oronto — one of the fastest growing cities in the world — has long been experiencing twin crises: housing precarity and food insecurity.
In the wake of COVID-19, some GTA-ers have been active participants in redrawing lines of communication and support, while others have been using this time as an opportunity to continue the struggle for food sovereignty.
The Hoser spoke to people from multiple arms of the movement to feed Toronto's most vulnerable. Throughout the development of this article, we delved deeper into the value of appropriately framing the nebulous web of related emergencies.
You will notice that we use the term "food desert" to describe a geographic area that does not have access to affordable and nutritious food, which has been colloquial language for years.
In our conversations with activists and academics, we learned that a more accurate depiction for the legacy of this injustice is "food apartheid," which better describes the man-made interventions to create and uphold these layers of food insecurity.
“The term food desert is like an assessment of where grocery stores are located,” said Jenelle Regnier-Davies, a chef and PhD researcher at X University studying the impacts of COVID-19 on community-based food programming, and how we can learn from the pandemic to inform governance and future food security practice.
Regnier-Davies also worked at Second Harvest in Toronto, Canada’s largest food rescue charity. They redistribute unsold food to charities, nonprofits and Indigenous communities.
“A lot of people at the community level don't see grocery stores, or that kind of capitalist system, serving them well,” Regnier-Davies said. “So really, [food apartheid] is about access to Land. We shouldn't be focusing on ‘food deserts,’ in terms of grocery stores. We should be thinking about it in terms of who has access to Land to be able to grow food to serve themselves.”
While the focus of this article is on food insecurity, the emergencies of climate change, low wages, gentrification, globalization, and homelessness are also spectres informing this crisis.
Redrawing the City
Toronto, with a population of six million people and growing, and an average household income of about $46,000, feeding this many people is a task that should be treated seriously, ethically, and with the utmost dignity. Unfortunately, it isn’t always.
According to Michael Widener, assistant professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, food precarity is not simply a spatial conception, but a set of intricate demographic questions: what time are people seeking food? What is their income level? How many kids are in the household?
Widener explains in Mapping the City: Busting Conventional Wisdom in Food Deserts, a series by University of Toronto students and faculty: “There isn’t good availability for shift workers. In particular for people who have a lot of time pressure – people who are working late at night, working two jobs – the ability to shop healthfully is even more difficult.”
Regnier-Davies explained how Toronto has lived through the erosion of municipal level policy councils, leaving food activists less opportunity to communicate or advocate for sustainable food systems.
This ongoing pandemic has worked as a catalyst to usher in avenues that advocates wish to stay in place, and others that were emergency responses in need of restructuring.
According to Regnier-Davies, before the pandemic, food system work was part of Toronto Public Health, but it was reallocated to the Poverty Reduction sector of the city because of the COVID-19 crisis. Some refer to the new ways of addressing these urgent issues as “green, just recovery,” and wish to see these practices continue.
In response to the pandemic the City of Toronto developed the Community Organization Plan, where they divided the city into ten regional community tables and two issue-based clusters which allowed groups of organizations that were doing on the ground social service work to connect and coordinate with each other once a week.
“There were ten neighborhood-level clusters that were very, very much hit by food insecurity, as well as other social insecurities, like heightened homelessness,” Regnier-Davies said.
But what was sacrificed was how branches communicated with the community: “There's no longer resident consultation, there's only community social sector group consultation. But one positive element of that was that organizations were able to leverage their resources and collaborate with each other in ways that they hadn't before.”
Intersectional Food Sovereignty
Relationships with Land are tensely political, deeply personal, and worthy of subjective observation.
Advocacy groups and activists are not fighting for big name grocery stores to exist closer together, but are instead staking legitimate claims to the rights of the people to experience food sovereignty, which Sheldomar Elliott, a food justice advocate, researcher and Food Rx Coordinator at FoodShare Toronto, describes as “the right for a community or a group of people to own and control the means of the produce and the food that they’re eating from distribution to growing, [and beyond].”
Elliott explained that food sovereignty isn’t the answer to food insecurity, but it is part of the solution. Interviews from both Regnier-Davies and Elliott emphasize that Black and Indigenous folx are the most food insecure.
Elliott offered statistics from PROOF, an interdisciplinary research team researching food insecurity across Canada. A 2017-2018 study shows that “The highest rates of food insecurity were found among households where the respondent identified as Indigenous or Black, at 28.2%, and 28.9% respectively,” while white households were food insecure at 11.1%.
In fact, the Black Food Sovereignty Alliance of Toronto (BFSAT), a collaboration between The Centre for Studies in Food Security at X University and Afri-can FoodBasket, published a report of their own called Advancing Black Food Sovereignty, which was presented to the City of Toronto and approved by the city’s Board of Health. BFSAT is supported by the city’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism unit, and “will focus on leading and advocat[ing] through a collective framework around advancing food issues impacting Black communities in the Greater Toronto Area.”
The push for Black food sovereignty and the right to accessible, culturally appropriate food is a very valuable initiative, one that is long overdue.
We have seen the “40 acres and a mule” promise remain an outstanding IOU. According to nationalfarmersunion.org, this unfulfilled promise to freed slaves would amount to $6.4 billion USD today, or $7.9 billion CAD. Granting Black people food sovereignty is just one part in the push for reparations that the descendents of slaves have been struggling for since the 19th century.
The conversation is incomplete, however, because no settler government can give Black people Indigenous Land. The solidarity between Black and Indigenous communities needs to continue so that sovereignty can be mutually achieved. The Tyee elaborated on this discussion with Dawn Morrison, an advocate for Indigenous food sovereignty, where she described that movement as “the ability of Indigenous peoples to respond to our own needs for food, for adequate amounts of healthy food, the way we have for thousands of years.”
For many, the conversation about food security begins with water. 32 First Nations communities in Canada still don’t have clean drinking water. There are 51 long-term drinking water advisories, and each advisory can mean as many as 5000 people lacking access to clean drinking water.
Mapping TO's Food Apartheid, Pinning Community Work
Elliott addresses food insecurity in the GTA through his work with the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (TYFPC), a youth-run organization that mobilizes and engages youth to “make change by building a just food system.”
Elliott recently served as a moderator for the Future of Our Cities Series: Public Spaces for Public Use, which discussed how golf courses can be repurposed to better serve the communities that surround them. (Join the Progress Toronto facebook group and watch the recording).
The City of Toronto is currently reevaluating how five city-operated golf courses (totalling 200 acres of green space) can potentially be used as public spaces to animate Land, which Elliott describes as “bring[ing] it to life and transform[ing] it into a space that is better for all the beings that inhabit that place…[including] a garden where food can be grown but also where pollinator plants and insects can exist.”
He explained that racism is real in the decision making process in what Land can be used to grow food in Toronto, expressing that Black people don’t get the same access to funding or access to Land as non-Black people.
“Food justice equals racial justice,” Elliott said. “And the reason I say this is because there are many fronts to the issue of liberation, and I think that food is one of those things that connects us to everything: to history, to ourselves, to our family, to the Earth, to its beings. And for Black folx specifically, not having access to good food or food that nurtures us, it just adds to the problem.”
Funding is one of the major obstacles to assuaging food insecurity, as the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority controls these decisions in the GTA.
“You need funding to grow food,” Elliott explained. “You need funding to buy Land, to access Lands, to hire people to do research, to hire people to grow food, all of these things. And the government makes it really difficult for that funding to be had. There's a lot of work that non profits or other NGOs do to provide grants, but they're never long term, sustainable things. And it's difficult, especially in the City of Toronto, because the city Land is controlled by the TRCA, which has very strict guidelines as to what Lands can be used, and what Land can't be used. And it just makes things so difficult.”
Since pivoting to an online environment, the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council has maintained its advocacy work.
FoodShare, a non-profit organization also committed to food justice related initiatives, has kept their programs running throughout the pandemic. FoodShare truly offers something for everyone.
Part of FoodShare’s structure includes a pilot social prescription program, of which Elliott is the Food Rx Coordinator, explaining that food is an essential part of health and wellness, and that food is preventative medicine, but should also be treated as seriously as a prescription would.
Shenikqwa Phillip is a former Garden Sharing Coordinator at The Stop Commutity Food Centre, and is now a program manager with Black Women in Motion (BWIM), a “Toronto-based, youth-led organization that empowers and supports the advancement of black women, gender-non-conforming and non-binary survivors of gender-based violence.”
Phillip explained that since there was an increase in the money being donated to BWIM, organizers put together The Love Offering Initiative, where BWIM offered a cash stipend to over 100 community members, as well as a food box from FoodShare. Phillip described the pandemic coupled with the trauma of racism as witnessing how loudly people needed immediate care and support:
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of organizations, particularly Black-led organizations, can relate to the fact that after the cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubrey ... there was just an outcry of frustration from communities that are doing this work. And it's like, how can we continue to do this work with this type of violence that happens to our communities, and that the accountability measure is now ‘put your money where your mouth is’ rather than larger corporations being able to slap a Black Lives Matter on something and use that money for God knows what.
“Now we hold these corporations accountable to support organizations that have already been doing the work in communities for years. And with that, Black Women in Motion were able to, thankfully, get a lot of donations from different organizations connecting with us, collaborating with us, and fundraising on our behalf.”
Phillip added that the respondents to the stipend offering were mostly older people, children, and heads of single-parent households. She commended the Jamaican Canadian Association, who organized volunteers to share food with elders and community members every weekend.
Black Women in Motion offers community workshops, and has plans to partner with food security advocates to further the education of Black food sovereignty.
Climate Changes Harvest
There are aspects of the shuffle Toronto has experienced over the last two years that should remain in place. There is also mounting evidence for liberating the city from its standard ways of addressing poverty as something that can be resolved later.
Assuaging Toronto’s ongoing food apartheid includes reconsidering how public and private spaces can be reimagined, recognizing the intersectionality of related emergencies, and engaging with the city in agile ways so that change for the safety of the most vulnerable can happen more strategically, and more quickly.
Regnier-Davies emphasized climate change as a key factor in Toronto’s ever-changing food production landscape. It may not be noticeable year to year, but over the last ten years “the harvest has been shifted by a month,” Regnier-Davies said. “So previously, we saw cherries in May, and now we see them in June. Apricots might be in July, but now we see them in August. The impact of climate change on production is not so visible to us year by year, but over a series of say ten years, you can see that it's had an impact;” showing a disturbance to their ecosystem that bureaucracy has no plan to catch up with.
There are some promising opportunities for people in Toronto to help feed their communities, as well as opportunities to learn more and connect:
The Hoser would like to send a heartfelt thank you to Shannon Holness, a development planning, policy, and design researcher at SHS Consulting, and Amber Grant, PhD Candidate, Environmental Applied Science & Management, Urban Forest Research & Ecological Disturbance (UFRED) Group at X University. May they never work for free.