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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

'Food isn't a class issue’

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Nick Saul is the executive director of The Stop Community Food Centre, an organization in the Davenport West neighbourhood whose range of services includes a food bank, workshops, and community kitchens. The Stop is also involved in the Artscape Wychwood Barns project.

Spacing: What are the opportunities that exist within the city to produce more locally grown, nutritious food?

Saul: I am a big believer that we should take every green space we have and turn it into food production. I think we should be growing food in our backyards, in our front yards, on our balconies. The Stop has an 8,000-square-foot garden at Earlscourt Park where we grow about 3,000 pounds of organic produce that comes back into our many programs, and it's an exciting example of what you can do with green space in the city. Parks aren't simply there to walk in and smell the flowers; you can actually turn some of that land into food production, and support our communities with healthy food.

Spacing: Within a multi-ethnic city, how does the challenge of producing culturally appropriate food contrast with the challenges of producing food locally?

Saul: Well I think it speaks to unleashing the incredible skills of the immigrant populations that we have in the city. It is very expensive to access land, and so we should be thinking about how we support immigrants who come from a food or agricultural background to find land to produce the food that we need in our city. I'm not saying that we won't ever have to import things. There are things that, unless you have tropical greenhouses, you are not going to be able to grow very close to home. But why can't we grow things that are more culturally appropriate for our city, close to where our city is? I think we can.

Spacing: What is the potential for food carts to increase the distribution of nutritious food in Toronto?

Saul: Enormous with a capital E. I have been following the debate at city council, and I'm hoping that we will be able to figure out a way to get food carts onto the streets, in a way that creates economic opportunities for people who live in the city and want to cook and sell food, but also in a way that supports public health benefits by improving the quality of food available on the street.

Spacing: When the Toronto Food Charter was passed by the City of Toronto in 2001, it was influential in establishing similar charters in other North American cities. How has the Toronto Food Charter affected fighting hunger at home?

Saul: The Toronto Food Charter provides an important reference point. But the concern with any of those things is that they can grow dust on a shelf and the question is how do you make those words become deeds. How do you drive the Food Charter into making sure there are food carts across the city? How do you make sure that you get through the regulatory red tape around creating gardens in parks? How do you make sure that all city agencies are buying healthy food and thinking about sourcing them locally? So the Food Charter is important, but it means nothing if you can't put teeth to it with citizens saying these are things that we need to be pushing.

Spacing: What do you feel Toronto's challenges are in becoming a food-secure city?

Saul: Let's work it from the ground up. Everyone in this city deserves the right to access good healthy food whenever they want it. And that's simply not the case in this city. People don't have the income to purchase healthy food. We need to create policy, whether it's around minimum wage, affordable housing, national childcare, or social assistance rates to increase people's incomes. But just because people have money doesn't mean they are going to access healthy food. The amount of marketing that goes in to helping us find our way through the aisles in a supermarket to bad food is absolutely terrifying. People are also clued out for the most part on what healthy food is. That isn't a class issue. That is a societal issue, which is going to require an enormous public health effort to help people understand what healthy food is. I also think that cheap energy has underpinned bad food for a long time, and I think we're going to get a correction as oil prices rise. There will be a day when conventional food is more expensive than organic, sustainable food — that will be a good day.