Food Access Backgrounder
Access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food eaten in a dignified setting is a basic human need. It is also a basic human right which Canada has repeatedly endorsed for more than 60 years, since signing the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Yet there are residents of Toronto today, especially among children, racialized communities, people with disabilities and the elderly on low-income, who are not having this basic human need and right met. This is especially disturbing when more than a third of food is wasted.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2018. Key facts on food loss and waste you should know!
A strategy to reduce poverty in this city is doing two things: It is assisting all Torontonians in gaining access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food eaten in a dignified setting. And it is using food itself as a tool to promote health and to build community, jobs and personal empowerment.
When knitting together a life with precarious work and low wages, nutritious food is hard to obtain in Toronto. People in low-income neighbourhoods may lack food outlets with fresh produce and diverse healthy options. When quality food is available, it is often beyond their budgets. As a result, food banks, established as a temporary emergency solution in the early 1980s, continue to be an important source of food for many Torontonians. Torontonians now make 1,040,000 visits to food banks each year. Yet fourteen percent of children whose families use Toronto food banks report that they still go hungry at least once a week.
Daily Bread, 2017. Who is Hungry: Profile of Hunger in Toronto
Food access is a pivotal determinant of health. Lack of access to fresh healthy foods, lack of space for growing food, eating alone, food-related chronic diseases, food waste and income inequality are systemic issues, and need to be addressed in a systemic way — not just for people on low income and not just at the household level. Responses to individual experiences such as hunger and malnutrition require the building of community assets, supports, and social services. Schools, parks, libraries, community and recreation centres, and drop-ins are all part of the solution.
Food systems planning for the City of Toronto should take an approach that recognizes the importance of food security and a healthy food environment. How people access food in their neighbourhoods — where they buy food, the nutritional quality of the food they can access, whether there are community gardens, community kitchens, drop-in programs, student nutrition programs, and opportunities for food-based employment and entrepreneurship are all key factors. People on low income are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity. More can and should be done to engage low income people in addressing their food needs and ensuring all residents have access to healthy, nutritious food.
City of Toronto efforts to address food insecurity during the 1980s were focused on alternatives to food banks, such as funding the creation of the non-profit organization FoodShare. In 1991, when civic officials recognized that food policy was an essential tool, the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) was established within Toronto Public Health (TPH). The mandate of the TFPC was to advise the Board of Health, access community experience and expertise, and develop more systemic solutions to the problem of food insecurity. In 1999, the Food and Hunger Action Committee was initiated, which led to the adoption of the Toronto Food Charter in 2001. At that time, four roles were identified for the City – to advocate, support, coordinate and innovate approaches to addressing food insecurity. In 2010, The Toronto Food Strategy (TFS) was created following the release of the TPH report Cultivating Food Connections: Towards a Healthy and Sustainable Food System for Toronto. This report identified food as a lever to increase City capacity in many areas, including poverty reduction and job creation. In 2015, Toronto signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, which acknowledges the role of cities in developing sustainable food systems, promoting healthy diets, and supporting social and economic equity. The Toronto Food Strategy uses the Milan Pact as a guiding framework. Also In 2015, City Council approved TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), which draws directly on the knowledge and experience of the TFPC and the TFS. Food Access is one of the six pillars of the PRS.
City of Toronto Divisional Food Policy Work
The City’s approach to food insecurity involves all divisions, as identified in the Toronto Food Charter. A number of initiatives are underway.
- Since 1999, Toronto Public Health has monitored the affordability of food using the Nutritious Food Basket survey. The Nutritious Food Basket survey is a tool developed by Health Canada which helps determine the cost of a list of foods that reflect healthy eating recommendations. The Nutritious Food Basket results are used to advocate for adequate income to address food insecurity in the City of Toronto.
- In 2018, the City will have achieved its 6-year plan to strengthen and expand municipal funding for Student Nutrition Programs, with a contribution of $14 million dollars. Student Nutrition Programs in Toronto reach almost 200,000 children and youth, working in partnership with the Province, the non-profit and corporate sectors, parents, local communities and volunteers.
- City staff and community members are working together to expand opportunities for urban agriculture through the Toronto Agricultural Program.
- Toronto’s Tower Renewal Program uses food as a vehicle for engaging communities and combatting poverty.
- Toronto’s Green Roof Bylaw has the potential to expand food production close to where people live and work.
- Toronto Public Health, in partnership with community organizations, has incubated FoodReach, an online food aggregator and procurement portal for ordering fresh healthy food for community agencies at wholesale prices.
- Toronto Public Health, in partnership with FoodShare Toronto as the market operator, has developed mobile good food markets, which use refitted WheelTrans vehicles to sell food in underserved neighbourhoods.
- Toronto Public Health, in partnership with community organizations, has developed the Community Food Works program to provide food handler certification (a requirement for jobs in the food sector in Toronto) for low-income residents. The certification is combined with nutrition education and employment supports. In 2016, Community Food Works for Newcomer Settlement was created. This award-winning program is offered in Arabic and uses a peer-to-peer model, providing culturally appropriate workshop facilitation, while giving peers valuable job experience.
Poverty Reduction Strategy: 2018 plans
The Toronto Public Health, through the Toronto Food Strategy, will continue to implement and, if successful, expand Community Food Works for Newcomer Settlement to all newcomer groups, and will work with the TFPC and the Toronto Agricultural Program on a work plan for the expansion of urban agriculture. The TFS is also developing a prototype project for a social supermarket, where people on low income will be able to shop for quality food at deep discounts. Some of this food supply will include surplus food from manufacturers and producers. As well, the City will monitor emerging Provincial and Federal food strategies for opportunities for intergovernmental advocacy and alignment.