I produced this article for the final project of my Community Development and Food Security Course at Ryerson University in summer 2020. We were given free rein to explore a topic and medium of our choosing, and I decided to explore how food security organizations were responding to COVID-19 in Toronto, as well as the policy changes they thought were needed to move toward something better. The article is based on research as well as interviews. I designed a magazine-style spread in InDesign intended to draw the reader into the article. Full article text below.
First, it was the rush to stores to stockpile pantry items and meat, and the shock of finding empty shelves from consumers accustomed to abundance. Shoppers looked for opportunities to buy local. With time, panic buying slowed, and those with the luxury of more time on their hands began growing food and baking bread. Yeast became the new toilet paper.
Food and COVID have been inextricably linked. But stockpiling and sourdough haven’t been every Torontonian’s experience of food during a pandemic.
In February, food security issues were the seventh most-common reason people contacted 211, a city service that provides information on community and social services; in April, they were the No. 1 reason. Nationally, in May, Statistics Canada reported that food insecurity rates had been significantly higher during COVID-19, with 14.6% of Canadians experiencing household food insecurity in the past 30 days. Rates were higher among those living in a household with children (19.2%) and those who were not working as a result of COVID-19 (28.4%).
Many households that were already experiencing food insecurity are now at a greater risk for more severe or prolonged challenges. “The demographics that we serve, the communities that we serve, were being the hardest hit by food security issues,” said Victoria Foote, Director of Development and Communications for FoodShare.
Across the city, the food security sector has had to leap into action.
A scan of Toronto organizations addressing food insecurity reveals a sector that has had to pivot quickly to meet growing needs while navigating physical distancing.
The demand for the PACT Urban Peace Program’s Emergency Fresh Food Box was described as being “far greater and will last longer than we are currently equipped to meet.” The Stop Community Food Centre shifted to emergency food programming and reported that if already elevated demand rose another 50%, it would not be able to cope. Other changes have been more positive: The St. James Town Community Corner has been offering online balcony gardening workshops, while in Thorncliffe Park, residents came together to plant fruit trees.
Foote said that COVID-19 has had a “profound effect” on FoodShare’s operations. Its Good Food Box program, which sells fresh, locally grown produce, is a source of revenue for the organization. While it continues to serve paying customers, it is now also delivering food boxes for free to people in need. FoodShare has distributed over 520,000 lbs of fresh produce to nearly 32,500 food insecure households since mid-March.
Daily Bread Food Bank has also been working to meet elevated demand; visits to its food banks have increased by more than 30% since the pandemic hit. At the same time, a third of its food banks were forced to close their doors due to COVID-19 restrictions. “We’ve seen demand go up both because of new clients needing to access food and because of existing clients accessing food more frequently,” said Peter Ochs, Research and Policy Officer. Staff redeployed to the warehouse in shifts to keep food going out the door.
Other organizations have had to change their approach entirely. Summerlunch+ normally partners with camps to deliver meals and food literacy programming to kids during the school break, but camps aren’t open this year. Enter: Summerlunch+ at Home.
The organization is now sending ingredients to students’ homes that they can use to make recipes posted to its website. It has also launched virtual programming through Google Classroom, where students can participate in food literacy activities and watch weekly cooking videos.
“We’re still trying to work the kinks out,” Executive Director Susan Wright said in early July. “Finding an open kitchen that we can work out of is a big deal.” Wright also had to find a new food retailer after the wholesaler Summerlunch+ normally buys from imposed quantity limits. Now, the program is sourcing food through a local grocer in Thorncliffe Park and Paintbox Bistro in Regent Park, which itself had pivoted to serve as a grocery service in recent months.
Beyond the day-to-day challenges facing the food security sector, recent Black Lives Matter protests have made much more entrenched issues top of mind: racism and representation. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected racialized communities, hitting hardest in the northwest and in parts of Scarborough. On June 28, the Toronto Star reported that COVID rates were more than 10 times higher in some of these neighbourhoods. For the food security sector, this has prompted questions and criticisms about representation – vital reflection given that Black households are 3.5 times more likely to be food insecure than white households in Canada.
In one public reckoning, The Stop Community Food Centre came under fire after posting a Black Lives Matter message to its Instagram on June 2. The post – since deleted – drew dozens of critical comments. In screenshots of the replies posted to The Stop’s blog, one person wrote: “Having a primarily white board and high-level positions held by those without any lived experience or oppression in the food system doesn’t do much.” Another commented: “An entire youth group, a space where we discussed social issues, cooked together, formed a community together, was cut because you didn’t want black women working for you.”
The Stop has since written on its blog that it is taking the criticisms seriously and shared its plan for action. A public letter signed by 21 former staff called on The Stop to prioritize Black and Indigenous representation in executive and board positions, among other demands.
FoodShare Executive Director Paul Taylor has spoken at length in the media about the connection between racism and food insecurity. On its website, the food justice organization says it aims to centre the voices of those most affected by poverty and food insecurity in its work. After thousands of people marched in the streets on May 30 calling for justice for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman who died during an encounter with police, FoodShare provided emergency food boxes to protesters who were self-isolating after the march.
“We want to continue to elevate Black voices. We want to help people recognize that Black people have been pushing for justice for a long time,” Taylor said in a June interview with Toronto Life.
In a recent online panel hosted by FoodShare, Black Creek Community Farm Director Leticia Ama Deawuo shared her perspective as a Black woman working in a field dominated by white people. “A lot of agencies and organizations parachute into low-income, racialized communities to do this work, to extract resources or to gain resources on the back of community members,” she said.
She recalled hosting a group for a meeting at Black Creek. After she introduced herself and offered the visitors coffee and tea, they asked her to call the director of the farm for the meeting.
It’s hard for people from low-income communities to be taken seriously for the knowledge they bring to the table, Deawuo said.
Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (TYFPC) co-chair Emma Tamlin agrees that there needs to be a power shift within food security organizations.
“It’s not as if these organizations are run entirely by white people, but the decision-making power remains with white people … the communities that those organizations are serving should be led by people who understand those experiences.”
With Toronto’s inequities rendered in stark contrast by COVID-19, advocates and organizations are renewing calls for a minimum basic income, more affordable housing and improved social supports. This is timely, as the provincial government undertakes a review of its poverty reduction strategy.
Daily Bread has made a submission to the province with its recommendations. The top three items of 10 are investments in affordable housing, a stronger foundation for social assistance recipients, and extending health and dental benefits to low-income Ontarians.
These aren’t new ideas, Ochs says. “It’s still the same thing that our clients and residents in Toronto have been asking for, for a while … And so those are things that we continue to ask for and continue pushing for.”
While it’s not clear how it will play out, Ochs says there has been receptivity at different levels of government to hearing ideas for recovery, including discussions around housing and income security.
Summerlunch+’s Wright says income security should be a priority for governments.
“I think having decent employment, a minimum basic income for families and having a broader perspective on what it costs to live in a city like Toronto would mean that we should be able to help our families cover rent, food and basic supplies in a dignified way,” she said.
Creating stronger financial and social supports would require major investment from government. Toronto is expecting to face a $1.35 billion budgetary shortfall by the end of 2020, while the federal deficit is projected to hit $343.2 billion this fiscal year.
Wayne Roberts, a Canadian food policy analyst and writer who led the Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000-2010, is a strong believer in raising social assistance rates and in a guaranteed annual income – but he doesn’t think it’s a realistic ask.
Roberts says one of the biggest problems is that food is not understood as a public policy issue. “The concept that food is a private sector, individual issue has total hegemony. And that’s why we can’t make any progress on food security,” he said, adding that getting food policy recognized as public policy would require a major educational campaign.
Roberts wants to see governments mobilize around malnutrition in the same way it has with COVID, which in turn would lower health-care costs. He thinks a nationwide school meals program for every student should be a priority.
“It costs way more to keep people hungry than feed them … Nobody can say the reason we have a policy of not funding for it is the government can’t afford it. We can’t afford not to fix it.”
Recognizing that governments may not be able to spend more on poverty alleviation right now, FoodShare says it’s a question of budgetary allocation.
“Our argument would be, let’s spend differently,” said Foote. “Instead of giving corporate tax breaks, let’s build affordable housing; instead of boosting the police budget … let’s restrict some of that funding, even a nominal amount, to put into support systems that these communities need.”
However, improving food security also requires building a more sustainable food system. The TYFPC’s Tamlin says the pandemic has shone a light on pre-existing problems. “What I’ve said before is by the time the food gets to the consumer, it should check all the boxes. It should have been harvested ethically; it should have been produced environmentally sustainably.” She wants to see more government support for smallholder farmers, as well as changes to zoning in Toronto to support different types of urban agriculture.
Whether looking at food systems or food insecurity, Toronto is at a turning point – and so are the non-profits that serve the city’s most vulnerable. Will the City take this opportunity to address structural, systemic issues and create a better future for its residents? Or will it return to business as usual as the crisis recedes? As the food security sector urges change, there is hope that an unprecedented pandemic can also be a conduit for unprecedented social, environmental and economic transformation.
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