It might seem easy to find agreement on the joys of good food that is lovingly prepared, nutritious, delicious and enjoyed in the company of friends and family. Yet ensuring universal access to good food is more complex and challenging than nostalgia for a home-cooked meal.
Power, inequality and privilege are interlarded within struggles for good food. Despite our best intentions, Canadians face serious food-related pathologies: greater food insecurity, growing numbers of food banks, rising obesity statistics, breathtaking rates of eating disorders, and an unsustainable mode of agro-industrial production that sheds farmers as quickly as it degrades topsoil.
Is it viable to expect these issues–particularly the social/equity concerns of the “reds” and the ecological agenda of the “greens”–to coalesce in a single food-security movement? FoodShare, a Toronto-based community., food-security organization, answers this question with a resounding yes, insisting that food can inspire social action against ecological and social injustice.
Community Food Security through FoodShare
Community food security (CFS) unites ecology and social justice almost by definition; these approaches define themselves as attempts to build locally based systems of production and consumption that support justice, democracy and sustainability. Yet uniting red and green issues on paper is easier than reconciling ecological concerns and social justice within an organization–let alone in a larger food movement. The CFS approach is not without its critics. Most significantly, it been charged with having a middleclass bias and for developing an inadequate response to the severity of food insecurity in neoliberal welfare states. School snack programs don’t solve the problems of student nutrition, community gardens have not stemmed the steady growth of food banks, and community kitchens don’t eliminate the food insecurity, of low-income families.
The FoodShare mandate explicitly endorses CFS goals, promoting universal access to culturally, acceptable, nutritionally adequate sustainable food through non-emergency channels. Like a food bank, FoodShare is concerned about hunger. Unlike a conventional food bank, however, FoodShare works on a smaller scale and within a longer time frame to develop more sustainable food links from field to table. FoodShare’s programs include community gardens, training and employment for youth at risk, roof-top gardening, public education campaigns, baby-food-making classes, an incubator kitchen project and catering company, and a Good Food Box program that anchors the organization in the Field to Table warehouse in the east end of downtown Toronto.
The initial FoodShare vision was not particularly green or radical. When it was created in 1985, FoodShare was originally envisaged by Art Eggleton, then mayor, as a way to coordinate access to the emergency food sector, and as a self-promotion tool for his reelection campaign. FoodShare still runs a hotline that refers callers to food banks, but the “Hunger Hotline” was renamed “FoodLink,” and now also contains information on community gardens, farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture. This change in name embodies a more general shift toward community development programs and sustainable food provisioning, and away from a charity-based model of immediate hunger relief.
The Good Food Box Program
FoodShare’s move towards a community development approach has not been easy, automatic, or uncontroversial. Simultaneously balancing environmental goals with income redistribution is an exceptionally difficult, often contradictory, task. Delivering an organic produce box that is accessible to low-income consumers is a near impossibility, since paying small farmers fairly means produce prices above those at Price Chopper. At least half of the patrons of the regular Good Food Box program are low-income Torontonians, yet the program is still unable to reach the poorest and most marginalized populations relying on food banks. The Good Food Box program supports local agriculture and feeds at least 5,000 people every month, yet these substantial achievements are dwarfed by an emergency-food sector that feeds at least 160,000 people monthly, and an equally large population that is food-insecure but does not access the city’s food banks.
CFS programs can be quite successful at the micro-level, but seem more limited in scope when the macro-picture of food insecurity and poverty is considered. They have not stemmed the rising tide of food insecurity in Canada, nor have they forced greater state accountability for meeting citizens’ basic needs. As social-assistance provisions shrink, large numbers of people continue to rely on the emergency food system, while the majority of consumers buy industrially processed food sent across thousands of miles through corporate distribution channels.
Mass mobilization for food and income security does not yet exist, yet it is desperately required to pressure the state to subsidize sustainable food production and fulfil basic rights of citizenship. At minimum, this includes guaranteeing a basic income that fulfils shelter and food needs, building infrastructure for sustainable agriculture, channelling surplus food away from landfills, and subsidizing projects that connect local eaters and growers and shorten food links.
The history of social movements suggests that none of these things will be provided voluntarily by governments. Massive social pressure is required, directed through well run organizations and popular social movements. Where will such a mass movement come from, and what role could CFS organizations like FoodShare play in its development?
Building a Red-Green Fend Movement
No singular CFS organization or approach can single-handedly solve the problem of hunger. Yet, despite the limited scope of micro-projects, collectively these approaches are an important part of the ongoing struggle to develop a mass-based food movement that connects ecological concerns with social justice. This can happen in at least two ways: through social modeling and state pressure, and through the politicization of food issues.
1. Social Modeling
CFS projects are important not only for their direct effects on participants, but because they provide models of more sustainable and socially just ways of growing and eating food–as well as a sense of hope that alternatives are possible. Innovation occurs through processes of experimentation that find novel “third sector” solutions outside pure market models or alienating bureaucratic channels.
Partially inspired by the success of FoodShare’s programs and the publication of several how-to manuals, food-box programs are sprouting up throughout the country at just the same time a national network of community gardeners is also emerging. Student-nutrition programs may not solve the problem of student hunger, but they do feed thousands of kids and mobilize popular energy behind the need for a universal school-lunch program. Community kitchens do not eliminate the problem of inadequate income, but they can break the social isolation of low-income women struggling to make ends meet. These innovations often blur the line between the emergency food sector and community development approaches, as food gleaners experiment with community kitchens utilizing surplus food, and as food banks develop programs to provide multicultural food staples and community-garden space.
Food provisioning in the non-profit sector has clearly been used as a material and ideological cushion to compensate for the withdrawal of the welfare state under neoliberalism. But minimizing these grassroots achievements encourages defeatism and plays into a neoliberal logic that insists that there are no alternatives. These approaches cannot and do not single-handedly “solve” problems of hunger or ecological degradation–no single solution can–but they do provide inspiration, create networks of food activists embedded in communities, and provide living examples of alternative modes of food production and consumption.
2. Engaging in Struggles with the State
While community-level innovation and modeling is important, they should not obscure the importance of the state as a critical resource regulating communal resources and guaranteeing rights of citizenship–an emphasis lost in much of the CFS literature, with its focus on community empowerment and individual opportunity. Yet not all CFS organizations are apolitical, or refuse to engage in struggles with the state. Developing a relationship with the relatively accessible scale of municipal government has been a particularly important part of FoodShare’s success. City Council was responsible for FoodShare’s inception in 1984, and the original version of the Field-to-Table program was developed through the Toronto Food Policy Council.
Not all cities have supportive municipal structures, however, particularly since the neoliberal process has downloaded responsibilities onto municipalities without offering compensatory resources. Yet support at the provincial and federal levels is required to broaden access to affordable, sustainable food within Toronto and across the country. Federal agricultural policy, for example, currently supports the expansion of chemical- and energy-intensive industrial agriculture, which favours corporate ownership. A different kind of federal support might not only provide financial incentives for ecological stewardship on family farms, but could also connect low-income consumers with small farmers through expanded good-food-box programs, food stamps, or electronic cards used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets, or through subsidized meals at community-managed popular restaurants.
A variety of exciting alternatives are available for meeting basic food needs, but accessing state support requires the construction of broad coalitions to lobby the state at multiple levels. This process is exhausting and conflictual, but also recognized as vitally important by at least some CFS organizations. While FoodShare staff devotes much of its energies to roof-top gardening and packing food boxes, it reserves staff time and resources to build food-security coalitions through participation in structures like the Toronto Food Policy Council, the Toronto Food Justice Coalition and World Social Forum events. FoodShare has also emphasized the need to develop a national food-security network, and sponsored a national food-security conference that brought together nutritionists, anti-poverty activists, sustainable agriculture advocates and green entrepreneurs, among others. Disagreement, tension and debates are common at such gatherings, but so is a sense of common struggle.
While the goal of mass participation remains a serious challenge to a potential food movement, a greater consciousness of food politics is emerging in the Canadian public sphere. This is exemplified by heightened interest in food issues in youth subcultures, the anti-globalization movement and the rise of forms of cultural resistance like Slow Food chapters. Changes in public consciousness are required to build social movements and involve long-term processes of politicization. Food politicization occurs when actors reveal the power relations involved in eating (and not eating), and destabilize popular understanding of issues previously thought to be obvious and self-evident.
Eating an imported strawberry in January loses its innocence when issues of bioregionalism, transportation costs, labour rights and pesticide contamination are exposed. Politicization processes also expose the contradictions of rising food-bank usage when juxtaposed against the withdrawal of the social-safety net, an increase in corporate tax breaks and heightened income inequality.
Ecological politicization demonstrates how growing your own tomatos is a radical gesture against global food chains; at the same time, poverty activists politicize the class privileges built into gardening and organic-food consumption. Politicization of food raises tough questions for CFS activists–like whether poor people should be expected to access food staples through community gardens and collective kitchens, while middle-class folks garden as a hobby and shop for food staples at Loblaw’s.
Food politicization makes for difficult dinner conversation, particularly between the red and green camps that continue to divide social activists. Yet debate and disagreement are necessary to change consciousness about food, and for building a mass-supported movement that connects social justice to sustainability.
Social movements must expose the exploitation involved in global commodity chains, but they must also provide practical alternatives and models for feeding ourselves in less exploitative ways–through food co-ops, fair-trade practices, good-food boxes, roof-top gardens and local barter systems. It is here that CFS approaches excel, even though the small may not always seem beautiful to those demanding a singular big solution to hunger in our appallingly polarized social world.
Josee Johnston researches issues of food security and globalization at the Monk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, and recently joined the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of British Columbia. She sustains hope that university research can be both intellectually meaningful and dedicated to social and ecological justice.