Re-imagining the right to food

How FoodShare is growing food justice in Toronto

by Paul Taylor
Originally published in NewCities July 19, 2021

In Canada, everyone has a right to food. Not the right to wait in line for canned green beans from a food bank, or the right to a hamper packed with someone else’s leftovers—but the right for every person to feed themselves and their communities with joy and dignity.

This isn’t a radical idea. In fact, it’s enshrined in law. In 1976, Canada proclaimed food as a human right when it signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In doing so, our government became obliged to create the conditions for its citizens to be able to access good, nutritious, affordable food wherever they live.

Over the decades, successive governments have resoundingly failed to meet these obligations. They’ve allowed food to become a commodity with no mechanisms to ensure access, and as a result, 1 in 7 Canadians can’t afford enough of it on a regular basis—a statistic that skyrockets if you’re Black or Indigenous. This is a public health crisis by any measure, but rather than address the root causes through social programs and policy, our representatives have shuffled their responsibility onto over-worked, under-resourced food charities to try to pick up the slack.

I’m the Executive Director of FoodShare, a Toronto-based food justice organization that works to address the widening social inequalities that cause food insecurity.

FoodShare launched in 1985—four years after the first food bank opened in Canada. It was already apparent to my predecessors that food charity could only ever be a bandaid on a gaping wound. These programs would not prevent food insecurity. In fact, they would often reinforce harmful stereotypes in our society by positioning low-income people as passive recipients and food banks as a viable solution to chronic hunger in Canada.

At FoodShare, our mission isn’t food charity; it’s food justice.

FOOD JUSTICE

Striving towards justice means working to dismantle systemic forms of oppression that have been baked into our food system. It means acknowledging that colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy continue to dictate how people grow, sell and access food in Canada. These forces have shaped which communities we let go hungry in our country (mostly racialized, Indigenous and low-income), and which people are given the power to implement solutions (mostly white and male).

FoodShare collaborates with, and takes our cue from, the people that are most affected by poverty and food insecurity, including Black, Indigenous and racialized people, people with disabilities, newcomers to Canada and other groups who navigate the brunt of inequity. We know that collaborating with these communities to design community based infrastructure can create more just, resilient and sustainable interventions—we’ve seen it firsthand.

FOOD JUSTICE WORK IN PRACTICE

FoodShare reaches over 266,700 people each year with our food-based programming. Our team sees our role as catalyzers, as accomplices to local leaders, which is why we don’t arrive in communities with pre-set solutions. Instead, we support community organizers to build food assets and infrastructure that they run and own themselves.

Whether it’s animating community-led food markets that offer culturally appropriate produce, operating community gardens and urban farms in low-income neighbourhoods, increasing access to fresh produce through our Good Food Box social enterprise or supporting student nutrition programs, our offerings are grounded in the recognition that knowledge, solutions and leadership exists in communities across the city.

FOODSHARE DURING COVID

When COVID first hit, we knew immediately who would be most affected: essential workers (mostly women of colour) who wouldn’t be able to socially distance at work or on public transit, and who weren’t eligible for adequate paid sick leave. Any projects we launched would have to be designed with these communities as leaders and collaborators.

Rather than make people line up for food, our team quickly made a plan to deliver thousands of emergency produce boxes directly to people’s homes. To do so, we partnered with 95 community groups and organizations across the city, prioritizing those working with Black, Indigenous or racialized folks, undocumented people and migrant workers to ensure we were reaching people who had been systemically disadvantaged even before the pandemic hit. Since March 2020, we’ve delivered 1.5 million pounds of fresh, free produce to households across the city, supported 46 Good Food Markets to sell affordable and culturally appropriate produce to areas that lack it and distributed hundreds of free balcony garden kits to low-income Torontonians who live in apartment towers.

Our work has continued to expand alongside communities throughout the pandemic. We’ve been there as neighbours have come together to launch community gardens and set up good food markets. We’ve also been there to organize for affordable housing, protections for migrant agricultural workers, decent work and paid sick days and the right to feel safe when interacting with the police—all of which are impacting people’s ability to access food during COVID (and before).

HOW WE OPERATE

Any organization that seeks to improve the health and wellbeing of its community needs to start with the people it employs. FoodShare is a living wage employer, which means we offer as a starting wage what it costs to afford a basic standard of living in Toronto ($22.08/hr). We also offer health benefits on our employees’ first day of work, and no-interest loans of up to $2,000 for any staff person who needs one.

These policies don’t just improve employee wellbeing and minimize turnover—they expand the talent pool that we’re able to draw from when hiring. For example, access to post-secondary education is not universal, so it’s almost never listed in the qualifications section in our job postings. Likewise, providing a staff lunch per diem, offering a matching RRSP or TFSA program, and introducing three new personal days have all resulted in a more diverse and skilled workplace at FoodShare.

OUR VISION FOR A POST-COVID FOOD FUTURE

Sadly, COVID-19 has the potential of further enshrining food charity as our default response to the almost 5.5 million Canadians that are food insecure. Throughout the pandemic, politicians have used food charities as backdrops for photo ops, and have even provided them with hundreds of millions of dollars of public funding. As I’ve said before, I want these government officials to put down the donated tins and sort the policy.

As civic leaders, we need to be dreaming of communities where poverty and food insecurity no longer exist. We need to envision bold policies at the local and national level that ensure everyone can feed themselves, their families and their communities in a dignified way without the need for charity, both now and into the future. We also need to imagine a food movement that works together to dismantle oppressive systems that both cause and hold poverty and food insecurity in place.

Let’s not let the opportunity pass.