he concept of food justice is simple: access to high-quality, healthy food should be a human right, not a luxury. And although it isn’t always obvious, this access is not a reality for many folks within Canada.
Not-for-profits across the country are working tirelessly to challenge this norm, using practices of radical creativity and inclusivity to uproot the food system as it’s known. Organizations like the Parkdale Community Food Bank (PCFB) in West Toronto.
Since 2007, the PCFB has been going above and beyond what one can usually expect of a food bank. The organization works within a choice-based model, prioritizing dignity and barrier-free access through three main program streams: a drop-in service which allows clients to tailor food to their needs, as well as free delivery to nearly 200 individuals a week.
“With the choice-based service we provide, it’s a bit better than your standard universal grocery box, because people can tell us what they need and what their dietary restrictions are,” delivery coordinator Jee-ho Paik explains.
“Everybody’s different, so they need different things.”
The concept of choice is easily justifiable, but often overlooked by those in positions of privilege. “I think that we need to evolve the myth that ‘you get what you get’ or ‘beggars can't be choosers,” says operations manager Gemma Donn. “I hear that all the time and that's something that just needs to be dispelled because no matter what your circumstances are in life, you should still have the ability to choose what you put in your body.”
Partnerships with other not-for-profits and local businesses are key in realizing the crucial work of the PCFB. It’s a coordinated effort in a tight-knit community, and one that is growing both in-person and online – like on Instagram, where PCFB has over 48,000 followers.
In a pre-pandemic world, the PCFB served approximately 2000 households a month… Now, they are serving 4500.
This dramatic increase meant having to adapt quickly and efficiently, notably through the help of new delivery coordinators and volunteers. “Our delivery program came out of COVID,” Jee-ho reveals. “Because of the isolation, people can’t leave their homes, but they still need food. So, we’re trying to provide that for them.”
Jee-ho’s delivery partner Carmen Siriannai shared that coming to get a food box is often an uncomfortable situation for many folks. “The ethos here is that when people receive their box, it's done with dignity and they feel safe.” The PCFB offers a variety of lifestyle products to meet the needs of diverse clients, including feminine hygiene products, toiletries, diapers, and pet food. “Folks come here and it’s a part of their daily routine and lifestyle, the same way others have a routine where they go to the grocery store.”
Of course, food injustice doesn’t begin at the grocery store. Look west to British Columbia and you’ll find the Vancouver Urban Food Forest Foundation (VUFFF), who are on a mission to build a food-growing and knowledge-sharing hub in the Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood. At its core you’ll find Marie-Pierre Bilodeau and Omri Haiven, two community organizers who connected at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Through our work across Vancouver we realized there was this core issue of food insecurity, as well as alienation,” Omri reports. “It was exacerbated through the pandemic.
"We decided that we needed to create some sort of organization that could give people access to a means of social connection and means of having abundance in food, sharing, and culture.”
This vision manifested as an urban food forest. “A food forest is a design system based on mimicking a natural forest,” Marie-Pierre shares. This model of sustainable, plant-based food production encompasses seven to nine layers of growing to cultivate in abundance. VUFFF seeks to provide in-person and online workshops for all levels of experience to work in the food forest and learn growing skills to implement in any dwelling.
Although the organization is still getting off the ground (or in this case, in the ground), they are championed by an ecosystem of supporters including an advisory board known as “co-creators”, the Vancouver Park Board, as well as founding partners ReFarmers and Kiwassa Neighbourhood House.
Beyond growing food, VUFFF acts as an intersectional space dedicated to breaking the barriers that divide by class and culture.
“This neighbourhood encompasses various socioeconomic backgrounds,” Marie-Pierre notes. “We want a place for people to converge and be able to meet each other.”
“We’re now in conversation with the community, as well as Indigenous leaders and individuals about rewilding and re-Indigenizing the space”, says Omri.
It is important to note that the concept of food forestry is how many First Nations approach agriculture, and VUFFF is keen to acknowledge the debt owed to Indigenous communities. “We have access to all of this land as a result of the stewardship of native folks,” Omri explains in regard to the Land Back movement. “I think it's important to tie this movement towards local agriculture, which has seen a real resurgence.”
At the heart of the Vancouver Urban Food Forest Foundation and the Parkdale Community Food Bank are people proving that food is an ultimate equalizer.
“The simple fact is that food is a right, not a privilege,” Donn says. “That’s just a myth perpetuated by society in order to continue dividing the classes.
"Food being a right is really uniting. I think that if we champion that viewpoint, it dissolves the myth of ‘us versus them.’”
With food justice and access as the baseline, Marie-Pierre also emphasizes the importance of food sovereignty, which gives people the power not only to grow and eat food, but to control food policy and distribution. “We all have a kind of historical or ancestral based knowledge inside of us. When we engage in these spaces, it brings about a change and a connection to nature.”
Hunger is not something far away: it exists in every community, and it isn’t always obvious. In positions of privilege, people can become disconnected not only from the reality of food insecurity, but also from the reality of how the food ended up on their plates. Organizations like PCFB and VUFFF prove that by reclaiming food as a right and harnessing control through tangible work, the ability to reimagine systems which do not serve but raise communities up can come to be. “Food can be the tool that we use to change the world,” Marie-Pierre believes. “And that’s the first step.”