While solving the problem of food insecurity will require a concerted effort from all levels of government, there is a great deal being done at a more grassroots level to help make sure Torontonians can put food on their plates.
Organizations such as Community Food Centres Canada (CFC), FoodShare, Building Roots and the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (TYFPC) are engaging vulnerable Torontonians through a variety of programs and initiatives, providing not only food but opportunity.
CFC Chief Operating Officer Kathryn Scharf (www.cfccanada.ca) said awareness of food security issues is growing, as is action to combat them. Her organization originated out of The Stop Community Food Centre on Davenport Road, and now there are three such organizations in Toronto and eight across Canada.
“With almost one in 10 households experiencing food insecurity, we don’t have a hard time finding communities that could use a Community Food Centre,” she said, adding that finding local partners willing to help deliver services is a key part of what her organization does.
Scharf noted that while teaching healthy food skills, offering cooking groups and classes, providing after-school programs where kids can have healthy snacks and creating community gardens are all great ways to combat food insecurity, the key is in making sure more Canadians can earn a living wage.
However, that’s something that will only come about when governments mandate it, said Scharf.
“The key is to fight poverty, fight for housing, increase wages and social assistance rates,” she said. “We can push for those things at a grassroots level, but we can’t make them happen.”
Darcy Higgins of Building Roots (www.pushfoodforward.com/buildingroots) agreed that a wage policy, along with better social support, is the best permanent solution, adding his organization is doing its best in the meantime to bring food access to where people need it most.
“We’re trying to bring fresh food at affordable prices to where people need it most,” he said.
“We have a Moss Park Market that just opened in a shipping container on Toronto Community Housing property, and that’s a model we’re hoping to replicate in other communities. We’re exploring and looking for partners across the city, especially in the suburbs.”
He said those battling food insecurity can also benefit from connecting with community agencies that can help teach them to cut costs and stretch their food budgets further, by joining cooking programs run by not-for-profits, or by growing their own food, perhaps in community gardens near where they live.
The Ashbridge Estate near Queen and Greenwood is a prime example of using available space to bolster food security. A new community garden has been planted there by Syrian refugees to complement an existing community garden at the site.
“There are so many communities – especially lower-income communities – where there aren’t stores for people to buy fresh food,” Higgins said. “It tends to be more convenience stores (instead of affordable grocery stores with more healthy options) in those communities, so you have to look at other solutions.”
Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (www.tyfpc.ca) co-chair Melana Roberts said projects to boost food security can range from relatively small in scale, such as new pop-up food markets being launched at TTC subway stations at Downsview, Kipling and Victoria Park stations, to Malvern Eats – a community lunch that hosts as many as 300 guests – to the CEED (community eco economic development), which could see hydro corridors turned into community gardens.
“We’re working with Toronto Public Health and looking at four different sites where (CEED) could work,” she said, noting those sites include Rexdale, northeast Scarborough, Flemingdon Park and the Danforth and Victoria Park area.
“They’re in neighbourhoods characterized as priority neighbourhoods with a really diverse mix of residents in terms of age, socioeconomic background and ethnicity.”
FoodReach (www.foodreach.ca), meanwhile, helps various organizations bring food to communities by combining their buying power. Rather than having each organization make connections and buy goods, they can pool their resources and make bulk purchases from the Ontario Food Terminal, stretching those dollars further.
“There’s $29 million spent a year by non-profit agencies in the community food sector (each year in Toronto,)” said Shawn Conway of FoodReach. “That’s a lot of buying power.”
“We started out with an emphasis on fresh produce, but now we have a dairy line and a bread line as well.”
Many other organizations across the city are helping to keep vulnerable Torontonians fed, but they all acknowledge their work is simply addressing the symptoms of the type of poverty that leads to food insecurity.
They say it’s ultimately up to government to determine if and when a permanent solution to the issue will be presented.
EDITOR'S NOTE: FoodReach was incorrectly referred to in this story as FoodShare. The story was updated on Friday, July 22. Insidetoronto regrets the error.