Writing

CERIC

Most of my work for CERIC is in content planning and editing, and when I write, it’s usually for social media, marketing or in listicle-style pieces. However, sometimes I get the opportunity to dive deeper to explore topics that matter most to our readers.

How COVID-19 is affecting rural communities across Canada?

Are career professionals ready for the challenges facing the field?

Accessible Experiential Learning: The Key to Student Success in the Future of Work

Resources for Canada’s career professionals navigating COVID-19 (While this is a listicle, it’s one that I am particularly proud of. Within a week of lockdown, I released this extensively researched resource page to our readers to help them navigate a challenging time, and kept it updated over the next couple of months. I also learned how to code a table of contents with jump links!)

Alzheimer Society of Oxford

I worked as a freelance writer for the Alzheimer Society from 2017-2019 telling the stories of those fundraised and volunteered for the cause to show appreciation for their efforts and encourage more people to get involved. I took care to make each person’s story shine and to understand the meaning behind their contribution, which often derived from a personal connection to the disease.

Margaret Webber’s dedication to the Alzheimer Society is far from garden variety

Boost your fundraising by hosting multiple Coffee Breaks

Alzheimer’s diagnosis fuels Carmen Holbrough’s fundraising

J-Source

Running the clock on fair response

The Record Technology Spotlight Magazine

Microchip would alert patient and surgeon when something goes wrong

Plum’s hiring tool measures attitude as well as intelligence

Helping contractors manage change

Daily Xtra

Liberal Bill Morneau takes Toronto Centre

Toronto LGBT mural defaced with hate graffiti – again

Building a news site for career professionals

Development

The first project I took on at CERIC was the development and launch of a new content-based website, CareerWise, to replace an outdated, directory-style website and job board. We wanted to create the source of career development news, resources and analysis for our target audience. It needed to be engaging and educational.

Getting acquainted with the career development world was like learning a new beat. Who were the actors? What were their interests and knowledge gaps? This was vital knowledge to inform the many decisions I had to make, from themes we would use as menu items, to the tags for categorizing articles, to the number of guest blogs we would post per week. I recruited writers whose work would be on display for launch and lined up an editorial calendar for the first couple of months of publication.

CareerWise (bottom) replaced the old ContactPoint website.

To make the right choices for our target audiences, I researched similar websites to analyze best practices, conducted SEO research through Google Adwords, and conducted surveys and a focus group with professionals in the field. (Six months after launch, I released another survey and held follow-up interviews to see how the website was landing, and subsequently made changes to the website to improve readers’ experiences.)

Management

I’m thrilled to see how the blog has grown over time. Our monthly session numbers have grown 56% since launch in fewer than two years. It’s become a community for people who work in this field, and I now have the privilege of people reaching out to contribute their ideas – from front-line practitioners with little writing experience to large research institutes that want to share their findings with our audience.

I am responsible for all content planning, publication and promotion on CareerWise. I update the website daily, with 4-5 original articles per week – a mix of guest blogs and resources compilations I research and write – and three “external” articles per day curated from a variety of news sources.

I work at least two months ahead on my editorial calendar, using a spreadsheet to map out each day’s original content and writer deadlines. I leave room in the calendar for responses to timely news and analysis.

My approach to working with writers is that each step of the process should be a conversation, starting with a phone call to get acquainted, align expectations and brainstorm topic ideas. I send each article back to my writers with tracked changes and always extend an offer to discuss editing suggestions. Some of my contributors, though very experienced in their field, are new to article writing. In cases where their articles require extensive reworking, I initiate a phone call to go through my suggestions line by line. I believe this helps build trust, strengthen the relationship and develop the contributor’s writing skills, which makes it more likely they will want to collaborate again.

Instagram account development

I don’t personally use Instagram, so when CERIC decided to create an account to connect with our CareerWise readers, I knew it would be an exciting challenge for me. I started by taking a Lynda.com course, “Learning Instagram,” to brush up on the basics. I consulted with colleagues and researched best practices for designing a grid, developing a posting schedule and driving engagement.

My challenge was to create a grid that would be visually engaging, align with our brand and bring awareness to our website content. I developed a grid in Photoshop relying heavily on quote posts to showcase our writers’ work while minimizing our use of stock images. With some tweaks based on my colleagues’ feedback, the grid was a go.

Developing the account and subsequently creating posts and stories has been a fun creative outlet for me and a great learning experience to connect with our readers in new ways. I’ve also been thrilled with the account’s growth. Over the first six months, the account has seen an average monthly follower growth rate of over 20%. I expect this strong growth to continue, as I explore paid social options to promote posts, refresh our grid and engage people through our fun, creative approach to stories.

Hungry for Change

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.

PIVOTING

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.

RECKONING

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.”

RECONSTRUCTING

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.

References

Aiello, R. (2020). ‘The challenge of our lifetime’: Federal deficit to hit $343 billion this year. CTV News. Retrieved July 2020 from https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/the-challenge-of-our-lifetime-federal-deficit-to-hit-343-billion-this-year-1.5015467

Balcony gardening. (n.d.) Retrieved July 2020 from https://www.stjamestown.org/2020/05/15/balcony-gardening/

COVID-19. (2020, July 23). Retrieved July 23, 2020 from https://www.toronto.ca/home/covid-19/

DeClerq, Katherine. (2020). One million Toronto library books are overdue and you’ll soon have to return them. CTV News. Retrieved July 2020 from https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/mobile/one-million-toronto-library-books-are-overdue-and-you-ll-soon-have-to-return-them-1.4949226?cache=piqndqvkh?clipId=68596

Foden, J. (2020). What is food insecurity? FoodShare’s Paul Taylor explains (plus what Canadians can do about it). Food Network Insider. Retrieved July 2020 from https://www.foodnetwork.ca/food-network-insider/blog/what-is-food-insecurity/

[FoodShare]. (2020, June 30). Black women on Black food sovereignty panel [Video]. Retrieved July 2020 from https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=892987187875452&ref=watch_permalink

FoodShare & PROOF. (n.d.). Race and food insecurity. Retrieved July 2020 from https://foodshare.net/custom/uploads/2019/11/PROOF_factsheet_press_FINAL.6.pdf

Former staff urge The Stop to fix structural racism. (2020, June 8). Retrieved July 2020 from www.notion.so/Former-Staff-Urge-The-Stop-to-Fix-Structural-Racism-17207e97431e48d88db578d5902851cc

Fox, C. (2020). Ontario premier won’t say if province will cover $1.35B deficit faced by Toronto. CTV News. Retrieved July 2020 from https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/ontario-premier-won-t-say-if-province-will-cover-1-35b-deficit-faced-by-toronto-1.5028176

Grow-to-learn emergency fresh food box: Our Covid-19 response. (2020, April 27). Retrieved July 2020 from http://pactprogram.ca/blog/grow-to-learn-emergency-fresh-food-box-our-covid-19-response/

Mendleson, R. (2020). Residents of Thorncliffe Park dig in and plant their own food. The Toronto Star. Retrieved July 2020 from https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/05/17/residents-of-thorncliffe-park-dig-in-and-plant-their-own-food.html

Screenshots from our Instagram post. (2020, June 8). Retrieved July 2020 from https://www.thestop.org/blog/screenshots-from-our-instagram-post/

Statistics Canada. (2020). Food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved July 2020 from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00039-eng.pdf?st=7iiEwmYj

Statistics Canada. (2020). Labour force characteristics by Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver census metropolitan areas, monthly, seasonally adjusted. Retrieved July 2020 from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200710/t008a-eng.htm

Toronto Foundation. (2020). Food security during the COVID-19 pandemic: Toronto’s food crisis is imminent. Retrieved July 2020 from https://torontofoundation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/TF-Better-Toronto-Coalition-Brief2-v01.pdf

Yang, J., Allen, K., Mendleson, R., & Bailey, A. (2020). Toronto’s COVID-19 divide: The city’s northwest corner has been ‘failed by the system’. The Toronto Star. Retrieved July 2020 from https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/06/28/torontos-covid-19-divide-the-citys-northwest-corner-has-been-failed-by-the-system.html

Yu, Andrea. (2020). “When you’re Black, you’re at greater risk of everything that sucks”: FoodShare’s Paul Taylor on the links between race and food insecurity. Toronto Life. Retrieved July 2020 from https://torontolife.com/food/when-youre-black-youre-at-greater-risk-of-everything-that-sucks-foodshares-paul-taylor-on-the-links-between-race-and-food-insecurity/

Policy brief: How Toronto can leverage the benefits of urban agriculture

I researched, wrote and designed this policy brief as part of an assignment for a course at Ryerson University , “Community Development and Food Security,” in Spring 2020.

Executive Summary:

Toronto’s underutilized public-owned spaces and many vacant lots present an opportunity for the city to capitalize on the widespread benefits of urban agriculture. Urban farming and gardening offer economic, health, community development and environmental benefits to cities and their residents. However, in order to facilitate these activities, Toronto City Council must evaluate available land and remove existing barriers to urban agriculture in the city’s Official Plan, by-laws and zoning.

Recommendations:

  • • Endorse urban agriculture in the Official Plan
  • • Conduct an inventory of city-owned and private-owned land that could be used for agriculture 
  • • Conduct analysis of impact of potential tax incentives to encourage urban agriculture
  • • Amend by-laws and zoning to legitimize non-profit and for-profit urban agriculture

Nestled among the high-rises in Toronto’s St. James Town neighbourhood lie vibrant community gardens – splashes of greenery where community members congregate to nurture the land and reap its rewards. In this dense neighbourhood, where 40% live in poverty and 90% of households are renters, urban agriculture increases access to fresh produce and nature, and builds community. 

This type of success story could be replicated throughout Toronto on a much wider scale – rather than an ad hoc basis – were the City to put legislative measures in place to encourage and enable it. Urban agriculture’s economic, community and environmental benefits render it an invaluable tool for municipalities to improve residents’ lives. In order to leverage urban agriculture most effectively, it is essential for Toronto City Council to prioritize urban agriculture in city planning and ensure underused land can be used for this purpose. And there is land available. A 2010 study found that for Toronto to produce 10% of its fresh vegetables requirements, it would need 2,317 hectares of food production area. About 25% of the rooftops suitable for greening in Toronto would provide over 1,200 hectares alone, with lands currently zoned for food production and industrial uses, small plots, land in hydro corridors and institutional lands making up the difference.

We urge council to capitalize on this potential by supporting, through legislation, food production on temporarily vacant private land and public land wherever possible.

Benefits of urban agriculture

There are myriad advantages of using public land and vacant private lots for agricultural purposes. These include economic, environmental and community benefits. 

Economic benefits

Agricultural activities on both public-owned and temporarily vacant private land can reduce costs for the city. When public landed is maintained by gardeners and farmers, the city’s maintenance costs go down. Vacant private land used for agriculture will no longer rely on city resources to police and maintain. 

Urban agriculture can also bolster incomes, create jobs and encourage skills development. Urban farming creates jobs in growing, producing and selling food. Community groups and businesses can generate income selling produce through farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture and mobile produce carts, for instance, as well as to restaurants. Research shows that a $1 investment in urban agriculture generates $6 in fresh produce. Researchers in Ohio have estimated that – with the right crops and growing techniques – urban farmers can gross up to $90,000 per acre. Furthermore, urban agriculture can have a multiplier effect, attracting industries and creating jobs in areas such as agriculture equipment, processing facilities, markets, landscaping and green roof construction.  Volunteers engaged in urban farming and gardening also benefit through the development of transferable skills such as food preparation, sales, business management and teamwork.

Environmental benefits

Urban agriculture helps beautify cities by filling in vacant lots or neglected plots of land with productive greenery. This can help residents feel more connected to the environment around them, which may encourage them to take more action to preserve and protect it. Urban farming can increase local food distribution, thus displacing produce previously imported by truck from places such as Florida and California, which helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Urban-produced produced should not be used to supplant fruits and vegetables cultivated just outside of urban bounds, as this provides little advantage in terms of greenhouse gase reductions and can harm the regional or provincial economy.) Urban agriculture also presents an opportunity for municipalities to make more efficient use of organic waste, by composting it and making it available to urban farmers and gardeners.

Community benefits

One of the primary benefits of urban agriculture is that it can help increase access to healthy food, especially among lower-income people living in areas that are under-served by food retail. It helps alleviate hunger and enhance nutrition, while improving health through the greening of the environment. When urban agriculture is paired with educational programming, children and adults can learn about nutrition, food preparation, agriculture and food systems, which can have positive effects on health and well-being. 

Furthermore, urban agriculture can also help strengthen and revitalize communities. It can imbue residents with a sense of pride and belonging, while also attracting new people to the community. Additionally, productive green spaces give people an opportunity to come together to work toward a common goal, which can help break down barriers. 

How municipal policy can support urban agriculture

The City of Toronto should take a strong position to endorse urban agriculture in order to reap its benefits. The first step toward this should be to strengthen the language in the City’s Official Plan to enthusiastically highlight urban agriculture as a key element of the city’s growth and development, and as a crucial contributor to a vibrant and healthy urban environment. The power of an official declaration of support can be seen in the case of Detroit (see p. 2). Toronto City Council should also consider the following policy actions. 

Land inventory

It is difficult to understand the full potential of urban agriculture in Toronto without a clear picture of the spaces where it could take place. An urban land inventory could identify city-owned plots of land and temporarily vacant private lots and rooftops. As identified by GrowTO, “Such an inventory would not only provide a clear picture of the city’s food-growing potential, but it would also provide an enormously valuable resource for community groups and commercial ventures alike to help them identify suitable spaces for food growing.” A land inventory could inform the development of a land bank used to connect people wishing to farm or garden with available land.

Tax incentives

To encourage urban agriculture by private enterprise, the city could allow vacant lots to be taxed at a lower rate if they are repurposed for agricultural purposes. This would encourage development, bolster local industry and result in a more food being produced within the city. However, preferential taxation does risk enabling “land grabbing” and could be exploited by businesses if regulations do not prevent it. The city should also take care to ensure that businesses are not prioritized over community groups or non-profits, which provide an additional public good. 

Bylaws and zoning

To accommodate urban agriculture, Toronto may need to amend any restrictive by-laws relating to soil (e.g. compost); water (e.g. sewers, access to); structures and sites (e.g. fences, signs); trees (e.g. planting, removal); parks; animals; and noise. Care must be taken to ensure that urban agriculture activities do not negatively affect nearby residents, but also that bylaws do not impede gardens and farms that are maintained respectfully.

The City may also need to evaluate and update zoning by-laws to legitimize urban agriculture activities. This can be accomplished by defining urban agriculture in zoning as a distinct form of use permitted in all zones, or at least a wider array of zones. Zoning permitting urban agriculture will also need to specify that food production and related activities are permitted for both commercial and non-commercial purposes. These updates are important because they encourage urban agriculture and offer guidelines to municipal staff and city residents about which agricultural land uses are permitted. 

Detroit makes way for greener future

In 2013, Detroit’s city council passed its urban agriculture ordinance, paving the way for expansion of a movement that had already taken root in the city. In a city with tens of thousands of vacant and unmaintained lots, as well as 75,000 abandoned residential structures, this municipal directive was transformative. The ordinance protects urban farming and gardening, and allows both small-scale and large-scale farmers to sell their harvest. Detroit has even seen proposals such ambitious undertakings as proposals for intensive vertical farms and fish farms. As of fall 2019, the city was home to nearly 1,400 community gardens and farms.

The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI), a volunteer-driven, non-profit organization, is an example of urban agriculture’s transformative power in Detroit. This three-acre farm has earned the neighbourhood the designation of an “agrihood” – a national development designation. While some agrihoods are geared toward wealthier residents, MUFI is focused on alleviating food insecurity. Its urban garden provides free, fresh produce to about 2,000 nearby households; community members can come to the garden to harvest on Saturday mornings. MUFI also engages the community other ways. It has organized neighbourhood cleanups, invites children to interact with nature through its Sensory Garden and is developing a Community Resource Center that will offer educational programming and meeting spaces. Its projects have drawn corporate partnerships, highlighting the ability of urban agriculture to drive neighbourhood investment and transformation. 

Waste not, want not? Assessing FoodRescue.ca’s impact on food security

I wrote and researched this paper for a course on Food Security Concepts and Principles at Ryerson University in fall 2019. I was fortunate to be able to interview the FoodRescue.ca Senior Manager as well as several organizations/businesses using the platform. Names of organizations/businesses and of participants have been omitted for online publication.

Four million Canadians are experiencing food insecurity at the same time that 58% of all food produced in this country is lost or wasted (Janus, 2019). Statistics like these are often juxtaposed in the news and in reports. The implication is that, if all the food that is currently being thrown out were saved and redistributed, food insecurity would not exist. This suggests that food insecurity is primarily an issue of access and provides a simple answer to a complex problem. While such figures paint a damning picture of how poorly Canada’s food system is functioning, they also raise the question, can you address food insecurity by rescuing edible food otherwise destined for landfills?

Second Harvest (est. 1985) is Canada’s largest food rescue organization, recovering over 15 million pounds of unsold, primarily perishable food each year and distributing it to social service organizations such as food banks, meal programs and homeless shelters (“Who we are,” n.d.). In order to make the most of its resources, Second Harvest (n.d.) only collects donations that weigh a minimum of 100 lbs, leaving a gap for businesses with smaller quantities of surplus food. Recognizing this, in 2018, Second Harvest launched FoodRescue.ca, an online platform that directly connects businesses that want to donate food of any quantity with social services organizations that can use it (V. Summerhill, personal communication, November 8, 2019). This paper will undertake an analysis of FoodRescue.ca, examining how the platform works and the implications of technology-enabled food rescue for food security, as well as opportunities and challenges in replicating this model.

Methodology

This research paper is based on a review of relevant reports and academic research about food rescue and food waste, as well as interviews with key stakeholders. I researched other organizations doing food rescue work in Canada and internationally for the purposes of comparison with FoodRescue.ca. I read many of the available resources on the FoodRescue.ca website, including pages for businesses and non-profits, FAQs, and fact sheets and reports. I conducted a site visit to Second Harvest, where I toured the facility and interviewed FoodRescue.ca’s Senior Manager of Program Development,  V. Summerhill. Phone interviews were conducted with one donor business and two recipient organizations. While these interviews provide helpful context, it cannot be assumed that the experiences of these interviewees are representative of others using the platform.

FoodRescue.ca origins

FoodRescue.ca is a web-based platform that matches businesses that want to donate food with organizations that can use it. It has been described by Second Harvest CEO Lori Nikkel as the “eHarmony of food” (CBC News: The National, 2018). Initial funding to develop the technology came from a Walmart Foundation grant (V. Summerhill, personal communication, November 8, 2019). The Ontario Ministry of Environment also provided funding in the first phase of the rollout, which included Sudbury, Kingston, Niagara and Toronto. FoodRescue.ca is now funded by a mixture of grants as well as some donations. It has since expanded to across Ontario and British Columbia, with a gradual national rollout planned. The organization is also planning to develop an app and engage volunteers in FoodRescue.ca. Second Harvest has enlisted the help of local partner organizations to facilitate regional implementation. Currently, FoodRescue.ca employs six full-time staff and has funded partners/co-ordinators in 12 regions.

How FoodRescue.ca operates and measures impact

Businesses register to be donors and social service organizations sign up to be recipients. FoodRescue.ca staff check to ensure that both parties are registered and Public Health-inspected (V. Summerhill, personal communication, November 8, 2019). When a business wants to post a donation, it shares the type of food, the approximate weight of the donation, whether it is perishable or shelf stable, how it needs to be stored, when it will be available for pick-up and a brief description of the donation (Second Harvest, 2019a). An email goes out to organizations whose profiles are a match with the donation in terms of location, food preferences and safe food-handling capacity. If an organization accepts the donation, it is responsible for picking up the food (Second Harvest, 2019b).  

FoodRescue.ca measures impact in terms of pounds of food recovered (700,000 lbs to date), non-profits registered (848), businesses registered (1,077), greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions averted (over 2.5 kg) and food claim rate (96%) (V. Summerhill, personal communications, Nov. 8 & 28, 2019).

Canadian and international models for reducing food waste

While there are other organizations in Canada seeking to reduce food waste, no initiative compares in scope to FoodRescue.ca or uses an identical model. Several organizations operate similarly to Second Harvest, in that large donations are collected by one food rescue organization and redistributed to non-profits and charities (e.g. the Alberta-based Leftovers Foundation, Food Rescue Yellowknife and BC’s Victoria Foundation Food Rescue Project). The FoodMesh Marketplace, which started in Chilliwack, BC, is perhaps most similar to FoodRescue.ca in that it uses an app to track donations from retailers that are redistributed to charities. However, a designated charity ‘hub’ collects all donations and other charities pick up food from the lead charity.

There are many international examples of food rescue technology. For instance, in the United States, there is Food Cowboy; Food Rescue US; ChowMatch; and Feeding America’s MealConnect. Copia is a unique for-profit model; donors have to pay to be on the platform, but get access to metrics about their food waste (“Help & support centre,” n.d.). A prominent example outside of North America is FoodCloud, which launched in Ireland in 2013 and has since expanded throughout the UK (Weymes & Davies, 2018). Many food rescue initiatives appear to evaluate success in similar terms to FoodRescue.ca, tracking meals donated, GHG emissions prevented, quantity of food rescued and organizations served (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

The impact of food-rescue technology on food insecurity

Connecting food to people

Perhaps the most obvious link between FoodRescue.ca and food security is that it gets food that otherwise would have been thrown out into the hands of people who need it. For instance, [Business Name]. FoodRescue.ca calculates that its rescued food has provided 669,429 meals to date (“Nourish your community,” n.d.). It is evident that emergency food provision addresses a need, but this does not mean that food rescue technology results in reduced food insecurity. As noted by Dachner & Tarasuk (2017, paragraph 5), “While receiving food charity may diminish hunger in the short-term, this is a far cry from food security; that is, being able to meet future food needs independently.” Weymes and Davies (2019) concur that food rescue initiatives can help people meet their nutritional needs, but do not address root causes of food insecurity. However, FoodRescue.ca does not purport to offer a solution to food insecurity. “Food insecurity is an income issue and an education issue. So, that’s where the solutions lie,” V. Summerhill stated (personal communication, November 8, 2019). Rather, FoodRescue.ca sees reducing food waste as an environmental mission with a social impact.

Despite this, the impact of food rescue on food security can be amplified depending on how donations are used by recipient organizations. V. Summerhill (personal communication, November 8, 2019) said that many social service organizations that use food donations also offer programming or services that address income and education issues. Using donations for food-literacy programming can also improve food security. For instance, some locations of the [Organization Name] offer educational services in meal prep, safe food handling and nutrition. While the organization is unable to provide such programming right now, the representative said that FoodRescue.ca had the potential to positively affect the food security of the organization’s clients.

Mitigating the effects of climate change

Food loss and waste is bad for the environment. It contributes to unnecessary use of water and land, loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2014). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2019) found that from 2010 to 2016, “… global food loss and waste equalled 8–10% of total GHG emissions from food systems …” (5-7). Reducing food waste is an important part of mitigating climate change and can reduce the amount of natural resources used to produce food, which can help protect the food security of future generations (IPCC, 2019).

Notably, transporting donations can also produce GHG emissions. An Italian initiative connecting surplus food to food banks was found to be “very GHG intensive for saving a small amount of food with correspondingly low total emissions” (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2014). ReFED’s assessment of the benefits of 27 solutions to food waste finds that while donation matching software does reduce emissions, centralized composting has the greatest impact on waste diverted and emissions reduced (“27 solutions to food waste,” n.d.). Furthermore, Gooch & Felfel (2014) find that redirecting food waste has considerably fewer environmental benefits than preventing food waste.

However, Second Harvest and FoodRescue.ca also encourage the prevention of food waste through behaviour and policy change. Second Harvest’s landmark report, The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste, measured food loss and waste using a standardized system across the entire food value chain ­in Canada – a global first in research (Nikkel, Maguire, Gooch, Bucknell, LaPlain, Dent et al., 2019). The report demonstrates the magnitude of Canada’s food loss and waste problem, which is crucial for finding ways to prevent it. It identifies where and why food loss and waste occur at each stage of the food system. It also provides recommendations to industry and government for preventing food loss and waste. Furthermore, FoodRescue.ca shares resources directed toward reducing food waste, including tips for households. FoodRescue.ca and Second Harvest’s two-pronged approach of encouraging prevention of food waste while also redistributing excess food will likely have positive environment impacts and thus indirectly contribute to improved food security.

Reducing food prices

One of the purported benefits of reducing food waste is that it will lower food prices, thus making food more financially accessible and improving food security. Such claims are difficult to assess. A report from the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE, 2014) found there was “a lack of quantitative studies to describe the impact of FLW [food loss and waste] on food prices” (p. 36). The lack of data may speak to the fact that food waste is not broadly tracked and food rescue is not a widespread practice. There are also many other factors that can influence global food prices, such as trade, government policy and weather. Assessing the impact of food waste reduction on prices would require an understanding of “the extent of wastage relative to the size of the market, the extent to which they are avoidable, the underlying causes that cause wastage to arise in the first place, the costs of reduction interventions, and interactions in the supply chain with other markets and actors” (Tielens & Candel, 2014, p. 22) It is not clear to what extent reducing food waste would translate to lower food prices and how this would affect food security.

Opportunities and challenges in replicating the FoodRescue.ca model

The prevalence of organizations using food rescue technology similar to FoodRescue.ca suggests that this is a feasible model for reducing food waste. However, there are challenges that may inhibit the participation of donors and recipients, and thus reduce the impact of such initiatives. 

FoodRescue.ca has found that storage can be a major challenge, especially for recipients (V. Summerhill, personal communication, November 8, 2019). For instance, [Organization Name] has signed up as a recipient organization, but has been unable to use the service because it does not have a fridge. A report on food waste in Seattle (Otten, Diedrich, Getts, & Benson, 2016) similarly found that anti-hunger agencies reported inadequate storage space, especially for perishables, as their greatest challenge. Storage limitations also exist on the donor side. [Business Name] said that the restaurant is only able to use a small portion of its minimal cold storage space for donations due to auditing reasons and is not able to store excess food for long; they often had to throw food out before it was claimed on FoodRescue.ca. This was influential in that location’s decision to pause using FoodRescue.ca and focus on composting instead.  

Time is also a resource that can be in short supply on both sides. Despite the simplicity of the FoodRescue.ca platform, [Representative] said that [Business Name] found it was too much of an investment of administrative time for one person, especially given the low uptake of donations. A staff member had to weigh the food, label it for auditing purposes and post the donation to FoodRescue.ca. If recipients showed up at busy times, staff were not available to help them. While drivers are supposed to come in the time window provided by the business, the business found that they often did not.

This may reflect a lack of resources on the part of the recipients. Small charities and non-profits often operate on skeletal staff and rely heavily on volunteers. They may not have time or regular access to transportation that enables them to pick up as many donations as they could use. [Organization Name], for instance, only has three staff members. [Representative] only picks up donations once every few months, in part due to a lack of time. “Sometimes I don’t have the time to get it. If I have other volunteers here with me, then I could always send them out to get the stuff for me,” she said.

Providing transportation for food can help reduce some logistical challenges for recipients. ReFEd’s analysis finds food donation matching platforms “are most effective when they include mechanisms for arranging and covering transportation” (“Donation matching software, n.d., paragraph 3). The Ireland-based FoodCloud initially did not provide transportation for donations, but now uses volunteers when recipients do not have the capacity to collect food (Weymes & Davies, 2018). However, while a more customizable solution may be helpful for donors and recipients, it creates a heavier administrative footprint for the lead organization.

Although it does not co-ordinate donation transportation, FoodRescue.ca is not as hands-off for staff as it may appear. Its model of finding regional partners to introduce the technology requires an investment of time. It can also be a challenge to convince businesses of the benefits of getting on board. V. Summerhill described the process of finding businesses to sign up as “a lot, a lot of work” (personal communication, November 8, 2019), given that the financial benefits to businesses are not concrete.

Conclusion

One of my biggest learnings in this research project was that FoodRescue.ca is intended to be an environmental – not food – organization. Therefore, it might be more relevant to assess its environmental impact than its food security impact. It is also difficult to fully assess the impact of food rescue technology on food security due to a lack of end-to-end research; it is not clear how the food is used by recipients and how much still goes to waste. However, it is likely that FoodRescue.ca and other similar platforms play an indirect role in reducing food insecurity. FoodRescue.ca helps redirect viable food from landfills to people in need as well as educates businesses and households about how to reduce food waste. If implemented, its government and industry recommendations would lead to less food waste and contribute to better food security.

Of course, food insecurity is much more complex than just access to food. Donated surplus food does not address issues related to income, education, inequality, social safety nets, land rights, industrialized agriculture, trade policies and other factors that can affect people’s ability to obtain safe, nutritious food on a consistent basis. However, the fact remains that there is a substantial amount of waste built into our food systems, from farm to fork. While prevention of food waste will have the greatest impact, food rescue has a role to play in the current landscape. For the benefit of people and the environment, this vast and significant issue demands an immediate response.

References

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