Why prioritize food? Food nourishes, in so many ways. But not only does it provide the nutrition on which good health is built, food also helps build and sustain healthy vibrant cities. And as ‘the great connector,’ something all of us have in common, it becomes a conduit through which great things are made possible:
- Building diverse and inclusive healthy communities.
- Breaking down social isolation and creating vibrant public spaces.
- Reducing violence.
- Ensuring prosperity and a strong economy.
Right here in Toronto, all of this is proven true every day by innovative food projects such as Good Food Markets (which bring fresh food access to food deserts but also break down social isolation by creating vibrant public space in which neighbours meet and create social safety nets), community kitchens, community gardens and urban agriculture projects (which increase community engagement, reduce youth violence in at-risk communities, provide fresh produce and increase economic prosperity by extending the dollar for those who might not be able to afford both rent and healthy food.)
In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, prioritizing food has also created a dramatic reduction in poverty and malnutrition, a dramatic increase in widespread participation in civil society, and it has led to vibrant public spaces and a more healthy city overall.
1. The Challenge
How can the city work to ensure that all residents have access to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food and at the same time, how can Toronto encourage the growth of the food economy so that restaurants, farmers and community food markets, healthy food carts and the Toronto food industry flourish? How do we address the disparity between a thriving city centre with good food access and poorer inner suburbs that are food deserts, often with immediate access only to a convenience store with expensive, less healthy food and no fresh food?
Toronto’s recent Food Strategy, Cultivating Food Connections, sums it up well: “With more than enough produced or imported food to feed everyone well, we still have hungry families in Toronto. Likewise, most farmers are having a hard time making a living from their farms, even though they live on fertile land next to a prime market. These challenges, in the midst of so many advantages, call out for a comprehensive vision and strategy to make the most of our food system’s potential and build a healthy Toronto.”
2. The Current Situation and Chief Barriers to Progress
- One in ten Toronto households does not have adequate healthy food.
- One in three Toronto children (age 2-11) is either overweight or obese. Obesity, diabetes and diet related illness continue to grow, threatening our residents and our health care system.
- Environmental problems demand reductions in the distance food travels and opportunities for people to grow more food in their backyards, in parks, schoolyards and in the yards of social housing and private sector high rises.
- One in eight Toronto jobs is in the food sector. The Ontario Food Terminal, located in Toronto, is the Canada’s largest wholesale market for vegetables and fruits and we are the second largest food distribution centre on the continent. Great restaurants, multi types of food outlets, street festivals, celebrate the diversity of the city and make Toronto a great place to live and visit. But at the same time, far too many of our neighbourhoods are food deserts, with poor access to healthy food.
- Toronto is a recognized leader on food, the first city in North America with a staffed Food Policy Council, the first in Canada to fund student nutrition programs or have a food charter, and one of the first in Canada to fund the facilitation of community food projects. Yet city departments do not know how to support food, and residents and community groups are still being told “no” or “go away” when they ask to plant a garden, establish food markets, bake ovens or bees on public land, or when they suggest that public arenas and cafeterias and the streets of our city sell healthy or local sustainable food.
- Many of the public policies needed are outside the City’s jurisdiction, but we know what is possible when the largest city in Canada takes a stand and leads by implementing innovative local policies and encouraging other levels of government to act as well.
Cultivating Food Connections
City of Toronto 2009/2010 Student Nutrition Program Subsidies
3. Opportunities for Action
Toronto has already recognized the value of food and is a leader in the work already done, particularly through Toronto Public Health. We have a Food Charter, a Food Strategy, and a Five Year Plan for Student Nutrition. It will be important to follow through on each of these, and to continue to support the Toronto Food Policy Council which has been responsible for important debate and discussion.
But to prioritize food and harvest its diverse benefits for our City and its residents, Four Key Actions are needed:
1) SAY “YES” TO FOOD:
Many things can happen before new money is spent, if Toronto would commit to saying “yes” rather than “no” to food. The City needs to:
- Make land available in parks, schoolyards and other public spaces for gardens, markets, community kitchens, community composting, community beehives, bake ovens, student nutrition programs, festivals, healthy food carts;
- Implement food neighbourhood planning so that planners work with developers and the private sector to ensure that every neighbourhood has grocery stores and access to healthy food and fresh produce;
- Establish mid-scale community composting on public land and private and social housing backyards saving millions in waste costs that could be reinvested in community food programs, and creating high quality soil to grow food in the city.
2) SPEND MONEY TO HELP COMMUNITIES GET ORGANIZED:
Money spent on student nutrition programs and community food programs have already been proven to improve the access to healthy food for thousands in Toronto. The City needs to:
- Increase grants to food projects and community food animators to allow more of this innovative and important work to continue and expand built on a community capacity building model that ensures exponential effects for a modest investment;
- Expand funding for student nutrition programs to combat hunger, childhood obesity and diabetes;
- Establish a food Ambassador in the Mayor’s Office embedding strategic food policies and programs, the Food Charter and Food Strategy throughout all that the city does, and so that food projects like healthy street carts succeed rather than fail.
3) SUPPORT LOCAL FOOD JOBS
The City needs to:
- Expand food staffing in Toronto Economic Development to make Toronto’s neighbourhoods culinary destinations, create food clusters and food incubators;
- Launch a “Toronto Eats Local Sustainable” campaign” with voluntary targets to increase the amount of local sustainable food in all restaurants, grocery stores, and food carts;
- Increase local sustainably produced foods procured by the City to make City-operated food enterprises a model of healthy local sustainably produced food;
- Celebrate Toronto as a food destination as a key component of Toronto’s tourism agenda.
4) COLLABORATE WITH PROVINCIAL AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENTS.
The City needs to:
- Advocate to senior levels of government to ensure adequate income so no one goes hungry;
- Encourage agricultural policies that support Ontario farmers;
- Encourage changes to the Planning Act so that developers would need to include food outlets, as they do schools, when new housing and neighbourhoods are built.