The need to create food secure cities is becoming increasingly relevant as the food system and structures of our urban cores are rapidly transforming. A paradox exists in which there is increased growth in urban areas – such as the concentration of economic productivity and of people – yet food production takes place mainly outside of the city. This leads to increased food prices for many and a heavy reliance on imported and convenience foods for the urban population.
Ensuring that urban spaces are food secure requires knowing whether:
1. There is sufficient production or availability of nutritional food for the urban population.
2. Food is accessible to and affordable for the urban population.
As a result of urban food insecurity, there is a tendency for food deserts to emerge in Toronto’s “inner cities” (for example, Toronto’s 13 recognized priority neighbourhoods). Where food deserts occur, healthy and affordable foods are difficult to obtain, and there is a reliance on convenience foods. As a result, hunger, poor health and malnutrition are persistent and enable cycles of further socio-economic disparities. Problems related to food deserts are complex, but include income: inequality, costs of other basic needs, availability and cost of transportation, zoning, the interests of food suppliers, food and nutritional knowledge, and so forth.
Food and social movements have emerged to improve urban food security and help address the impacts of food insecurity. One major concern is food supply: if transport hubs were to be put on hold in Toronto, the food supply would only last three days. This has led to pressures for increased urban agriculture, rooftop and community gardens – projects to increase food production and accessibility of food in our cities, while at the same time encouraging community engagement. The second issue is improving peoples’ ability to access the food supply. This is the concern of many social movements such as advocacy groups for fairer wages, income support, social and health support, and antipoverty coalitions who also work to fill the gaps.
Emergency food supplies, such as food banks and soup kitchens, were long the primary services available to Toronto residents with barriers to food access. In the past few decades, however, many not-for-profit organizations in Toronto, such as the Stop Community Food Centre and FoodShare, have worked towards improving the access to healthy and affordable foods through a variety of different programs. These programs tackle the many causes of food insecurity through a range of approaches:
- Reskilling programs such as community kitchens which teach adults and children basic nutritious cooking skills emergency food hampers that allow recipients to choose what foods they would like to receive and include all four food groups and culturally appropriate foods
- Opening temporary fruit and vegetable markets with affordable prices in underserved areas
- Research into programs like farmers’ market nutrition vouchers or community food hubs that have helped reduce food insecurity in other communities
Charitable organizations, advocacy groups, and community or health centres also work towards influencing policy development. Many groups, including the TFPC and TYFPC, were involved in drafting Toronto’s new food strategy which provides a range of recommendations for addressing urban food insecurity. Other initiatives such as the Do The Math campaign, which spotlights the impossibility of eating healthily on social assistance, or the Food Animators program, which help communities develop their own food programs, address these problems by raising awareness and building capacity from the both the top down and the grassroots up.
Organizations & Websites
Action for Neighbourhood Change – organizations in Toronto’s priority areas working to find community solutions to community problems such as food security.
Put Food in the Budget – campaign launched by the Stop to raise awareness about how social assistance rates provide insufficient funding for a healthy diet, and asks Canadians to calculate whether they could survive on $585 a month.
Toronto Food Strategy – site provides not only the full text of Cultivating Connections: Toward a Healthy and Sustainable Food System for Toronto, but also videos about community food projects in the city and neighbourhood food asset maps.
BC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program – information and reports about the British Columbia program which provided low income families with healthy eating workshops and vouchers to encourage shopping at local farmers’ markets.
Canadian Cities Have Food Deserts – description of what food deserts are and what they mean for Canadian cities (CBC, 2008).
Farmers’ Market Vouchers Help Poor Eat Farm Fresh – a local example of a market voucher program at the Stonegate Community Health Centre (Toronto Star, 2010).
For Hunger-Proof Cities: Sustainable Urban Food Systems – edited by Mustafa Koc, Rod MacRae, Luc J.A. Mougeot, and Jennifer Welsh