A recipe for local change in Peel

What if we could re-imagine the way we address hunger in local communities?

A unique pilot project between United Way and the General Mills Foundation in Peel Region is hoping to do exactly that by moving beyond the typical model of food distribution to a more collaborative, community-led approach.

It’s an initiative that comes as the number of people visiting food banks is increasing, rather than decreasing in Peel Region. For example, The Mississauga Food Bank reported an 18 per cent increase in the number of residents accessing their network of food banks and meal programs in 2018.

Access to food is a human right

Where you live shouldn’t determine your access to healthy, nourishing and culturally-appropriate food. But in Peel Region (and across the GTA) financial constraints can prevent our friend and neighbours from accessing the food they need. This has potential immediate and long-term impacts to their physical and mental health and well-being, as well as having a host of other interrelated effects.

Without nourishing food, kids can’t concentrate in school. Adults go to work hungry. And families have to make agonizing choices about keeping the lights on or putting food on the table.

“Access to appropriate, healthy, life-giving food is a universal right,” says Ruth Crammond, United Way Greater Toronto’s Vice President, Community Investment and Development. “But in Peel Region, thousands of people still go without food. It’s a shocking reality in a region as prosperous as the GTA.”

Taking a local approach to food insecurity

While food banks and meal programs have an important role to play when it comes to addressing food insecurity, there’s a lot more to “feeding the hungry” than meeting immediate need.

“Food security is both an immediate and a systemic issue,” explains Crammond. “It’s inextricably linked to poverty and, like poverty, it looks very different from one community to the next.” 

Effectively tackling hunger at a local level means understanding what it looks like and where it exists. In Peel Region, for example, hunger can be hard to see.

“You might see a family of four at the grocery store and they’re buying groceries, ” says Dale Storey, President and Managing Director, General Mills Canada Corporation, “but when they get back to their apartment they can’t take their winter jackets off because they needed to make a trade off between heat and food.”

When you can’t afford a car, or the neighbourhood you live in isn’t well connected to public transit, it can be difficult to even get to a grocery store. For newcomers with limited income or language barriers, it can be hard to ask for help. Newcomers often find themselves in a very different food environment than they are accustomed to and may struggle to make healthy choices because they are unfamiliar with staples supplied by food banks or don’t know how to cook with them.

Following on the footsteps of a similar, and promising, initiative in Greater Twin Cities, United Way Greater Toronto is partnering with the General Mills Foundation to re-imagine local solutions to hunger.

“At General Mills, we believe in the power of food as a force for good in our communities. We are proud to work together with our long-time partners at United Way Greater Toronto to ensure everyone in our hometown community of Mississauga has affordable and reliable access to the food they need and prefer in order to thrive,” says Mary Jane Melendez, President of the General Mills Foundation and Chief Sustainability & Social Impact Officer.

A generous $1-million gift from General Mills is being invested in a number of community food systems grants that will connect residents living in poverty in Mississauga, Ont., with nutritious, culturally appropriate and affordable food. The programs will focus on community education as well as increasing access to food for community agencies, residents and partners across the food system.

Reflecting local demographics and needs

By working together at a “community systems” level, and taking into account local demographics and needs, the following United Way-supported projects are hoping to transform the way we treat hunger.

  • Ecosource’s Deep Roots program connects residents who experience barriers to food access with a network of ten community gardens across Mississauga, which are tailored to local needs.
  • WellFort Community Health Services, on behalf of the Peel Food Action Council, is co-ordinating action to identify local food issues, learn about the local food environment and map out actions to improve and address food access and security.

Not just a pipe dream

Taking a community-led approach is essential to both immediate and long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.

“We believe achieving food security in Mississauga is possible through enhanced co-operation and innovation across all players in the food system,” says Britt McKee, Executive Director at Ecosource, one of the United Way Greater Toronto agencies that is funded by the General Mills investment.

“It is our collective responsibility to work together to address the complex barriers to food access residents face” explains McKee. “Our goal is to implement creative and culturally-appropriate solutions that are specific to Mississauga.”

While solutions won’t happen overnight, it’s this kind of micro, local change that will help meet immediate need and will provide the blueprint for tackling hunger across a wider geographical footprint. 

How to get involved:

  • Subscribe to Imagine A City where we’ll bring you updates on this project, including successes, challenges and learnings along the way.

How yard-sharing can help feed communities

Avid gardeners like Sonam don’t necessarily need a yard to grow delicious fruits and vegetables, thanks to community gardening programs.

When Rhonda Teitel-Payne first got involved with yard-sharing programs in 2009, she wasn’t sure whether Torontonians would want total strangers digging around in their backyards—but, as it turns out, they did. In fact, Teitel-Payne, who is co-coordinator for Toronto Urban Growers, has watched the yard-sharing movement grow exponentially. “It’s a great way to form connections in your community,” she says. “I’ve seen amazing relationships develop, and there are people who have maintained their gardening friendships for years.”

Yard-sharing pairs urban homeowners with landless gardeners to mutual benefit: people who may not have the time or energy to grow their own vegetables offer part of their property to someone who does, and share in the harvest. There are now waiting lists full of people looking for patches of ground to sow in the city, but it’s not a phenomenon restricted to residential backyards—community gardens are springing up outside apartment buildings, restaurants and other businesses. “Container gardens on pavement work beautifully,” says Teitel-Payne. “Often people grow things they can’t find in stores, or that would normally be imported, or expensive. It’s an opportunity to grow things that mean something to you.”

The arrangement benefits homeowners and green thumbs alike; many split the bounty half and half, while others join programs, such as Not Far From The Tree, that donate a portion to food banks, community kitchens and shelters. A few years ago, Sonam, who came to Canada from Tibet, learned about The Stop Community Food Centre while attending ESL classes and became involved in the organization’s yard-sharing program. One small garden blossomed into three, and eventually she launched her own business, making momos (Tibetan dumplings) from the produce in her gardens and selling them at local farmers’ markets and the West End Food Co-op. “I can’t see her now without her giving me food,” Teitel-Payne laughs.

For a yard-sharing program to succeed, Teitel-Payne recommends both property owner and would-be gardener put an agreement on paper that covers things like how the space will be used and what will happen to the produce. Homeowners should find out what kind of growing experience their gardener has, and should outline whether there are any time restrictions when it comes to accessing the space. Then, there are garden-specific issues to consider, such as soil quality, light and availability of water. When starting out, Teitel-Payne suggests planting greens, peas and beans, which are easiest to grow, then branching out from there. “Experiment with small amounts of a bunch of different things,” she says. “Keep going with what works and try a few new things every time.”

If you’d like to get involved in yard-sharing, check out the Toronto Urban Growers website; their “I want land” page offers a list of programs and resources for future green thumbs. You can also match up with a like-minded gardener or landowner at Garden Share TO, or join CultivateTO’s Community Shared Agriculture program. Or check out the City of Toronto’s page on community gardens and allotment gardening.