This Woman Has Been a Leader in Toronto Food Security
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This Woman Has Been a Leader in Toronto Food Security

Debbie Field is stepping down from FoodShare.

Debbie Field. Photo courtesy of FoodShare.

Debbie Field. Photo courtesy of FoodShare.

Debbie Field, who turned FoodShare into the largest food security charity in North America, has announced her decision to step down as its executive director.

She will stay with the organization until June, when it completes the move from its headquarters and warehouse in the Bloor-Dufferin area to the Mount Dennis neighbourhood in northwest Toronto.

Field’s nearly 25 years at the helm of the most impactful food charity in the province reveal much about trends in Toronto, including the migration of poverty and hunger from the “inner city” to the outer suburbs.

Field’s career also spans the decades during which Toronto became one of the world’s most innovative and influential communities of food practice, inspiring the growth of over 200 city-based food policy councils across North America and Europe, serving as the nursery for a booming international green roofs movement, and hosting such organizations as the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

Almost all of these developments can be traced back to Field’s influence or energy.

I first got to know Field in February 1992, when I interviewed her for my book about the history of civil service unionism. We talked about her time as the first woman in Canada to staff a women’s equity caucus for a union.

She held that job for a few years during the early 1980s, before moving to Hamilton to become the first woman to enter the steel mills since the Second World War.

Field had to cut our interview short to go for a final job interview as the new head of FoodShare.

The organization had been sponsored by the city government in 1985 at the urging of then-mayor Art Eggleton, who, like many in the city at that time, was distressed by poverty reaching new levels—families relying on food banks and charitable donations of leftovers.

Toronto funded FoodShare, and later the Toronto Food Policy Council, to find alternatives to food banks, which were considered unacceptable as a long-term solution. (To this day, food banks are referred to as emergency food security organizations, though the emergency has lasted for 30-plus years.)

Field turned FoodShare from an anti-poverty research and policy shop that thought of hunger largely as a byproduct of poverty to an action centre out to correct the many dysfunctions of a food system that provides low-quality food to all.

While the Toronto food movement has grown to take on as many issues as a kaleidoscope permits, some of them quite trendy, the movement cut its teeth on the poverty and hunger issue, and the prominence of FoodShare ensures that has remained a compelling issue at the centre of food security.

The Toronto movement has rarely been tarred by an elitist brush, as is common elsewhere.

Field comes by her food passions honestly. Raised in New York, the daughter of a poor family that survived Nazi occupation, one of the bittersweet memories of her youth is when she was forced to line up with the poor kids who had to endure shame to get free meals at school.

Wherever school meal programs in Toronto serve all children without stigma, a plaque should be erected to honour her childhood memories. It was these memories that ignited her drive and FoodShare’s untiring campaign to put healthy school meals for all at the centre of schools and food system advocacy.

Though Field also carries on the socialist legacy of New York’s mid-century Jewish community, she was one of the first socialists to realize that governments were not going to solve either food or poverty programs, and that community groups had to develop their own food and sharing skills and launch their own programs—which might eventually be funded by governments that took food security as seriously as they took freeways and nuclear power.

The initiatives spawned by FoodShare speak to this “solutionary” inspiration.

The agency has grown food on roofs (FoodShare’s first warehouse in the abandoned brownfields of the eastern downtown, now gentrified, sported a green roof that supported the country’s first certified organic urban farm in the country), raised bees on school grounds, established community gardens in parks, provided home delivery of a subsidized “good food box,” sponsored community kitchens for cancer patients, and hosted incubator kitchens for bootstrap food entrepreneurs.

Now, in the space that northwest Toronto offers, it will organize a warehouse big enough to supply healthy school meals programs across the city—and, one day, the province.

Innovation is one hallmark of Toronto’s food scene that bears Field’s stamp. This year, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from York University as a measure of her organizing and educational accomplishments in this area.

More important, I believe, is the legacy of her positive energy and generosity of spirit.

Toronto has a food movement without rancour, despite more than enough disappointing reasons to embitter most people.

The beaming smile of Debbie Field has long served to dissolve such negative energy.

In 1606, with many of his co-explorers suffering from scurvy and depression during a harsh winter in what is now Nova Scotia, Samuel de Champlain organized the Order of Good Cheer to celebrate the meals that could be hunted, fished, and foraged amidst the abundance available to any who looked for it and worked hard together.

As Field moves on to new adventures, perhaps as a wilderness guide (a side business she and her partner David Kraft have operated for many years), leaving FoodShare free to reinvent itself in a new location, that positive energy will long echo her presence in this city’s food scene.

Wayne Roberts quit smoking on a wilderness canoe trip with Debbie Field’s company 11 years ago, and served two terms on the board of FoodShare. He produces a weekly newsletter on food and cities.