Covid-19 brought many long-standing social issues to light. Among the most pressing was the challenge of food security and sovereignty.
While many rushed to the grocery stores to hoard toilet paper and pasta, others didn’t have such resources and did their best to stay afloat. Those living in food deserts, urban areas with little access to fresh and healthy food, experienced compounded challenges as the lockdown continued.
“The term ‘Food Deserts’ is being phased out, with scholars instead using the term Food Apartheid,” said Omar El Sharkawy, Program Manager at Food Secure Canada. “Desert implies a natural ecosystem that has its own resources to thrive in terms of flora and fauna; they all know how to survive there. In the urban context, we know that the lack of food and access is by design, with the problem being much bigger than just availability of foods.”
Food Apartheid refers to the systems and policies that are used to organize space and resources in ways that leave a disproportionate number of low-income and people of colour excluded from access to affordable, quality, culturally appropriate food.
In October 2021, City Council approved Canada’s first Black Food Sovereignty Plan for Toronto to respond to such challenges, and the problem of food insecurity that haunts many Black and BIPOC Torontonians. Included in the action plan was the call to:
“Cultivate a Black food supply chain through food procurement and partnership opportunities to create a Black food pipeline and safe, accessible food hubs to improve food access in Black communities.”
Pop-ups and Seasonal Farmers’ Markets do just that. Collectives like the Afro-Caribbean Farmers’ Market, Scarborough Farmers’ Market, and Withrow Farmers’ Market were active in this effort, bringing fresh and local alternatives to communities weekly during the summer-fall seasons.
Pop-ups and markets hold the space for people to commune, connect, and get fresh, locally grown food. They bring a more diverse, equitable, and communal approach to a deeply corporatized food system.
“It’s a great way of bringing fresh produce to the community...people like novelty, especially in the summer, so it’s a really good way of drawing people in who wouldn’t normally be able or interested in healthy eating,” said Chadd Williams, a vendor at Scarborough Farmers’ Market.
Williams is the founder of Toronto Microgreens, a small vertical farm that grows and delivers microgreens in the city. Vertical farms are indoor farms that use vertical space instead of acres of land to grow crops. This method serves as an innovative solution to the challenge of growing and getting fresh food to people in cities.
Toronto Microgreens (Courtesy of Toronto Microgreens)
“A lot of the food that we’re eating, we don’t know where it’s coming from or how long it’s been on the grocery store shelf...the food could be there days, weeks, even months by the time we buy them,” said Williams.
All the produce Toronto Microgreens sells is harvested the day they deliver. Other vendors at these markets use equally sustainable practices, priding themselves on the promise of freshness.
Williams is one runner in the marathon toward food sovereignty, having come into home farming during the pandemic.
“I was looking for something to take care of, and saw how quickly we could grow and share the microgreens...it just made sense,” he said.
The farmers’ markets are about people who care about food, the land and people.
“It's a lot of folks who pivot after the pandemic too...it’s about grinders,” said Jennifer Forde, Founder and Manager of the Courtyard Farmers’ Market and Scarborough Farmers’ Markets.
Their mission is to bring nutrient-dense, fairly priced, culturally appropriate, fresh produce, food & lifestyle products to communities in Scarborough.
This summer, the City of Toronto supported this effort. Forde managed the Courtyard and Scarborough Farmers’ Markets in three Toronto neighbourhoods.
Organizers like Forde and vendors like Williams look ahead with enthusiasm to longer-term solutions. Forde shared plans of continuing the market and securing funding to implement a market bucks program that will help patrons afford the market while maintaining the integrity of the pricing.
Williams believes that more government funding for indoor vertical farms would also benefit communities dealing with poor access to fresh food. Greater volume of local, and as a result more affordable produce, can lead to communities being better able to achieve improved nutritional health.
With winter fast approaching, vertical indoor farming and community-led initiatives demonstrate the ability to bring progressive and practical solutions to meet the nutritional & nourishment needs of communities in the city.