Summer is in full bloom across the city. But for many Torontonians, access to the fresh fruits and vegetables of the season’s harvest isn’t as easy as a trip to the local grocery store or market.
Food security—or access to healthy, safe and culturally-appropriate food —has become a growing health and social issue in this city. This is particularly true in many of Toronto’s inner suburbs—some of which have been called “food deserts”— where there is a concentration of poverty and limited access to grocery stores.
In 2011-2012, almost 12% of Toronto households reported some level of food insecurity, or inadequate access to food.
“Cost is a key barrier. Unfortunately, we have a minimum wage that’s lower than the cost of living in Toronto ,” says Lauren Baker, a food policy specialist at Toronto Public Health and the Toronto Food Policy Council.
“Often there are physical or geographic barriers too. There are a lack of food outlets that sell healthy, culturally-appropriate food. It’s worrisome that newcomer health declines over the first five years that they’re in Toronto. This is partially because people don’t have access to the food and ingredients they’re used to,” she adds.
Urban agriculture—an umbrella term for food-growing activities in cities—plays a small, but important, role in enhancing food security. It can include everything from growing food on your own balcony (like the residents of this development in Regent Park) to recreational endeavours such as community gardens, kitchens and urban orchards.
These neighbourhood spaces, integrated into many of United Way Toronto’s Community Hubs, are about much more than just access to locally-grown, nutritious and culturally-appropriate food. One example? Lotherton-Caledonia’s urban orchard—billed as one of North America’s largest—which brought more than 50 local families together in this “food desert” to adopt individual fruit trees.
“The tree adoption project came from thinking that residents, many of them newcomers, could learn not only to grow their own food, but to take ownership of doing it in their own community,” says Tara Bootan,coordinator of Lotherton’s Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC), a United Way resident engagement initiative.
It’s innovative urban agriculture projects like these that enhance food security and help sow the seeds of neighbourhood engagement, too. Other examples include commercial food-growing initiatives and social enterprises like CAMH’s market garden, where hospital volunteers grow “food-for-sale” and learn valuable gardening, teamwork and entrepreneurship skills at the same time.
All of these initiatives are part of a larger health-focused food system,” adds Baker. “This includes healthy corner stores and sustainable food procurement policies to employment opportunities centered around food as well as food waste reduction strategies,” she says.
Toronto’s urban agriculture movement won’t grow and flourish on its own. By working together we can achieve our shared vision of accessible, fresh, local, nutritious, affordable, and culturally-diverse, food for everyone, regardless of where they live.