Report Back: 1st PFN and Maytree Building Blocks workshop at PARC

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On July 23, in partnership with Maytree Foundation’s Building Blocks, Parkdale Food Network and PARC hosted an event on civic engagement and food security. This event brought together community members largely from PARC and representatives from all three levels of government representative offices for Parkdale-HighPark (City Councilor Gord Perks, MPP Cheri DiNovo, and MP Peggy Nash). The event provided opportunities for people to learn fundamentals of governments and policy issues related to food (in)security while identifying opportunities for neighbourhood improvement.

Terence Williams from PARC, who is trained as Maytree’s community leader,  shared the key information and knowledge about how governments make decisions – civic literacy– with community members. For most of community members, complicated processes of policy making are sometimes a barrier to their participation. Unpacking this complexity was a central purpose of Terence’s presentation. His presentation covered the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government, the policy development process, and the key tactics for influencing policy making processes. The presentation can be downloaded from here.

A key goal of this Building Blocks initiative is “connecting civic participation with the goal of reducing inequality”. For Parkdale, one of such key issues related to inequality is food insecurity.

To bridge civic literacy with food insecurity, Joel Fridman, a graduate student from Department of Geography at the University of Toronto, discussed food system and key policy issues that affect the access and affordability of healthy food in Parkdale. These issues include: non-food related policy issues – housing and income support – are increasingly affecting people’s abilities to access healthy food; Nutritious Food Basket is updated occasionally, but it is not factored into setting up social assistance rates; and almost 78% of the retail market is controlled by the three large private companies, where we often do local food shopping. 

Taken together, two presentations helped the participants connect policy issues with their day-to-day experience. Why is Nutritious Food Basket   disconnected with how social assistance rates are set up (also see the city’s report)? Current social assistance rates are not keeping pace with increasing costs of food as well as housing: a key concern raised by the participants. This concern was connected back with the presentations by Terence and Joel. The rates for social assistant programs – Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program – are set up by the provincial government. Further, housing is also a key responsibility for the provincial government. To bring provincial government’s attention, participants were encouraged to use tactics they have learned from the event such as writing a letter to MPP and Ministry offices; participating ongoing networks and campaigns like Put Food in the Budget campaign. Also, one participant shared a creative response: “how to make a healthy meal on a limited budget”, which is Facebook page where people share receipts with limited budget.  

The community discussion stimulated some of the strategies that we can do to make changes happen in the neighbourhood. For example, various community food programs are available in Parkdale, but there is no mechanism for sharing program information – when, where, and what time. As a result, community members have to always look up information by themselves; community program coordinators have to respond to unexpected changes because some programs may close temporarily for some reason. This gap may be what Parkdale Food Network may be able to fill by creating a website where community members can find up-to-date information about each program.   

Another strategy is promoting urban agriculture as one way to increase neighbourhood-based food accessibility from the production perspective. A challenge is, however, how to secure a land for urban agriculture as there may be limited opportunities in Parkdale.  Yet, some opportunities are coming. The Toronto Food Policy Council will launch the Toronto Urban Agriculture Action Plan that identifies available public lands in the city and promotes their use for urban agriculture. The plan will be officially launched at the Urban Agriculture Summit, where practitioners and community groups both from Toronto and elsewhere come to share innovative urban agriculture strategies.  In addition, Parkdale Food Network/Parkdale People Economy project’s Community Land Trust group is undertaking a community mapping exercise to identify possible land and properties for community use including urban agriculture.

Victor Willis, Executive Director of PARC, concluded the session with an announcement that we will have the second meeting with Greenest City on August 21 (the third meeting is still TBD). Victor called for participants to come back in September after we finish all three community events; PFN will host an event to preset what we hear from community members through these three events. This event will be a unique opportunity to solidify ongoing food security activities by Parkdale Food Network while identifying key issues for policy advocacy.

*Many thanks to all of people and partners who made this first event great: PARC Kitchen, Drop-in and maintenance staff for accommodating this event; Brendon Goodmurphy from City of Toronto’s Toronto Food Strategy and Sara Corey  from Toronto Food Policy Council for providing invaluable assistance; and generous support from Maytree Foundation and Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

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