Report back: 3rd PFN and Maytree Building Blocks workshop at PCHC

As part of the Maytree Foundation’s Building Blocks initiative, Parkdale Food Network held its third workshop on civic engagement and food security, “Quest for Healthy Food”. This event was held in partnership with Parkdale Community Health Centre (PCHC) on August 27th Monday from 11am to 2pm, with a focus on “food as social determinant of health”. Many PCHC members participated from the Seniors Program, the Diabetes Program, and the PCCRN (Parkdale Community Crisis Response Network).

Terence Williams, from PARC, who is trained as a Maytree’s community leader, opened up the session by asking what brought participants to this event. While the participants represented a diversity of Parkdale community, their motivation was common: “we want to get more involved in community, want to learn more about issues concerning healthy food, and want to spread good ideas throughout the community to make a positive change together”. To help connect these dots was the very purpose of “Quest for Healthy Food” workshop led by Terence.

The structure of the workshop was similar to the previous two workshops. Terence first provided an overview of how government works, which helped participants demystify some of the different – confusing – responsibilities of each level of government. But the presentation also stimulated a good discussion among the participants on government accountability and transparency. The participants raised concerns such as: community members were not well informed or consulted about decisions behind land use and development in the neighbourhood; it is not only difficult but also costly to access to public information through the Freedom of Information request. They identified these as barriers to prevent – or discourage – community members from participating meaningfully in local politics and decision-making process. Also, the discussion moved beyond the national boundary to the global scale – the role of United Nations in shaping public policy making here in Canada.

This exciting discussion on civic engagement was followed by the presentation by Joel Fridman, a graduate student from Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. His presentation reminded all of us of the importance of addressing food security issues both from food-related aspect and from non-food-related aspect. This point was echoed by the participants: many Parkdale residents are renters, and often rely on social assistances as a main source of income (for details, see neighbourhood data). However, as pointed out by the participants in the first workshop at PARC, current social assistance rates are not keeping pace with the rising costs of food and shelters. Thus, the participants are concerned that as rents and prices for food and other necessities would go up, they feel more squeezed.  

There are, however, emerging opportunities to address such complex issues. Joel shared a number of great initiatives that are taking place both locally and beyond Toronto. West End Food Coop is going to open a co-op grocery store in the basement of PCHC (where this event was held) to make healthy food more accessible to everyone in Parkdale; Toronto Food Policy Council released GrowTO Urban Agriculture Action Plan that identifies key action items to expand urban agriculture; and Food Secure Canada is working toward developing and proposing a national food strategy, which is currently absent in Canada.

With these policy contexts in mind, the workshop moved to a group discussion facilitated by Terence. The participants are very aware of food as a key social determinant of health, and hope to buy and eat healthy, nutritious food. Their hope, however, is not quite the same as their capacity to act on that hope. A primary challenge felt by the participants in accessing healthy and good quality food is the affordability and availability at local grocers and supermarkets. One participant shared her experience at a large chain supermarket in Parkdale: even if we want to buy healthy food such as fresh fruits from a local supermarket, quality of foods available at the shelf is very bad, and fruits do not even have ‘fresh smell’.

Further, almost all participants identified prices as a primary factor that determines their choices of food. And sometimes some people search for sales at different locations beyond Parkdale, but they need to take transportation which adds up additional costs. These costs are not factored into calculating social assistance benefits. In addition, from convenience, affordability or mental condition, some people eat processed food or snacks to ‘feel filled’.

“What changes do you want to make and see in local food access and shopping?”, asked Terence.  A very prompt response from audience was “less processed food in the neighbourhood”. One participant brought our attention to a recent motion by the Federal government to ‘streamline’ food inspection (please also see Globe and Mail article). The motion would propose larger fines for those who fail to comply with food safety and health standards, while reducing the number of inspectors. He, however, raised his concern about possible ramifications on consumers such as food safety from less food inspection, less food label monitoring, and less public  capacity with enforcement: “what can I trust to find out whether food is safe or not?”.  

The participants also mentioned they want to see more availability of affordable, good quality, and healthy food in Parkdale. Many ideas were also suggested to make this happen: increasing local opportunities of food education – how to handle it properly, where it comes from, etc; increasing local food production through urban agriculture using green space (for garden but cannot be safe for ever) and rooftop garden; promoting YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) in Parkdale by connecting unused backyards with passionate gardeners; and supporting West End Food Co-op.  

After people got excited to take local action and influence politics, Terence provided the second part of his presentation: how policy is made and how we can influence policy making. Using Local Food Act, which is being proposed by Sustain Ontario, he explained how the bill becomes law. Also he touched on tactics such as making a deputation, and writing a letter to local politicians and ministers’ office.

Terence reflected on the event, “The neighbourhood participants were really engaged with the civic governance training, with lots of inspiration and passion emulating in and from the group. Most of all I believe by seeing what unfolded in the group training is… people becoming more engaged with the governments and politics. It turned out to be a great event.”

*Many thanks to all of people and partners who made this first event great: PCHC staff for accommodating this event; Om Restaurant for preparation and delivery of delicious lunch, and generous support from Maytree Foundation and Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

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