Food justice and community mutual aid in conversation with FoodShare Toronto’s Director of Advocacy and Programs, Katie German
By Sabrina Michael
Sabrina Michael is a Toronto-based freelance journalist, part-time student, and collector of library fines. She writes about labour, culture, and politics anywhere she can. Her work has been featured in The Pigeon and TRNTO. You can find her on Twitter at @sabrinammich.
Edited by Natalie Wee.
(Pictured above: Artwork by CJTO member Brook, @art.by.brook.)
The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the inequalities inherent in food systems worldwide. A CBC article published in November 2020 highlighted the fact that in Toronto, low-wage workers took the brunt of worsening food insecurity, a majority of these being Black, Indigenous, and people of colour. According to the Toronto Fallout Report, Statistics Canada reported 14.6% of Canadians were food insecure as of May 2020, a 39% increase from 2017–18. Food insecurity means that people do not have reliable access to enough affordable, healthy food to eat.
Understanding these statistics requires a holistic approach. Food access in Toronto is situated within a broader global ecosystem that is itself impacted by systems of power such as capitalism, colonialism, and systemic racism. Food access is also deeply connected to land justice. One cannot consider Indigenous sovereignty without also addressing food justice; white settler colonialism has created a system in which food is more connected to capital than the land. Deconstruction of these capitalist settler ideals of who is worthy of food access and land ownership is an essential component of food justice.
Food justice as a framework and social movement seeks to respond to the problem of food insecurity by adopting such a holistic view, and responding with solutions that remove structural barriers to accessing healthy food. This is done by promoting actions and projects in sustainable agriculture, labour rights, anti-racist policy, and Landback actions. Food justice organizers are often also involved in mutual aid groups, which work to provide food to those in need and fill gaps in political policy while fighting for communities’ rights to grow, sell, and access healthy and culturally appropriate food.
In Toronto, there are many groups doing this type of work. Some of them include: Community Fridges Toronto, an initiative where community fridges are stocked with free food and necessities; The People’s Pantry Toronto, which offers home-cooked meals and groceries to food-insecure folks around the GTA; and FoodShare Toronto, which aims to develop long-term solutions for an equitable food system centered around food justice values. Although these organizations have laudable goals, they are often expected to fill gaps in policy when what’s needed are long-term, structural solutions.
Climate Justice Toronto caught up with Katie German, FoodShare’s Director of Advocacy and Programs, to talk about food justice and explore what FoodShare does in the community.
As Canada is built upon stolen Indigenous land, any conversations about food justice must include Indigenous justice and land justice.
“The idea that people can consider food without considering soil, without considering land, without considering whose land it is, like,” German considers for a moment before concluding, “you just can’t.”
The question of land and colonialism is being taken up in an emerging global Indigenous social movement mobilizing under the banner of “Land Back”. Broadly, land back campaigns work to get Indigenous lands back into Indigenous hands. More than this, they also seek to restore a different, more sustainable relationship to land. In so-called Canada, we saw an example of a Land Back campaign in July 2020, when Haudenosaunee land defenders occupied a housing development that was to be built on unceded Six Nations territory, creating what is now known as 1492 Land Back Lane. Their Facebook page notes that they are growing a community garden and “an orchard of cherry, apple and pear trees” on the land, as noted on spokesperson Skyler Williams’ Facebook page, as part of “[t]aking care of the land and one another.”
Care for one another through mutual aid is also a driving tenet for what food justice can look like in the city.
“Our vision is a Toronto where everyone can feed themselves and their loved ones and their communities with dignity and joy,” German says. “Something we’re really focused on is trying to see some movement on realizing the right to food. The right to food is legally recognized federally, and legally recognized by the municipal government—and yet, what do you see?”
The City of Toronto actually has a Food Charter which was created in 2000 as a commitment to the United Nations’ Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which includes the right to be free from hunger. The Food Charter states that Toronto City Council will, among other things, “champion the right of all residents to adequate amounts of safe, nutritious, culturally-acceptable food without the need to resort to emergency food,” and “advocate for income, employment, housing, and transportation policies that support dignified access to the food people need.”
It’s clear that the City Council is aware of the role structural inequity plays in food insecurity, given their 2000 Food Charter, but their willingness to act on these proposed solutions is less clear when one looks into their current policies. Data from 2019 shows that 1 out of 5 Toronto households experiences food insecurity, and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, City food policy has heavily relied on emergency food.
Explaining FoodShare’s work in relation to emergency food, German explains emergency food relief is an immediate lifeline, it is not a long-term solution. “We’ve never done food banking or free food because it’s really difficult, almost impossible, to do that in a way that supports agency. […] It’s that self-determined community power piece that’s really important, and it’s also why FoodShare has never done emergency food relief.”
Instead, FoodShare prioritizes community-determined projects like their Good Food Markets program, which supports and trains community members to create independent food markets in neighbourhoods where farmer’s markets may not be viable due to low sales. As German explains, “Part of the reason why [Good Food Markets] works so well is because it’s entirely determined by the community, what food they’re going to be making available. […] So it’s all about the community having control and taking back some of the power in how that food system works.”
FoodShare’s Good Food Markets connects community leaders with fresh produce vendors and the resources necessary to coordinate and organize their own independent markets.
German says, “In recent years we’ve really tried to really focus on who we’re working with—where are we allocating resources, whose voices are getting amplified, who’s getting access to resources. […] We’re intentional about asking: ‘how do we support community leaders that are already doing this work, already identifying solutions, and already know what’s best for their community?’”
She explained that, all too often, charities have good intentions but end up exacerbating the same issues they are attempting to fix, as governments assume they are doing the work that should be addressed through policy.
“A lot of these organizations—FoodShare included—were set up to address a broken food system, but then ended up replicating a lot of the really crappy structures that exist out in the world.”
Food justice does not exist within a vacuum. Systemic injustices throughout society play a role in access to food and in food agency. As German explains, “One [element] is adequate income, and that means also, how do people live if they’re not working. The way that food security gets fixed is through income, and it’s primarily an issue of money— but even if we fixed income inequality, there’s still systemic racism that exists within the food system.”
Racial disparities in food inequality are another element of the racism and structural inequality that Canada was built upon. Black households are 3.5 times more likely to experience food insecurity than white households—even when taking factors such as homeownership, immigration status, and education levels into consideration.
“The second [element] is that we address systemic racism and for people to know that, fundamentally, the food system was designed and built and is currently maintained by the exploitation of Black people, Brown people, and people of colour. That exists both in agriculture, but also […] in all of the sorts of precarious, dangerous jobs that exist across the food system.”
There is an increasing death toll among migrant workers in Canada, who make up approximately one-fifth of the Canadian agricultural workforce and are subject to exploitative work and housing conditions, which they are often hesitant to report for fear of being blacklisted from the industry. Gig workers working for food delivery apps such as UberEats and DoorDash often face exploitative algorithmic pay rates with little protection or ability to unionize. Social response to injustice in these areas includes Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a member-led organization of migrant workers fighting for labour and immigration justice, and Gig Workers United, a community union of gig workers across apps and employers that aims to fight for labour rights and protections.
German tells Climate Justice Toronto that a holistic government approach is necessary, explaining that, “The thing that we need is real investment from government and policy responses that look at income distribution, wealth redistribution, income policies, and how food is deeply connected to the environment.”
For example, she argues, “Any nutrition you get from food comes from soil.”
Soil health is massively important in managing carbon emissions. Agricultural practices such as growing mono-crops (repeatedly growing the same type of crop in a field), using excessive pesticides and fertilizers, and overgrazing are practices that can cause unhealthy soil to release carbon into the atmosphere.
Regenerative farming aims to improve and replenish the ecosystem and improve soil health, causing the soil to become a “carbon sink,” with carbon stored in the soil instead of released into the atmosphere. The exact methods vary from region to region depending on the ecosystem but can include crop rotation, minimizing soil tillage, and rotational livestock grazing.
Food comes from land and soil, from individuals’ labour, from dozens of factors working in tandem to create our food system. Ultimately, food justice is not possible without a holistic, long-term approach, but the solutions are out there.
To learn more about FoodShare, visit: https://foodshare.net.