Launched during France’s first lockdown, this association, now based at La Flèche d’Or, provides food aid to ensure “pleasure on the plate and dignity for all”
Behind the iron gate and heavy doors of La Flèche d’Or, at 102 bis rue de Bagnolet, the sounds of James Brown and the smells of spices fill the former Charonne train station turned legendary concert hall. The winter sun illuminates the large window that fills the back wall and looks out over the abandoned Petite Ceinture train tracks. Under the soft light, volunteers for Les Repas Solidaires chat while forming sablé cookies and placing them on baking sheets.
“We made three different recipes: orange four-spice, vanilla, and cinnamon. We make do with what there is. These are sablés with oil because we have a lot of flour but no more butter. Yesterday, we made a banana dessert because we always have a lot of bananas,” explains Marion, a volunteer. Today, she is one of the lead chefs in charge of preparing some 125 hot meals, which the association will distribute to people in need.
“It’s a different approach to cooking. I find it can be more rewarding than when I cook in my own restaurant,” says Ivan, another lead chef. In addition to the sablés, Ivan, Marion and the team of volunteers have also made a tomato-couscous salad with an herb coulis, fried rice with dill seeds, lentil dal, and yellow beans in a tomato-pepper sauce.
“Every day it’s something surprising, that is tasty, that changes, that is healthy. And that’s our strong identity: pleasure on the plate and dignity for all,” says Marie, a founding member of the association.
Les Repas Solidaires began at Le Quartier Rouge restaurant, 52 rue de Bagnolet, during France’s first lockdown. With his restaurant closed, owner Chérif opened the kitchen and called for volunteers to cook meals for healthcare workers and vulnerable people. Neighbors and shopkeepers responded, donating food and hygiene products, and helping to prepare and distribute the products and meals. After the lockdown, the group of neighbors decided to continue and formed the association Les Repas Solidaires. They soon joined eight other collectives designated to temporarily reopen the former La Flèche d’Or concert hall, from September 2020 until at least February 2021, as “a socio-cultural space at the neighborhood’s service”.
Abandoned in 2016, La Flèche d’Or had been “occupied and squatted quite regularly,” says Mathilde, a volunteer. “When we arrived in August, there were holes everywhere, birds coming in, pigeon droppings on the wall, rubble everywhere, ceilings that were collapsing. That was all cleaned up, fixed up, and put back together by the collectives and people who came to help out,” she says.
La Flèche d’Or reopened in September, and Les Repas Solidaires began organizing solidary breakfasts on Sundays, open to everyone and pay-what-you-want. Mathilde remembers that the convivial meals allowed guests to sit down and talk with people from the neighborhood they wouldn’t necessarily meet otherwise.
When the second lockdown was announced, Les Repas Solidaires ramped up its efforts. Thanks to some 200 volunteers and its partner collectives and associations – including Les Petits Paniers, Le Club des Réglisses, Les Brigades de Solidarité Populaire of the 20th, and the Île de France Food Bank – the association expanded its collection of food and hygiene products and prepared 125 to 160 hot meals each day. These were distributed as take-out at La Flèche d’Or or handed out to people on the street by “maraude” teams. « The level of the solidarity of the neighborhood is not very surprising. It’s a neighborhood that is very committed,” says Marie.
Now, with the lockdown lifted and the collectives’ occupation of La Flèche d’Or drawing to an end, the hot meal program has been scaled back to Wednesdays and Sundays. “Conducting this type of action without visibility is complicated, » explains Marie. “Officially, the occupation ends at the end of February. There was a question of the Paris City Hall, which supports the project, buying La Flèche d’Or. We’re waiting for responses and are in a phase of reflection on how we’re going to be able to perpetuate this place. What is certain is that we all want La Flèche d’Or to continue. I think that a lot of inhabitants do, too.”
Ivan also hopes the project will continue: “I think that integration in a neighborhood through food and in a popular canteen, it’s much easier to approach people. A concert will bring a certain style of people. But in the end, everyone eats. It’s easier to reach people with food.”
Les Repas Solidaires
102 bis rue de Bagnolet