Urban farmers want more places to grow and sell food in the GTA

Many Ontarians struggled to put food on the table before COVID-19 — and the pandemic has made things worse. Advocates say that more local planting, harvesting, and selling could help
By Sula Greene - Published on Oct 21, 2020
Flemo Farm, in Toronto’s Flemingdon Park neighbourhood, will begin offering events, tours, workshops, and a weekly market in the spring. (Facebook)

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It was only two weeks into the pandemic when Daily Bread Food Bank started seeing a massive increase in demand. Within three months, the food bank had seen a 200 per cent rise in new client visits. “That shows you people are living on the margins,” says CEO Neil Hetherington, adding that the trend has only intensified.

COVID-19 has brought the issue of food insecurity in Ontario into sharp focus. But, as a report released in September by the Community Food Centre of Canada indicates, “Even before COVID-19, nearly 4.5 million Canadians struggled to put good food on the table for themselves and their families. In the first 2 months of the pandemic, that number grew by 39%, affecting 1 in 7 people.”

Research shows that poverty is the most significant determinant when it comes to who goes hungry. “[Food insecurity] is never caused by lack of food but by a lack of income,” says Cheyenne Sundance, founder of Sundance Harvest, a year-round urban farm in Toronto. “We can see that by how Loblaws and Metro throw out garbage every day.”

Hetherington notes that, while Indigenous families make up 1 per cent of Toronto’s population, they make up 5 per cent of food-bank users; Black families, which represent 9 per cent of the population, make up 24 per cent of food-bank users. Black families are also 1.88 times more likely to be food insecure than white families, even when controlling for income. Anti-Black racism, over-policing, and precarious employment could all be factors in this disparity, according to the Daily Bread.

In response, urban farmers, such as Sundance, are pushing for more spaces in which to grow and sell food in the GTA. “If there’s no space and there’s no program and there’s no policy in place to allow the people who are food insecure to rise out of insecurity through also selling food, I think that people will find themselves in the same cycle,” she says.

Toronto’s Flemingdon Park is the site of one initiative geared toward breaking that cycle: a pilot project from the City of Toronto and Toronto Urban Growers — a network of local, sustainable food producers — “Flemo Farm” will use hydro corridors to grow and sell crops for the neighbourhood, which is home to many newcomers, one-third of whom live under the poverty line.

“The Flemingdon Farm is part of a bigger vision of imagining what it would do for local residents to not only have access to growing space but to be able to grow and sell food on city-owned land,” says Melana Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council. “It’s not only imagining urban agriculture in a park setting, but it’s actually imagining people being able to come around a community resource.”

Community consultations for the farm began in 2015 at the Flemingdon Health Centre. It took five years for the project to gain the funding and permits required, but the farm is finally coming to life. In 2021, a steering committee will select five community farmers, who will have access to a prepared garden space, infrastructure, and equipment. Some initial farming has already begun, and events, tours, workshops, and a weekly market will follow in the spring.

“The key will be providing access to land, resources, and training to those farmers. Those farmers selected from the community will create a business plan and that plan will reflect what they want to do in that space,” says Orlando Martín López Gómez, the manager of community food growing at FoodShare, a Toronto-based nonprofit that advocates for long-term solutions to food insecurity.

According to advocates, economic empowerment is key to addressing the systemic factors underlying food insecurity. “[With] these farms, people can grow food and eat it, but also sell it,” Sundance says. “Creating these entrepreneurship opportunities for racialized communities who have been frequently disenfranchised from urban agriculture is very important.”

Several organizations are advocating for the reallocation of another form of city-owned space. Earlier this month, Toronto city council committed to exploring opportunities for alternative community uses for five city-owned golf courses: Dentonia Park, Don Valley, Humber Valley, Scarlett Woods, and the Tam O’Shant.

Some councillors have pushed back, saying it’s important for Torontonians to have access to public golf courses during the pandemic, but Jessica Bell, NDP MPP for University–Rosedale, argues that “it makes zero sense that 150 hectares of city land is used for a game that costs $75 to play.”

“City-owned land should be used for the public good during the pandemic,” she says. “Once the pandemic is over, then we should have a very thorough conversation about what we can use these lands for that will best benefit the people of Toronto.”

While the city voted to extend the golf-course leases by two years, public consultations will begin in 2021. They will identify opportunities for alternative uses, such as affordable housing, parks, and community gardens. “What is very visionary about all of these ideas is that they’ve directly addressed needs that the city of Toronto has: we have an affordable-housing crisis, we [do not] have enough good-quality public space for people to play in, and we have a serious food-insecurity issue,” says Bell.

Public consultations around the golf courses will also provide an opportunity to prioritize anti-Black racism and to uphold the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, says Roberts. “Black and Indigenous communities feel the brunt of food insecurity in our city. So this is a great opportunity for the city to live up to the commitments it’s made, in particular, to these communities.”

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