By Matilda Dipieri, Junior Researcher


 

How are communities responding to and addressing food access and equity issues? What role do community organizations play in a wider recognition of the important connections between food and health? On February 23, as part of the Partnership for Inclusive Health: Bridging the Equity Gap in the Eastern GTA Symposium, members of the Feeding City Lab hosted and facilitated a discussion around these key issues, spotlighting their collaborators’ experiences. The collider event, titled Food Access and Food Equity: Healthy Food Policy and Community Collaborations toward Nutritional Security, was moderated by Professors Jo Sharma and Sarah Elton.

In the first half of this session, the roundtable featured two leading community figures, Suman Roy and Debbie Field, both with years of grassroots experience in food access, health equity, and their wider policy implications.

Suman Roy is the founder-director of Feed Scarborough: a Scarborough Food Security Initiative that currently operates four food banks, a community garden, and has implemented food access innovations such as a grocery store model of food support to go, a mobile healthy meal program run out of a food truck, a mobile farmer’s market. It also plans to build a public food distribution hub and a food incubator public market for Scarborough.

Debbie Field was the executive director of FoodShare for 25 years with programs such as the Good Food Markets that helped establish community-run pop-up fruit and vegetable markets in lower-income communities. Currently, she is the coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, a national network of over 100 non-profit organizations mobilizing policy towards the creation of a universal, cost-shared school food program for Canada.

Shifting away from a focus on “food insecurity” proved central to the discussion. For one, the Canadian government continues to respond to hunger and food equity by investing in food banks and emergency food provisioning strategies. Feed Scarborough has long held that food insecurity has everything to do with factors like transit, education, housing, economic stability, and seemingly nothing to do with food. Feed Scarborough’s food bank model works as an advocacy platform instead, supporting poverty alleviation strategies. As emphasized by Suman Roy, there is a need to “move from food security to nutritional security and poverty reduction.”

Debbie Field addressed questions of health inequities and food insecurity through a lens of “food care” and her experiences with the Coalition for Healthy School Food. Here, food serves as a starting point for health, grounding its importance in children and their access to healthy food. However, food bank use continues to be the predominant measure of hunger and nutritional security. Placing a renewed value in food and the provision of healthy food requires a shift in these conventions.

Both speakers’ insights point to a growing need to confront systemic barriers to health inequities. Ensuring that food is treated as a basic human right is central to this mission. Scarborough continues to bring together coalitions and networks around food access and food issues. It then becomes a question of how to bridge the gap between social policy and these community programs.

In the second half of this session, the panellists were joined by members of the Scarborough Food Network (SFN). The SFN brings together a group of community organizations, City representatives, residents and local stakeholders that are all committed to advocating for increased local food security. The network is dedicated to advancing a collective dialogue around building a resilient and sustainable food system and celebrating the richness of community-based food initiatives in Scarborough. Some of the participating members included representatives from Access Alliance, the Scarborough and Courtyard Farmers Markets, East Scarborough Boys & Girls Club, and the Centre for Immigrant and Community Services.

Ultimately, the panellists’ and participants’ collaborative partnerships provide us with an incredible display of community solidarity and resilience, that take place in times of crisis and beyond. However, as identified by many speakers, communities in Scarborough are mobilizing change on the ground and often providing Band-Aid solutions to large systemic problems. Learning from community initiatives provides a starting point for larger institutional and policy support to tackle food inequities and food access issues while acknowledging the important intersection of food and health. An inclusive approach, acknowledging the diversity and changing needs of communities and their residents are central to this goal.

Feeding City has organized several other webinars relevant to these discussions. Some of these include:

“Urban Agriculture, School and Community Food Programs,” accessed here. “Leading on Food Security: Emergency Responses in a Diverse City,” accessed here.

For a detailed discussion and analysis of how community initiatives are helping build a healthier, more just food system, see Dipieri/Feeding City (2022).