A couple of months ago, we decided that as a youth-focused council, it was important to provide our community with monthly insights from young people working good food jobs. Through interviews, we aim to provide some useful thoughts on (a) how to secure employment, and (b) issues related to the work they do.
Please read below to hear from Sasha McNicoll – currently the Research and Evaluation Coordinator at Community Food Centres Canada, and previously with Sustain Ontario and Food Secure Canada – to hear her thoughts on networking, community, women in the food movement, and more.
1. Please tell us about your background – educational, volunteer, professional, and/or personal – and significant experiences which led you to work in/with food.
I started my career working in the environmental movement at Greenpeace International when I lived in Amsterdam. I felt for the first time how much I love doing work that I feel has a social or environmental impact, but working on climate issues made me burn out so quickly. Focusing daily on political inaction in the face of such an urgent and disastrous problem is really difficult.
When I got back to Canada, I started working with Sustain Ontario and Food Secure Canada and realized that I’d never felt so much at home as I do in the food movement. The problems are as dire as they are in the climate movement, but there’s also this whole side of food that’s about building community, sharing delicious food, and creating beautiful spaces in community gardens and farmers’ markets. Whenever I feel frustrated with an uphill battle, I have that uplifting side to turn to.
I also love that the food movement is full of strong, intelligent women leaders. People like Diana Bronson, Cathleen Kneen, and Lauren Baker have really inspired me.
2. What were some challenges in getting to where you are?
One challenge of working in the community food security sector is that there are so many smart, capable people who want to do this work and so little funding. It’s disheartening that so many people have to do unpaid work or work they’re overqualified for, and it can feel like treading water.
Another challenge has been around confidence in my knowledge and abilities, though I think, unfortunately, that’s something a lot of women face. I try to remind myself that those feelings are normal and to push them aside.
3. Please describe your current work.
I’m the Research and Evaluation Coordinator at Community Food Centres Canada. I keep the organization up-to-date on the latest research and do program evaluation for our Community Food Centres. I really love the fact that I spend so much of my time learning.
4. What impact has your work had on alternative food networks, food access, and food literacy more broadly?
Some of the work of which I’m proudest has been working for networks. At Sustain Ontario, I helped to forge connections with Franco-Ontarian organizations, which is so important because too often, Anglophone and Francophone groups work in two separate silos. I’ll also always feel so honoured to have worked with Food Secure Canada at such a formative time in its development and to have helped it transition from a volunteer-run organization into a staffed organization whose capacity and membership is growing so quickly. FSC plays such an important role in uniting Canadian food security organizations and presenting a collective voice to federal politicians.
5. What changes would you like to see in the food sector and how does your work with CFCC address these?
The issue on which I’m most focused at the moment is poverty. Canada has no agreed-upon definition of what it means to be poor, but some groups estimate that nearly 5 million Canadians live in poverty, which is shameful in a country that has the means to fully eliminate the problem.
CFCC works in low-income areas to provide food access, food skills, and education and engagement. I think it’s important to emphasize that food charity is not a solution to poverty or to food insecurity, but it is vital to provide spaces for community-building. Marginalized communities should be at the forefront of anti-poverty efforts, and people can’t organize when they’re living in social isolation. All of our Community Food Centres have advocacy offices, so the model works by providing emergency food access, teaching important food skills, and helping people be their own advocates.
Part of my work also involves researching real solutions to poverty and food insecurity, such as a guaranteed annual income.
6. In what capacities have you participated in the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council?
I started my involvement with the TYFPC as a community member and then joined as a council member as Vice-Chair. I helped to coordinate the work of the networks, communicated that work through the newsletter, met with other food, health, and youth groups, and represented the TYFPC on the Toronto Food Policy Council.
7. How has the TYFPC shaped your current interests and involvement in the food movement?
My work with the TYFPC has convinced me of the importance of a strong youth voice in the food movement. Much of the burden of poor choices made by previous generations is falling on the shoulders of our generation, so it is vital that we be a major part of finding a solution.
I am now co-chairing the Food Secure Canada Youth Caucus and working on the youth side of FSC’s federal election campaign.
8. What are some of the lessons or take home messages you have for youth who wish to pursue research and employment in the food sector?
I think it’s really important to be strategic. Know what your assets are, and run with them. I grew up bilingual, so the fact that I’m Francophone has been a real boost to my career.
It’s also important to network: I have a list of people I might want to work with someday who I want to get to know. It’s important to put yourself out there.