A taste of Les Marmoulins de Ménil’

Since 2015, this association has been fighting food waste at Rungis and food insecurity in Ménilmontant

Les Marmoulins de Ménil stand waiting, coffee or cigarette in hand, outside the Les Plateaux Sauvages. The low graffiti-covered cultural center, at 5 rue des Plâtrières, has been their temporary home since France’s second lockdown. It sits just behind their headquarters, BMG Cycles, at 10 rue Sorbier. On this mild winter morning, a dozen volunteers chat and joke until the association’s White Ford Transit pulls up, and they jump into action.

Fresh from the Rungis International Market, the Marmoulins’ van full of unsalable organic produce collected from wholesale vendors. The association will distribute the produce to some 60 people this afternoon. The Marmoulins have been making these trips twice a week since 2015 to fight food waste at Rungis and food insecurity in Ménilmontant.

The Marmoulins estimate they’ve collected and redistributed 6 to 8 tons of produce each week during the pandemic.

“At the beginning, it was people who knew each other from the bike shop on rue Sorbier. The shop has always functioned as a kind of social center. A whole bunch of young people who come to repair their bikes, of course, but also to borrow tools, to talk, etc.,” explains Yves. When social problems arose, Yves and the BMG friends, many of whom grew up and live in the 20th, worked to resolve them.

“You’re in Paris, but you’re in a village,” Rico says of the neighborhood he lived in most of his life. “The 20th is really something different. It’s the last working-class neighborhood in Paris. Here, we’re still resisting.” 

About six years ago, the group of friends founded the Les Marmoulins de Ménil’ association, which they’ve developed over the years to meet the neighborhood’s needs. “After a while, the idea came up to do something about food waste,” Yves remembers. So the Marmoulins went to Rungis to talk with suppliers. They learned that tons of edible organic fruit and vegetables were thrown away each day due to damaged packaging, passed sell-by dates or unsold stock. And that the suppliers paid for each ton of waste.

So the Marmoulins began collecting this produce, destined for the trash heap, and driving it back to BMG to hand out for free. As the operation grew, they started asking those who could to contribute €5 for their baskets, to help pay for the van, gas and entry into Rungis. As a point of honor, the association doesn’t require proof of economic situation. “It’s a balance. Those who can, give, which allows those who can’t to take,” explains Rico, one of the founding members. Today, about one-quarter of the 180 baskets distributed each week are paid for, and the rest are given away for free.  

This redistribution program has created a community and sparked other initiatives that strengthen social links and mutual aid in the neighborhood: cooking and screen printing workshops, tutoring for school kids, administrative assistance, and self-defense and yoga classes.

« We just try to do what we can with what we have. But we don’t do too bad, » says Rico, one of the founding members. Yet he and the others stress that their aid is just a bandage. In six years, Rico says, “we’ve clearly seen misery increase.”

“It’s sad that we have to do this,” says Yohann, who has owned BMG since 2005. “It’s logical to me to be solidary with those who are hungry, especially now, with Covid. There are more and more people on the street. They need to eat.”

During the pandemic, the Marmoulins have increased their Rungis trips from two to four times a week, bringing some 5 to 8 tons of food to the 20th. In addition to their usual Tuesday and Friday trips, they now also go on Thursdays to supply a dozen partner associations, such as La Cantine des Pyrénées. And on Wednesdays, they supply a new branch of the association based on rue Tourtille, Les Marmoulins du Bas Belleville, founded this past summer. During France’s two lockdowns, Marmoulin volunteers also made daily rounds to distribute hot meals to homeless people throughout the neighborhood. 

Back at Les Plateaux Sauvages, the group forms a human chain to unload crates of bananas, oranges, turnips, lettuce, and dairy products from the van into the lobby to be divided among the baskets. Working in the large airy cultural center, which offered to host the Marmoulins during the pandemic, allows them to respect social distancing.

But the Covid crisis has confirmed for the Marmoulins that the bike shop has become too small for their operation. They’ve applied to an Economic Interest Group (GIE) for a commercial space near the place Henri-Matisse to open a social grocery store. They’re hoping to have a positive response by the end of January 2021.

« Marmoulins are people who sink their teeth into life without forgetting everything that happens around us. We assume that if we’re enjoying life, then everybody has to enjoy life, » Rico says.

Les Marmoulins de Ménil’
10 rue Sorbier
Métro Ménilmontant, Père Lachaise or Gambetta
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