Lack of transportation is the main obstacle to people getting healthy food in Scarborough, says Peter Dorfman, a manager in the city’s health department.
“The number of people in high-priority neighbourhoods without cars is much higher than other parts of the city,” he said. “And there’s often many seniors and people who are already dealing with multiple challenges in priority neighbourhoods.”
He was responding to a preliminary report on Toronto’s first food strategy released in February by the public health department. The study aims to integrate food security into the city’s broader agenda — linking public transit to grocery stores, building community centres with gardens and kitchens, and educating residents about healthy eating.
Last month Dorfman spoke with a group of seniors in Malvern about where they go to get groceries. Those living in the heart of Malvern told him they just walked to the local Food Basics.
But residents who don’t live near it had to rely on their children to take them shopping, Dorfman said.
“That’s okay. But what do you do if you don’t have kids or your kids don’t have a car?”
One of the solutions identified in the city’s strategy is to encourage more food stores along transit lines, which means integrating food security into urban planning.
“We’re increasingly trying to organize the city around transit,” Dorfman said. “And we’re looking to intensify development — to stop sprawl. When there’s new growth, we should be thinking about access to food.”
The plan also looks to encourage the growth of food markets around the city. Montreal has food stands selling fresh produce outside a number of its subway stations, a system Toronto can implement as well, Dorfman said.
The city is also looking to introduce food trucks that go around neighbourhoods selling fresh produce.
The Good Food Box, a program that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to residents at a subsidized cost, began 16 years ago as a way to address Toronto’s food security gap.
“The program feels pretty permanent to us,” said Paul DeCampo, Good Food program manager. “It’s something that’s grown exponentially.”
Today, they distribute 5,000 boxes a month through 200 neighbourhood drop-off centres.
City planning: food first
“The food strategy is a significant moment because it’s encouraging the city to be thinking food first,” said Angela Elzinga Cheng of Toronto Food Animators, a group that works with local agencies and residents in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods to start food projects, like community gardens, kitchens and markets.
The group worked with residents at Gordonridge Place, a Toronto Community Housing residence in Scarborough, to set up a community garden.
They started with 12 plots three years ago and expanded to 32 due to high demand, said resident and community activist Len Mirander. There are currently 15 people on the waiting list.
While the project at Gordonridge Place has been successful, Mirander said he thinks the food strategy shouldn’t target one demographic of Toronto society.
“They’re talking about low-income [communities], but what about the middle class and the upper class?” he said. “If we’re going to make this work in Toronto, there can be absolutely no exclusion. It’s for everybody to partake and work together.”
But the main barrier to healthy food is one the city cannot solve, DeCampo said. The provincial and federal government control the tax system, which “really are the instruments that would lead to more equitable distribution of wealth,” he said.
People benefit from fresh food in more ways than one. Activists say it’s also about empowering residents and fostering vibrant communities.
Good Food boxes aren’t delivered directly to people’s homes but through community centres.
“That way we are bringing community together around food,” DeCampo said. “So people will start to recognize the various resources that already exist in their community and learn how to use them more efficiently.”
Mirander said the garden at Gordonridge Place has fostered a sense of community that they didn’t have three years ago.
“We have people from about 15 different countries gardening,” he said. “You get to know your neighborhood. It builds relationships. It builds participation.”