Article Highlight: First published in the EFAO’s Summer 2020 member newsletter: Reflections on Farming and Racism by Brenda Hsueh, Black Sheep Farm

First published in the EFAO’s Summer 2020 member newsletter

Brenda Hsueh is an organic vegetable and sheep farmer in Grey County. She left the financial world of downtown Toronto 12 years ago to start the adventure of farming and hasn’t looked back since. Now she farms at Black Sheep Farm with her partner Skyler, and 3-year-old daughter Emma, regenerating soil through almost no-till vegetable production, intensively managed sheep grazing, and pastured hens and meat chickens. 

Reflections on Farming and Racism by Brenda Hsueh, Black Sheep Farm

On top of living with the anxiety and uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic, these last few weeks have seen much righteous anger over the terrible murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. This, on top of so many other incidents, even right here in Canada: Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, D’Andre Campbell in Brampton, 3 Indigenous police victims in Winnipeg: Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old girl, Stewart Kevin Andrews, and Jason Collins. The list just keeps going on. 

These are just in the past few weeks. There’s a history of this. It is not new. It is always terrible. And these are not ‘unconscious’ biases…we all know it’s straight up racism. That Canadian woman in New York who called the police on a bird watcher, who happened to be a black male? She knew exactly what she was doing when threatening that man, it was not unconscious bias. 

Racism is such an ugly thing, at the very root of all that is wrong in this world, a classification system, putting people into boxes. We human beings keep putting things into boxes. Dandelions are weeds, kill. Don’t consider their various traits beyond that you don’t want them in your monoculture lawn. Monoculture. I so hate these two sides of the same coin. Why do human beings seem to despise complexity so much? The world is not binary. 

How did monoculture in agriculture become the norm? All in the name of efficiency. With great efficiency, we’ve lost resiliency, which is exactly what we need in the long run to survive this pandemic, climate change, and whatever other terrible things that are still coming. Monoculture and industrialisation, the move from small farms to giant farms…all for efficient production. But who calculates this efficiency? Capitalism? Stock brokers who can’t tell the difference between a stalk of wheat or oats? What about all the externalized costs? Degradation of soil? Environmental destruction? Poisoning of water? Farm land and livelihoods lost to debt collectors? Slavery itself is a result of capitalism and its destructive search for efficiency. Which again brings us to today, and Black Lives Matter. Because agriculture and profit are the very source of systemic racism. Not to mention stealing land from Indigenous peoples, here in Canada, and all around the world. 

Why is a farmer writing about this? Because this farmer is a Chinese woman, born in Canada, living and working in a predominantly white part of Ontario (which is really anywhere rural) in a white dominated profession, despite the fact that every single culture/race farms. And it’s lonely, and sometimes scary, to be out here. And when so many lives are taken because of racism, when Black Lives Matter even needs to be said, I just want to cry, and rage, and scream at the world. 

I have experienced some overt racism in my life, been spit at, ‘complimented’ on how well I speak English, and belittled for eating ‘strange’ foods or ‘weird’ parts of animals. Very minor incidents, but all these things trigger the ‘flight or fight’ response…heart starts beating harder, hyperventilation, sudden flush of heat, and each incident is never forgotten. Is this familiar to you? Because I’m pretty sure every person of colour in North America, has experienced this at least once in their lives. But at least I’m alive. Unlike so many black men, indigenous women… 

I’ve been thinking a lot about systemic racism, and why so many people deny its existence, or can’t admit that it’s true. I think it comes down to narcissism. It’s all about me. I don’t see it. I don’t understand it. It’s not part of my reality. I see a lot of this in the farming world too. In the antagonism between organic and conventional farmers, the judgement of farmers looking at other farmers fields…anything different, outside the ‘norm’ is frowned upon. Growing mixed cover crops is wacky. Not mowing everything that isn’t purposefully planted is wrong. There’s an esthetic that calls for absolute neatness, straight lines, squared off fields,  as if a good farmer must make his (or her, but really, mostly his) bed every morning with hospital corners. Because it shows the world what a disciplined and hard worker you are, as if this is your greatest value in the world. Bull shit. 

Why are there so few people of colour in Canadian agriculture? Such a long list of reasons, which include the same ones for why there are just so few people in Canadian agriculture…prohibitive cost of land, food not valued enough so farmers can’t sell for cost of production, lack of reasonable funding, high debt loads, little gain for so much work. But if you’re from an immigrant family, who came to Canada to make a better life for their children? Well, I have yet to meet an Asian family who has leapt for joy when their child decided to become a farmer. They can be slowly convinced that it’s a good life after a few years of resigning themselves to the idea, but I definitely haven’t heard of anyone pitching farming as a good career choice, whether you’re an immigrant or not. Farmers around here don’t even encourage their kids to farm, or maybe at least not all of them. If you’re ‘smart enough’ to be a doctor, lawyer, accountant, that’s the better route to go. The hard labour of farming has a bad reputation, because manual labour is considered to be menial in our current society. Large farms in Canada can’t function without migrant worker programs to bring in people willing to do the farm labour. And look at how well they’re treated on average. At the time of writing, a third migrant worker in Ontario alone has died of Covid-19. And what about the largely Filipino immigrant workers at meat packing plants in Alberta? Isn’t this just another form of racism? This pandemic has shone a bright light on the class system in Canada, and it sure isn’t pretty. 

I used to be one of those neatly mowed lawns, perfectly manicured gardens, kind of people. I grew up in the suburbs and lived in cities into my 30’s. I came into agriculture having read Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower and after spending most of a season at Everdale Organic Learning Centre. Twelve years of farming later, I’ve learned a lot, and continue to learn. I’ve forgiven myself for not having enough energy to keep everything perfectly weeded or mowed. And I’ve embraced diversity and complexity at the farm. I think this was already the road that I was going down when I left city life to start farming, but along the way, I’ve had to shed many preconceived thoughts about the right way to farm. It’s going to be different at every farm, depending on the land, and who works there. If your heart doesn’t sing with the work that you do, and you and your workers are mistreated, then maybe you’re doing it wrong. Find another way, because there’s always another way, even if it’s not what your favourite guru farmer does. 

Let’s practice anti-racist farming. Let’s open our hearts and minds, reserve judgement, ask questions, keep learning. Let’s not exploit ourselves, our families or our employees. Let’s honour the past of the land on which we farm, and learn from indigenous peoples who lived on Turtle Island for centuries without destroying it, unlike all of us colonizers. 

Let’s embrace complexity. Go back to school by reading things off those anti-racist reading lists going around. If we all choose to think, and stop picking the easy answers, maybe our society can change. Speak up when people say things which are questionable…you don’t have to be mean about it, just ask for clarification, ‘What do you mean by that?’, and the person speaking will have to start thinking. If not, we won’t have a society worth living in. 

Helping People and the Planet: How a Toronto Urban Farm Supports Local Growers, Producers, and Consumers During the COVID-19 Pandemic By Angela Gong

Masks, hand sanitizer, face shields. Stickers placed six feet apart, lining the floor and facilitating physical distancing. Clear, plastic windows at the checkout counter. These are familiar images in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought widespread disruption to the ways people obtain food. Some have turned towards growing produce to reduce the frequency of grocery store visits. Others have opted to stay away from stores altogether, utilizing online delivery services to have groceries brought right to their doors. And more people than ever are looking to local growers, within the city itself, for a sustainable source of food and transparency in how their groceries move through the supply chain. But how many of these changes are here to stay? Will urban growing be important to a building a resilient food system? And what is the long-term importance of sustainable, ethical, and transparent sourcing for consumers?

Fresh City Farms, a Toronto-based small-scale food distributor, is an important case study in examining how the pandemic has shifted consumer behaviours and informed the future of a resilient food system. Fresh City’s CEO and Founder, Ran Goel, describes the business as a “values-driven company” which aims to source locally and organically whenever possible, operate sustainably with minimal environmental impact, and maintain high labour standards at all points in their supply chain. A portion of their produce is grown right in the city, from their two growing locations at Downsview Park and Baka Mobile. The remainder of their produce and products are sourced from Southern Ontario and abroad, with an average of 70% of these groceries produced locally. Customers can order groceries online for delivery, or visit one of their eight locations across Toronto, including Fresh City stores as well as Mabel’s Bakery and Specialty Foods, and The Healthy Butcher, which were both acquired by the company in late 2018 and early 2019.

A person standing in front of a building

Description automatically generated A person sitting in a garden

Description automatically generated

Ran Goel, CEO and Founder (left), and Julianne Keech, Farm Manager (right).
(Photos: Fresh City Farms)

During the pandemic, Fresh City has experienced an unprecedented increase in online orders, which in turn increased pressures on the company-operated farms to meet demand. “We usually have a projected harvest that plays out over the whole summer,” says Fresh City’s Farm Manager Julianne Keech. But in early June, when the first spring crops were ready, the farmers were asked to send as much as possible, as quickly as possible, to distribute to customers throughout Toronto. The farm also saw increased demand from foot traffic in Downsview Park, and installed a self-serve kiosk for visitors to purchase fresh produce on-site. 

A picture containing building, outdoor, table, sitting

Description automatically generated
A box of fruit and vegetables on display

Description automatically generated

The self-serve station at Fresh City’s Downsview Park location. (Photos: Angela Gong)

Parallel to increasing interest in buying local, organic produce from Fresh City in-person at Downsview Park, more and more visitors have come looking for growing space. Fresh City Farms currently runs their Member Farmer Program, which provides land to individuals who want to grow and sell produce, run educational workshops, or grow for self-sufficiency. However, both Keech and Goel highlight a lack of diversity in the Member Farmer group, and a tendency for the program and company itself to attract farmers and consumers from privileged backgrounds. Moving forward from the pandemic, and through an upcoming expansion at Downsview Park, Keech hopes that they can develop the program to better “meet the needs of the community right around [the park], whether that means providing growing space, affordable produce, or just a nice place to be and [to learn] about the farm.” 

Fresh City Farms has also committed to partnerships to better serve vulnerable communities in the larger Toronto population. Prior to the pandemic, Fresh City started a connection with Native Child and Family Services to provide them with a plot and begin delivering programming for the organization. During the pandemic, the company has helped Black Creek Community Farm sell their products, and through a donation from shareholders, Fresh City gave $10,000 of food to frontline healthcare workers. Further, through a partnership with FoodShare Toronto, Fresh City has raised approximately $40,000 to help deliver FoodShare’s Emergency Good Food Box to vulnerable communities and individuals in Toronto. While the initiative has certainly yielded monetary benefits for food security, Goel views the partnership, and the role of the company more broadly, as “consciousness-raising,” particularly through sharing the political nature of food and the impacts of the current food system. “We’re relying on non-profits to do the work that governments should be doing, and to address food security at the margins, rather than really tackling it in a decisive way. We’re not going to be able to solve the problem unless governments step up.”

Fresh City also aims to improve the food system by supporting like-minded local small businesses, and being the “first customer”, so as to provide honest feedback and help new producers enter the food system. “The benefit they get is [our] customer base that’s very passionate and interested in these products,” Goel states. “Working with us gives them some extra credibility in the marketplace.” And during the pandemic, Fresh City has sourced produce from larger local farms who relied heavily on food service sales, such as The New Farm and Slegers Living Organic Greens, thus helping support their business through the pandemic and contributing to resilience of the Ontario food system. 

These numerous roles that Fresh City plays in the food system—supporting Toronto growers and communities, raising awareness about food system impacts, and partnering with local food producers—ultimately serve to promote sustainable, ethical, and resilient food systems in Toronto and beyond. But for Goel, there is still work to be done, and the bottom line is the price of food. He calls for improved standards across the board, from labour, to meat sourcing, to environmental regulations banning harmful chemicals. “There are various things that need to be done environmentally and socially, and we will spend more on food, but ultimately I think we will be healthier for it.” But how can we motivate the political will to set these standards? And how do we maintain and expand the customer base that values responsible sourcing enough to pay the increased cost? 

Keech suggests that education is a key component in driving food system reform. “When I first learned about the impacts of agriculture on the environment, I was shocked. I decided I wanted to become a farmer, because [sustainable agriculture] is such an important way to combat climate change.” Informing the public and policy-makers about the negative impacts of our current food system may help to increase the value that people place in sustainability, and push the boundaries of what consumers expect from food distributors. According to Goel, this is precisely what Fresh City ultimately aims to accomplish. “Our values are such that it’s always a pursuit. The role I see for us is shifting the standard higher and higher, redefining what is possible, and giving customers and competitors a sense of what is possible.” Government interventions, through economic and environmental approaches, can help to create more businesses such as Fresh City Farms, which source ethically and sustainably, while expanding the customer base that can afford to live a sustainable lifestyle. And ultimately, our society can work towards a resilient and economically equal food future.

A close up of a lush green field

Description automatically generated
A large building with a grassy field

Description automatically generated

Downsview Park (left) and Baka Mobile (right), the two Fresh City-operated farms.
(Photos: Fresh City Farms, Julianne Keech)

Fresh City’s produce bags being loaded into a delivery van. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Fresh City has implemented non-contact deliveries with larger windows, allowing them to serve more customers. The company is also reducing risk to customers by using recyclable cardboard boxes rather than their reusable tote bags. (Photo: Fresh City Farms)

Bread being made at Mabel’s Bakery. Fresh City acquired Mabel’s Bakery and Healthy Butcher in 2018 and 2019 as part of an ongoing effort to provide organic baked goods, meat, and prepared foods at their stores. Mabel’s uses high-quality, organic and locally-sourced ingredients to offer homestyle baked goods, artisan breads and cheese, and prepared foods and meals. (Photo: Fresh City Farms)

A store inside of a building

Description automatically generated

Fresh City’s newest location at Bay and Gerrard. The store opened at the start of the pandemic, and offered discounted prepared items to frontline healthcare workers at nearby hospitals. In the future, Goel hopes that the company will be able to do quick and convenient deliveries from bricks and mortar stores. (Photo: Fresh City Farms)

A store filled with lots of food

Description automatically generated

Interior of Fresh City’s Ossington location. Fresh City maintains its sourcing philosophy with prepared foods, using organic and ethically-sourced ingredients for their commissary products. (Photo: Fresh City Farms)

A group of people sitting on a greenhouse

Description automatically generated

A farmer working in the Baka Mobile greenhouse in the winter. Protected growing allows Fresh City, along with other Ontario farmers, to supply produce in colder months. As a result, Fresh City is able to sell, on average, 70% locally-grown produce throughout the year. (Photo: Julianne Keech)

WEBINAR – Feeding the City, Pandemic and Beyond: Urban Agriculture, School and Community Food Programs

WEBINAR – Feeding the City, Pandemic and Beyond: Urban Agriculture, School and Community Food Programs

Wed. Sept. 16, 2020 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. EDT (UTC -4:00) | REGISTRATION REQUIRED via EventBrite

How have individuals’ and families’ food-related activities changed as a result of COVID-19, particularly in light of school closures and rising food insecurity? How can urban growing and government- and community-level initiatives help build a resilient food system? Join the Feeding the City team from Tkaronto (Toronto) as we hear from three experts on these questions:

Rhonda Teitel-Payne is the Co-coordinator of Toronto Urban Growers (TUG). She has been active for over 20 years with programs such as The Stop Community Food Centre, Toronto Community Garden Network, and the World Crops project.

Debbie Field is the Coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food and Associate Member, Centre for Studies in Food Security, at Ryerson University. She was the Executive Director of FoodShare for 25 years.

Utcha Sawyers is the Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of East Scarborough. She was an inaugural member of Food Secure Canada’s Board of Directors (2013-2017), and is an international Food Justice, Equity & Access consultant and advocate.

Moderated by Jayeeta (Jo) Sharma and Sarah Elton. Jo is an Associate Professor of History and Food Studies at the Culinaria Research Centre of the University of Toronto, and the Project Lead for Feeding the City. Sarah is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ryerson University, and the author of several award-winning popular books on urban food systems.

Supported by the Culinaria Research Centre, University of Toronto Scarborough | Register here.

Food and Toronto’s Chinese Community through COVID-19 by Jackson Yue Bin Guo

In February, the traffic flow between the Pacific Mall and the Silver Star Blvd, a Chinese food mecca for the Greater Toronto Area, could be best described by a Chinese proverb: “Carriages flow like a stream and horses whinny like dragons”. The tasty kebabs, boiling hotpots, and hand-pulled noodles sold in the mall normally drew crowds of diners from noon till night before the pandemic. Then, all of a sudden, by mid-March, silence engulfed the stores and alleys. Even the busiest restaurants shut their doors and closed their lights. “No eggs can remain unbroken when the nest is upset!” This other proverb echoed among Chinese Canadians, as COVID-19 scared the whole country and the world. But, going forward, could the pandemic provide any opportunities for the GTA’s astute Chinese-Canadian restaurateurs and food suppliers to regroup and recover? The Master of Huainan, an erudite Daoist scholar in the second century BCE left a famous story, “Elder Sai once lost a horse. His neighbours sent him consolation. Elder Sai smiled and said, ‘Who would know this is not a fortune?’ Days later, the horse returned with another.” 

The creativity of ‘ethnic’ food markets in Toronto has attracted the notice of mainstream media and food studies scholarship only occasionally, and seldom in depth. The pandemic situation provides a rare opportunity to view the adaptability of the Chinese-Canadian food sector in a disrupted commercial environment. This blogpost explores how this sector has managed to deploy a strategy to function during the pandemic, largely aimed at customers familiar with Chinese-language social media tools. The rumours of possible food shortages circulating on social media if the pandemic alighted in Canada began as early as late January and early February, among Chinese-Canadians, who tend to be better informed than most Canadians about the everyday impact of COVID-19 in the affected regions of China. Although most Torontonians did not appear to be worried about the supply of fresh food, those who were well-informed about the horrendous situation in Wuhan hoarded canned foods, staples, and other food supplies. By March, the number of diagnosed patients in Canada was increasing exponentially. Rumours spread among Chinese-Canadians that all facilities and retailers would close sooner or later. At this point, Asian supermarkets such as T & T (by far the largest Asian food mart brand in Canada), Bestco and Foodymart quickly introduced new marketing tactics to accommodate the challenging business environment. Those tactics allowed them to successfully withstand the harshest days of disrupted food chains during late-spring and early-summer.

(Left: GOcery, a well-known grocery shopping app; Right: Bestco service menu page)

What sets apart such Chinese-Canadian supermarkets at this time was their willingness and speed in developing e-commerce apps and establishing collaborations with food delivery companies. Their apps and widgets (Figure 1) offer remarkably convenient services for users. First, they can accurately locate users via Google Maps and help them to find the nearest store. Second, the apps show detailed menus of the items on sale, ranging from fresh and seasonal foods to canned goods, bakery and dairy products. The checkout buttons lead users to a fast door-to-door delivery system. This collaboration mode innovatively combines the resources and facilities to ensure speedy and safe service. Drivers would leave the ordered and pre-paid items at the door and avoid face-to-face contact with the customer. The recent introduction of Alipay, an e-commerce transaction app designed by China’s magnate Jack Ma, allows for easy and flexible conversions between Canadian dollars and RMB (renminbi, the Chinese currency), through which various food vendors and restaurateurs have managed to gain revenue while the city is officially locked down. An interesting comparison may be made between e-commerce platforms in use among different ‘ethnic’ markets – as for example, South Asian-Canadian supermarkets, when they recently pivoted to setting up online systems, seem to have used Shopify instead of Alipay. Notably, most of the delivery companies that have tied up with these Chinese-Canadian food providers do not hire long-term employees, but rather engage university and college students on commission, who own cars of their own, and many of whom found time on their hands and a need to augment funds when they were forced to stay in the GTA over this summer. This again, is a point that requires further research.

(A Chinese kebab restaurant promotes door-to-door delivery of skewers on CHIHUO)

Of course, not all Chinese-Canadian food providers were able to set up an exclusive app. Smaller merchants and restaurateurs therefore signed on with commercial apps such as GOcery, which has the advantage of being bilingual. Others have simply taken advantage of WeChat to market their products, thereby limiting their reach to consumers who were proficient in the Chinese language. These are food businesses who target a younger clientele of international students and Chinese Canadians in their twenties and thirties who are familiar with the alternative retailing functions for which WeChat can be used, as it is in China. We also find popular widgets such as CHIHUO, Toronto Diary, and Toronto Life (see Figures 2 and 3) operated by university student associations or business organizations, which update information about new foods, restaurants, and culinary fads in the city.  For instance, the screenshot below was taken in June, when wax berry, a southern Chinese summer fruit from Zhejiang and Fujian provinces was imported into the GTA during the weeks when it is seasonally available. Iced wax berry jam soon became popular among Chinese-Canadian social media users, whose widget blogs about this delicacy drew the community’s attention to this rare fruit from China and its availability in Canada despite the pandemic. 

Culinary infrastructure, a key concept in studies of cross-cultural foodways that suggests transportation networks, marketplace and media resources, epistemologies, and technological inventions can significantly shape people’s consumption of food, can be usefully applied to interpret Chinese-Canadian food entrepreneurs’ pandemic operations. In fact, WeChat has served for them not only as a transaction and promotion channel, but also as an efficient knowledge-production platform. It has enabled restaurateurs to refurbish brand reputation and seize new market opportunities by sharing useful information about food and cooking at a low cost. Some entrepreneurs have operated family kitchens. These businesses are often tax-free and only accept RMB via WeChat, even though they are physically located in Canada. The screenshots below (see Figure 4) are from a WeChat restauranteur who recently bought a rice noodle store in Scarborough. Due to the pandemic, her physical store has not yet opened. She decided to operate a WeChat kitchen and promote her handmade products (including lobster fried rice, traditional sweets, and several signature dishes) by posting daily status updates.

(Left: Lobster picking and processing; Right: Dish cooked and plated)

(Left: Lobster rice packaging; Right: Handmade sweets—jujube paste pastry, meat mooncake, purple sweet potato and egg yolk custard pastry, and red bean paste pastry) 

“Without the piercing cold of the winter, there would be no fragrant plum blossom.” More than a thousand years ago, a Buddhist monk wrote this line to enlighten his disciples. In Chinese culture, plum blossom symbolizes tenacity, persistence, and endurance. As with the rest of the GTA’s restaurant sector, Chinese-Canadian restaurateurs were eagerly waiting to be allowed to reopen once the pandemic situation improved. As of late June, the City of Toronto introduced the CaféTO program that allowed restaurants to apply to operate patios with strict health protocols in place. Soon, patio umbrellas could be seen outside many suburban Chinese-Canadian restaurants on Silver Star Blvd and the Skycity Center. The CaféTO program allowed those participating restaurants to use the outdoor spaces in those strip malls to seat customers and serve food. By July-August, Chinese restaurant foods that ranged from Hong Kong style dim sum and northern kebab skewers, to Szechuan spicy dishes, were being served on the patios, rather than the normal banquet halls (see Figures 5 to 8). For now, customers of the restaurants in the Silverstar Mall can recapture the open-air food markets of their original hometowns in China, where friends and relatives are accustomed to drinking beer and enjoying kebab skewers below the broiling sun or white moonlight. The mainstream media, as well as social media bloggers who follow Chinese restaurants across the GTA, are gradually bringing to the attention of a wider public that you can now order all sorts of dim sum delicacies, from har gow to xialongbao, on a patio. However, the narrow sidewalks of some of the historic Chinatown on Gerrard East, for instance, make this a challenging proposition, which may account for the disparity of patio dining across different GTA neighbourhoods.



Article Highlight: New Research recommends Canada institute a Universal Healthy School Food Program

“Gary Hoyer and Chinh Do of George Brown College have just released Generating Success for Farm to School, a report that researches the benefits of farm to school. Its recommendations include instituting a universal healthy school food program across Canada, complemented with a farm to school approach.”

This article is definitely worth a read, it provides a quick glimpse of the amazing work coming out of George Brown College when looking at healthy school food programing and food security in Canada.

The report itself contains great sections including a look at:

  • The role of the Community, Province, and Nation
  • Challenges for Farm to School, Programs and Policy
  • and more.

Link to article is featured below where you can download the full report and read for yourself:

Food Banks and COVID-19: Challenges and Innovation in Response to the Pandemic By Eleonora Gagliardi and Sterling Stutz

Food banks are a relatively long-standing part of community landscapes across the country, and fill a critical role of feeding individuals and families who rely on their services. However, this was not always the case. When food banks were first introduced into Canada in 1981, they were meant to be a temporary measure, designed to support families during difficult economic times. Yet with the rise of neoliberal capitalism charity-based solutions such as food banks came to be accepted as an alternative to governmental interventions, and so they have remained in place, with individuals and families increasingly relying on them. Food banks have become necessary social support programs, but are still operating under precarious conditions, mostly funded by grants, run by non-profit organizations, and reliant on community donations.

According to the City of Toronto, 1 in 5 Toronto households are affected by food insecurity and that number has grown in the past several months, largely attributed to a rapid increase in unemployment and economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In July 2020, the Daily Bread Food Bank announced there had been a 200% increase in new clients accessing food banks in Toronto in recent months. 

While demand has increased, funding sources for these programs have diminished, as donations have fallen off since the spring. Additionally, the public health protocols required to ensure the safe functioning of services during the pandemic, such as physical distancing and PPE, are costly and restrictive and have made it difficult for many programs to remain functioning. Other organizations were compelled to restructure their programs at the beginning of the pandemic, such as the Good Food Program run by the Ryerson Student’s Union, which was closed March 16-30th, and re-opened with an offering of limited prepared food hampers, instead of their usual food pantry access. Others remain closed indefinitely, including the UTSU Campus Food Bank at the University of Toronto St. George Campus, and it is unclear when they will reopen.

Overall, the City of Toronto estimates that of the food bank programs operating in the city ahead of the pandemic, 40% of those existing programs have closed as a result of COVID-19. For the locations that remain open, various changes have been made to their operating hours and their provisioning of services. This is problematic given the large portion of the population that relied on food banks before the pandemic, and the fact that this number has drastically increased. Innovative community responses popped up in the spring to accommodate this increased demand: Libraries across the City of Toronto were transformed into food distribution centres; The Good Food Box, in partnership with FoodShare Toronto, expanded their services for low-cost access to fresh produce; and the community organization The Afri-Can FoodBasket launched #BlackFoodToronto, facilitating access to fresh produce for members of the African, Caribbean, Black community during the pandemic. 

Each program is integral to providing healthy meals. Smaller organizations may play a unique role in providing community and culturally-specific food programs and services that may not be accessible through larger programs and services. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many food organizations into precarious positions through increased costs and limited volunteer options, with smaller, community-based organizations finding it particularly difficult to meet these demands. Ultimately, the closure of such programs will limit individuals’ and families’ access to ethnocultural food services and programming.

Food banks, initially implemented as a temporary measure, have become essential aspects of the food system, providing a needed source of support for individuals and families experiencing food insecurity. Overall, it is evident that food banks are integral to our food system; however, they are inadequate band-aid solutions and ultimately should not be a significant part of a healthy and resilient food system. In order to create such a food system, structures need to be put in place to ensure that universal and equitable access to food is available, without reliance on charity-based approaches that let the government off the hook in their responsibility of supporting the health and well-being of all.

Gallery: Malvern Community Gardens

Malvern Community Gardens 

A close up of a map

Description automatically generated

The three Malvern community gardens are located in the Malvern neighbourhood, and reflect the diverse nature of the community. Gardeners come from Caribbean, South Asian, and European backgrounds. (Photo: Google Maps) 

A person standing in a garden

Description automatically generated

Randy Bhagwan, Malvern Garden Lead and Communication Coordinator of the Malvern Food Security Workgroup. Due to physical distancing measures, the gardeners and garden leads must be more mindful of when they go to the garden, to ensure that all members have an opportunity to work. The garden leads now spread out their availability and schedule days off. (Photo: Randy Bhagwan) 

A salad in a garden

Description automatically generated

A 2020 harvest, to be donated to a local food bank. In regular years, Malvern community gardens donate food to local food banks and meal programs. However, due to the pandemic, many meal programs have opted to cater food or stop service altogether, resulting in increased donations of garden yields to food banks instead. (Photo: Randy Bhagwan) 

A close up of a cage

Description automatically generated

The Malvern community gardens hoophouse. The hoophouse is used for extending the gardening season, allowing gardeners to access the space for more months of the year. In the future, the gardeners hope to improve their infrastructure to grow year-round, so that gardeners can both grow food and relationships within the community during winter months. (Photo: Randy Bhagwan) 

A group of people sitting at a park

Description automatically generated

Volunteers at a workday in the community garden. Because of the pandemic, workdays have been suspended and non-gardeners are not allowed to work in the garden space. As a result, community members cannot access the educational and practical experience to help them start growing and harvesting their own food. (Photo: Randy Bhagwan) 

A picture containing outdoor, grass, person, orange

Description automatically generated

A garden member during a donation harvest. Despite the month-long delay in opening gardens due to the pandemic, gardeners were able to work harder than usual and plant everything in two weeks. The garden yields support gardeners, weekly donations, and other garden activities. (Photo: Randy Bhagwan) 

A group of people posing for a photo

Description automatically generated

Children engaging with the community gardens in 2015 (left) and more recently (right). The Malvern community gardens work to include all members of the community, from senior citizens to young children. Local summer camps receive tours of the gardens, as pictured on the right. (Photos: MANC Newsletter 2015, Randy Bhagwan) 

Sociocultural Barriers to Urban Growing and Solutions to Overcome Them: A Case Study of Malvern Community Gardens By: Angela Gong

How can urban growing reach more people? Who is at risk of being excluded from urban agriculture initiatives? How can community and municipal leaders identify and remove barriers to accessing growing space? In the process of implementing equitable agricultural initiatives in the city, these are the questions that need to guide decision-making, to ensure that all populations and communities can reap the benefits of urban growing. The Malvern neighbourhood, located in the northeastern corner of Toronto, is an example of a diverse community of individuals from over sixty cultures, who regularly come together to engage in equitable neighbourhood improvement. Residents work to make positive changes through the Malvern Food Security Workgroup (MFSW), which organizes local festivals, workshops, and community garden events to solve and address food security concerns in the neighbourhood. MFSW collaborates with the three Malvern community gardens: Neilson Park Community GardenLittles Road Community Garden, and Blackwell Children’s Garden. The two city-run gardens, Neilson Park and Littles Road, are tended by approximately thirty-five members, numerous community volunteers, and five garden leads. 

The Malvern community gardens play an important role in providing fresh produce to local food security initiatives, such as Malvern Eats and a local mosque’s soup kitchen. However, the COVID-19 outbreak and associated closures in Ontario interfered with the growing timeline and procedures for community gardeners in the city. In preparation for garden openings, Toronto Parks, Forestry, & Recreation installed handwashing stations and signage in the gardens to highlight physical distancing measures and cleaning protocols and restricted participation in the garden to only five individuals at one time. The Malvern gardens took further health precautions by restricting access to certain tools and compost. Garden leads and urban growing organizations, including Toronto Urban GrowersFoodShare and Garden Jane, led webinars throughout May in order to inform members about these measures and address any questions. 

When the Malvern Community Gardens were finally opened in late May, gardeners were a month behind on cleaning the garden beds and preparing for planting. While the gardeners were able to dedicate extra effort and plant everything within two weeks of reopening, many challenges remained. Several senior and at-risk gardeners opted not to return in their usual capacity for this growing season, according to Randy Bhagwan, Malvern Garden Lead and Communication Coordinator of the Malvern Food Security Workgroup. Bhagwan describes an instance where one senior gardener “stopped by the fence, six feet away and had a conversation with me, and I know he wants to be involved but he can’t.” However, even without being physically present in the garden space, gardeners who were highly active in the past can take on a “garden advisor” role when stopping by for a physically-distanced talk, and be recognized for their contribution. 

Gardeners at Malvern have also contended with communication issues and increased tensions during the pandemic between the different cultures that predominate at each community garden. At Littles Road, more than half of the gardeners are South Asian, and the remaining population come from Caribbean and European backgrounds. In contrast, at Neilson Park, there is a relatively even mix of Caribbean, South Asian, and European gardeners. Due to a language barrier, a misunderstanding ensued when gardeners were talking about the virus, causing a false alarm that a gardener had been diagnosed with COVID-19. The garden leads then had to email members letting them know about the potential risk and restrict access to the garden and tools for two days before determining that the gardener had not contracted the virus. Bhagwan cited this situation as an example of rising tensions in the community and society as a whole, saying, “that was kind of a scare for us to realize we can’t take our foot off the gas, [as] things can happen at any moment.” 

This miscommunication revealed another underlying issue in community gardens that transcends the pandemic—governance and land security. After learning about the potential diagnosis, the gardeners could have asked the City to investigate, since the City is generally responsible for enforcing regulations. However, Bhagwan stated that “our gardeners prefer to handle things within house, because the scare always is that if we involve the city too much there are risks that they might just take the space away from us.”  

Bhagwan further describes how the pandemic highlights spatial barriers to urban growing. As a large and relatively spread-out community, some Malvern residents face difficulty accessing transit and walking spaces. During the pandemic, people are potentially exposed to the virus at numerous points in the process of obtaining food. Individuals may need to wait for the bus, utilize public transit for extended periods, wait in line at the grocery store, shop for their food, then utilize public transit once again on the way home. “Because of that, more people are trying to figure out, how do I [access food] without having to deal with these lines? People are now paying more attention to what they can do on their own.” However, while interest in growing has increased, there is a lack of education surrounding how to grow and harvest your own food. Governments allowed community gardens to open on the condition that the focus would be on food production by garden members, but no social or educational events were permitted. Gardeners were no longer able to host workshop days for community members to learn about growing food.  

Malvern Community Gardens has come up with a variety of potential solutions to these challenges for urban growing. In order to help senior and at-risk gardeners to continue growing, garden members have helped them plant crops at their homes. The garden leads, who come from a range of backgrounds and speak languages that represent the community, are well-positioned to resolve miscommunications. The Malvern garden leads are also working to find ways to include individuals outside of the dominant culture, following the example of a Scarborough community garden coordinator who “learns about their culture and implements things from their culture in the [garden] space” so they also feel that they belong there.  Bhagwan notes that “sometimes gardeners think they’re talking about two different things where they’re really talking about the same thing.” Establishing signage around the garden that says the name of each plant in different languages can help to reduce miscommunications related to growing and harvesting of plants. Signage is also welcoming for casual passersby. “Signs that are large enough for people who will walk into the park to read in their languages allows everyone in the community to know this is a space for everyone.” In the shorter term, Bhagwan and the other garden leads are looking for ways to engage and educate the general public during the pandemic, such as setting up tables in front of the garden to put out produce and facilitate conversations with non-gardeners about urban growing and the urban agriculture movement. 

More broadly, in order to address issues such as transportation and land security, Bhagwan suggests that community gardens require more support from the City. “In order for this industry to grow, we need to see more councillors and city leaders focusing on [these areas as more than just] a place for people to spend free time.” Indeed, the City and Province initially closed community gardens because they were deemed a “recreational service”, for aesthetic value and casual enjoyment. However, for those who are actually on-site and growing, the community gardens have greater importance for food security and physical and mental health.  

So how can we motivate greater recognition of non-recreational functions of community gardens? Bhagwan highlights environmental sustainability as an important point for expanding urban growing. “Gardens and parks are great for retaining water to prevent storm runoff. Gardens on rooftops are great for cooling and heating buildings.” Furthermore, community gardens are a heat island mitigator, encourage local species and pollinators to thrive, and reduce ‘food miles’ by closing the distance between production and consumption.  

The pandemic demonstrates the need for community gardens and urban growing spaces for food security, health, and environmental sustainability. Municipal support and local, diverse community leadership both have critical, complementary roles to play in creating stronger garden networks and healthier urban communities. 

Additional Resources: 

Follow Malvern Community Gardens on Instagram

Click here to read more about the Malvern neighbourhood. 

Click the link below to read an article from the Spring 2013 edition of the neighbourhood newspaper about the inception of the Malvern community gardens. 

Special thanks to Randy Bhagwan, for taking the time to speak with me and providing photos, and Rhonda Teitel-Payne, for her guidance and feedback in writing this article. 

September 2020: Will Healthy Food Be On the Plate in Canadian Schools? By Sterling Stutz and Eleonora Gagliardi

Reading Time: 2 min          

Across the country, community organizations, school food programs, school districts and parents continue to pay close attention to recommendations as governments continue to release guidelines and frameworks for what the return to school will look like. As of the end of July all provinces and territories have released some form of documentation framing what school food should look like come September. Many of these guidelines are understandably vague and do not include the specific information that school food organizations need to plan for when schools resume. To address COVID-19 concerns, some provincial governments and school boards are looking to increase the serving of pre-packaged food in schools, either exclusively or in conjunction with meals served by staff. 

Canada is the only G7 country without a national school food program. As a result, the operation of school food programs across the country vary greatly depending on provincial, municipal, and local school board policies. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a national school food program as provinces have cancelled in-person school and as a result limited the delivery of school food programs that provide students and their families with essential support.

A review of the currently-available guidelines for re-opening in September 2020 show that the Government of Alberta and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador both encourage the use of pre-packaged meals but also allow prepared meals to be served by designated staff. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is currently mandating the exclusive use of pre-packaged food

As of the end of July, a number of other provincial governments, such as the Government of British Columbia and the Government of Manitoba, have not yet released detailed guides on food safety and food programming within schools. The lack of clear policy and commitment to healthy, whole food by Canadian provinces and territories is leaving many families unsure if programs will run, and to what extent their children will have access to healthy, fresh, and nutritious food. 

Champions of healthy school food, including the Coalition for Healthy School Food, have been raising the alarm that overly cautious public health guidance may restrict the provision of fresh and whole foods in schools, which would negatively impact children’s health. To meet this challenge, school food practitioners are developing menus rich in vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods that can be pre-packaged and brought into schools, but many are also concerned about the increased costs associated with packaging the meals.

Advocates are concerned that a reliance on pre-packaged foods will also lead to an increase in single-use plastics products. In December 2019, the Canadian government announced a ban on single-use plastics as a response to concerns by public health experts because of the potential negative health and environmental consequences of increased plastic use. 

School food programs provide critical services for children and youth, and were recognized as such by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States in their July reopening guidelines. The guidelines express the important role that school food programs play in students’ educational success, and that closing such programs during COVID-19 puts students’ health at risk.

For this reason, groups such as the Coalition for Healthy School Food and its 128+ members released a media statement on July 21st. This statement called on provincial medical officers of health and local health, and educational professionals to ensure school food programs balance the need for strong public health measures with the inclusion of healthy, whole foods. Food insecurity across Canada is growing and the continuation of school food programs is necessary to ensure students are fed and not distracted by hunger during the school day. 

Moving forward, we need to understand that, regardless of COVID-19, healthy school food needs to be considered an imperative, not an option.

Article Highlight: Alternative Federal Budget Recovery Plan | CCPA

The Alternative Federal Budget Recovery Plan is an offshoot project of the Alternative Federal Budget project. It is a collaboration among organizations and researcehrs from a variety of sectors including:  populations, and areas of expertise including human rights, labour, environmental protection, anti-poverty, arts and culture, social development, child development, international development, women, Indigenous peoples, the faith-based community, students, teachers, education, and health care workers.

This piece has a clear focus on the investments Canada needs to make during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to ensure a just, equitable and sustainable recovery.

Key Issues in the AFB Rcovery plan requiring immediate action are as follows to,

implement universal public child care so people can get back to work, reform employment insurance, strengthen safeguards for public health, decarbonize the economy, and tackle the gender, racial, and income inequality that COVID-19 has further exposed.

To read more and to download your copy please click here