Illustration by Jeremy Kai/Torontoist.
Though looking at how cities work solely through their food may seem like an odd, overly specific approach, consider this: according to work done by a Rutgers University researcher, you can trace the progress of gentrification in a city by mapping the spread of its cupcake shops.
It was just that kind of unexpected insight on the relationship between what we eat and urban environments that characterized Foodprint Toronto, the second in an international series of conversations about food and the city. Organized by Nicola Twilley and Sarah Rich and held at the always-great Wychwood Barns, the day-long event was comprised of four panels, each of which gathered a variety of people, from policy makers and academics to writers and suppliers, to discuss how food shapes and influences our city.
What quickly became clear over the course of the day was that how to sustainably and responsibly feed Toronto over the coming years in the face of climate change, shifting market conditions, our diverse population, and sprawling suburbs will—to put it mildly—be a little complicated.
As an example, Barbara Emanuel, senior policy adviser at the City’s Board of Health and part of Foodprint’s first panel, spoke about how she tried to get the City to allocate 10% of its twenty million dollar food budget to local produce. Heading down to the Ontario Food Terminal, however, she discovered that in the face of the $300 million contracts between suppliers and distributors, her $2 million budget could do little to change where produce was sourced from.
The issue of red tape and bureaucracy came up frequently, and the problem was perhaps best illustrated by Toronto’s first attempt at expanding street food. At Wychwood Barns, Toronto a la Cart, to put it charitably, was choked, thrown to the ground, and then kicked once or twice for good measure. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Maybe more than one participant on the “Culinary Cartography” panel encouraged “guerrilla” tactics, such as simply starting community gardens under hydro lines rather than waiting for city regulation, because of this difficulty Toronto has in finding the right balance between regulation and freedom.
Nonetheless, as anyone who has watched The Wire will tell you, cities are incredibly complex places, and although some in government fail to innovate, many others—including those at City Hall—are making things happen. Some of the best examples came from Darren O’Donnell, who has organized dinners between his arty “theatah” friends and recent arrivals to Canada, breaking down the barriers between groups using food. Similarly, Laurel Atkinson of Not Far From the Tree explained how her program gathers people to pick fruit on homeowners’ land that would otherwise go to waste, usefully blurring the urban distinction between public and private—not to mention saving about nine thousand pounds of fruit last year.
On the municipal level, Michael Wolfson, a Food and Beverage Sector specialist with the City, related how his involvement in the Toronto Food Business Incubator is helping food suppliers, processors, and vendors establish themselves in ways that are both economically and environmentally sustainable, and suggested that, in certain ways, Toronto is moving much more quickly to address these issues than the provincial or federal governments.
Still, massive problems remain. Evan Fraser of the University of Guelph provided the most chilling reminder of how tenuous our food situation is when he told the crowd that the only reason the economic crisis of 2008 didn’t have a huge impact on supplies was that, due to exceptionally favourable weather that year, we had the most agriculturally productive year ever in human history. Though it would make for a cracking summer blockbuster, what happens when the good luck runs out, Fraser suggested, is not pretty, with the worst-case scenario involving not only mass migration, but the political destabilization of already fragile global hotspots.
Additionally, as best explained by Kathryn Scharf of The Stop Community Food Centre, exacerbating this precariousness is the scale of Toronto and Canada’s solutions for food issues, which are completely out of whack with the problems they ought to address. To wit, part of the federal government’s plan for sustainable eating relies on farmer’s markets, which, however delightful, are hardly a comprehensive plan for feeding millions of people with a variety of needs and tastes.
The lack of broad, visionary solutions highlighted an undeniable problem for those concerned with how cities will sustain growing populations while environmental pressures continue to grow.
It may not have helped, then, that Foodprint was populated by exactly the sort of group you’d find at the Wychwood Barns farmer’s market that occurred earlier in the day: largely white, educated, middle- and upper-income, and from downtown. The bulk of Toronto’s “foodprint” is located in our massive suburbs, with diverse populations, class divisions, and environmentally unfriendly designs, yet most conversations are happening amongst privileged consumers and movers in the city’s core. What’s clear is that, if we are to find solutions to feeding our city in an equitable, responsible, and healthy way, this issue will have to spread out from its promising beginnings at Wychwood Barns and into the public consciousness at large.