able to meet demand for local produce by selling community-supported agriculture shares from MSEG, which also alleviated some of the financial burden of marketing produce for the student farmers. MSEG also sold produce to Organic Campus in Fall 2016, filling the group’s need for a new produce supplier.

Amelia Peres, Organic Campus Coordinator from 2015 to 2016, also explained that Kohlrabi Collective improved communication and institutional memory amongst the three groups: “One of the major challenges facing Organic Campus was the lack of institutional memory due to high student turnover each year. The idea of the Collective was to provide a support system of other student groups with better turnover structures, who would hopefully be able to fill in the knowledge that is lost from year to year.” Through this self-reinforcing partnership, the three groups have been able to overcome individual and group challenges.

Challenges and Opportunities 

In April 2016, McCormick was recognized with a Catalyst Award for Research in Sustainability for his work with the Kohlrabi Collective. As an active member of McGill’s student food systems network, McCormick was uniquely positioned to identify and address the issues that could be alleviated through collaborating. Kim McGrath, SPF Steward at the McGill Office of Sustainability, commented on strengths of McCormick’s project, “I think that having done that research, having consulted in advance, and having seriously brainstormed solutions with concerned people and peripheral stakeholders helped [McCormick] come up with a good business model.” Since the Collective was established, the three student food groups have enjoyed a high degree of collaboration that did not previously exist.

Despite the success of the Collective, McCormick explains that a lack of yearly operations funding from consistent sources continues to reduce the financial viability of student food groups on campus. He explained, “As projects run entirely by students who are taking full-time course loads, they struggle to pay their employees appropriately for the work they put in.” Securing operations funding would ensure fair compensation for the students who are coordinating these projects.

Given ongoing financial challenges, it is vital that the Kohlrabi Collective continue to work together to increase the financial stability and resilience of student food groups on campus. The Kohlrabi Collective is a prime example of how student research can have significant community impacts and moreover, it has demonstrated that students are capable, serious, and responsible producers and distributors of local food.

Learn more about the Sustainability Projects Fund at McGill or the Kohlrabi Collective by visiting the project’s page on our website. Follow the McGill Farmers’ Market, the Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens, and Organic Campus on social media for updates.

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