Throughout the late 1970s a massive restructuring in Canada’s agriculture sector caused a crisis for the nation’s farmers and in 1977 the People’s Food Commission travelled across the country from coast to coast to hear from hundreds of people in town hall meetings that described these problems informing the publication of the Land of Milk and Money (1980). By the early 1980s a major change in society’s understanding of the connections between food and health spawned an emerging conversation about the importance of food to overall health and well-being and a determinants of health approach also began develop in Canada as well as internationally.
As municipal and community leaders struggled to deliver social and infrastructure services during an economic downturn plagued by shrinking budgets and increasing demands, creative thinking was required to address the growing crisis of hunger created by poverty and a food system that did not prioritize healthy food, healthy communities, local family farmers or farms.
In 1983, the Food Advocacy Coalition Toronto (FACT), spearheaded by Toronto’s Health Department Dietitians and Nutritionists was established and began to collect data on hunger, poverty and nutrition. In 1984 the City of Toronto Department of Public Health produced the Access to Nutritious Food Report (the first of its kind) and lobbied for guaranteed annual income, affordable housing, and different models for food outlets in the City. The last paper FACT prepared was for the National Hunger conference in 1986.
In 1984, the first Daily Bread Food Bank was opened in Toronto designed as a stop-gap measure to support the City’s hungry through tough economic times. Envisioned as a temporary emergency measure – the Toronto food bank was modeled after the first large food bank in Canada in Edmonton that had opened the year before.
Grassroots initiatives from community based groups working in Toronto, such as the Sole Support Women’s Community Garden and Kitchen in Regent Park, also sought collective solutions to hunger. The project brought together a group of low-income women, often single mothers, to cultivate food for their families in community gardens. Programming included visits to farms and community cooking. Donna MacDonald, who would become FoodShare’s first Executive Director, worked with this group while a student at the University of Toronto completing her Master’s in Nutrition.
Solutions that emerged at this time to respond to the crisis facing Toronto’s most vulnerable citizens can be broadly classified into what we would now call a food systems approach: considering all points along the food chain from emergency charity based programs to farmer to city programs that seek to create a new distribution chain and utilize participatory methods. These seemingly divergent approaches provided the conceptual framework for FoodShare Toronto, an initiative proposed by a coalition hosted by then Mayor of Toronto Art Eggleton, with a focus on long-term solutions to hunger and food poverty.
In his second Mayoral election platform in 1985 Mayor Art Eggleton brought forward a motion entitled “A Concept to Help Fight Hunger in Toronto”. The motion was in response to pressure put together by a group that included Stuart Coles, a minister working with the Christian Resource Centre in Regent Park and long time activist on issues of hunger and poverty. Stuart had grown up on a farm and was very involved in the People’s Food Commission process, which highlighted the destructive impact of conglomeration in the food industry on the livelihoods of Canadian Farmers. The document’s recommendations included community gardens, school food programs, setting up a co-op distribution network with trucks supplied by the City going to the Ontario Food Terminal, actions to reduce food waste, and the need for income re-distribution to combat hunger.