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What is food sovereignty?

Who is motivating this concept in Toronto?

Current definitions of food sovereignty focus on people’s right to (a) healthy and culturally appropriate food that is sustainably produced, and (b) community stewardship of the food system (i.e., the systems of production, distribution, etc.) to meet community needs.1,2 However, these rights may not make any real difference to people’s lives unless they are bolstered by supportive policies, programs and institutions.

In 2019, the Afri-Can FoodBasket (AFB) initiated community dialogue about achieving food sovereignty for Black communities in Toronto – the Black Food Sovereignty Initiative Toronto. This dialogue aims to: (a) promote understanding of food insecurity among Black communities as a social justice issue, (b) strengthen collaboration among Black community stakeholders to build sustainable food systems Institutions, and (c) develop a community-engaged process to identify, develop and implement strategic priorities for achieving food sovereignty.

Why Black Canadian communities should be interested in food sovereignty

Black Canadians are much more likely than the rest of the population to experience inadequate or insecure access to food because of systemic anti-Black racism and its effects (e.g., insufficient income, high unemployment, criminalization, lack of access to adequate housing, etc.). 

Over our history in Canada, Black people disproportionately face the detrimental impacts of lack of access to land, high unemployment and low income, food apartheid,3 diet-related health problems, and farm-worker exploitation. These issues have their roots in European colonization of Canada — land theft from Indigenous peoples, slavery, and the entrenched racism of the Canadian state.

In 2017-2018, almost 30% of Black households were food insecure, and Black households were 3.6 times more likely to be food insecure than white households. Moreover, Black Canadians will be disadvantaged by the unhealthy consequences of food insecurity for years to come: more than one-third of Black children live in food insecure households, compared to just 12% of white children.4,5

This level of Black food insecurity illustrates the systemic racism and structural violence that Black communities endure. However, over the past 25 years at least, Toronto’s Black population has been organizing its response to food insecurity through several community-based initiatives.

In 2019, the Afri-Can FoodBasket (AFB) initiated community dialogue about achieving food sovereignty for Black communities in Toronto – the Black Food Sovereignty Initiative Toronto. This dialogue aims to: (a) promote understanding of food insecurity among Black communities as a social justice issue, (b) strengthen collaboration among Black community stakeholders to build sustainable food systems Institutions, and (c) develop a community-engaged process to identify, develop and implement strategic priorities for achieving food sovereignty.

Centre for Studies in Food Security, Ryerson University

The Centre for Studies in Food Security (CSFS) supports the AFB to strengthen the evidence base and community engagement in pursuit of food sovereignty for Black communities in Toronto. The CSFS was established in 1994. It works to promote food security through research, dissemination, education, community action, and professional practice. CSFS takes an interdisciplinary and systemic approach to social justice, environmental sustainability, health, and socio-cultural aspects of food security. It shares information and facilitates dialogue among civil society organizations, universities, and governments through seminars and workshops, our web site, and associated mailing lists. CSFS hosts national and international conferences and engage with food security initiatives at local, regional and global levels.

CSFS understands that secure access to food requires:

  • Availability: Sufficient food for all people at all times.
  • Accessibility: Physical and economic access to food for all at all times.
  • Adequacy: Access to food that is nutritious and safe, and produced in environmentally sustainable ways.
  • Acceptability: Access to culturally acceptable food, produced and obtained in ways that do not compromise people’s dignity, self-respect or human rights.
  • Agency: The policies and processes that enable the achievement of food security.

City of Toronto and its CABR Unit​

The City of Toronto’s Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism is a five-year plan (2018-2022) to leverage “the talents, knowledge, and experiences of Black residents and Black organizations as partners in making municipal services, spaces and policies fully inclusive and accessible to Black Torontonians in both intent and practice” (p. 2).7 Recommendation #8 of the Action Plan (“improve food access for low-income Black Torontonians”) proposes the application of “an Anti-Black Racism Analysis to improve the programming of the Toronto Food Strategy and Toronto Agricultural Program” (p. 26). The City’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism (CABR) Unit plays a unique role in coordinating implementation of the plan across the City bureaucracy and building capacity among community stakeholders to engage opportunities for economic and social development.8

Cultivating Black Food Sovereignty

In 2019, the AFB developed a community consultation process where people from the Toronto’s Black population came together to reflect on access to food and the possibility of Black food sovereignty. However, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically exposed and exacerbated Black household food insecurity in Toronto. 

In response, the AFB established the Black Food Sovereignty Working Group (BFSWG) to discuss food sovereignty as a long-term transformative strategy for addressing chronic food insecurity among Black communities in Toronto. The BFSWG convened a series of meetings with Black community stakeholders to explore options for a wider discussion among Black communities and policy makers.

The AFB-BFSWG commissioned three policy-oriented papers that will inform the effort to achieve food sovereignty and, together with its core supporters and partners, organized two conferences on Black food sovereignty in November 2020 and April 2021.8 The conferences brought together Black community activists, consumers, organizations, researchers and policymakers to (a) critically reflect on the food security crisis in Black communities, (b) strengthen their understanding of food sovereignty,(c)  discuss the potential for a food sovereignty approach to addressing systemic food access problems, and (d) commit to embarking on a community-focussed process to achieve food sovereignty

The City of Toronto BFS plan

In March 2021, the Social Development, Finance and Administration division of the City of Toronto submitted an update to the Toronto Board of Health on Advancing Black Food Sovereignty in Toronto.9 Through a proposed Black Food Sovereignty Plan, the City hopes to promote food security among the Black population through addressing systemic barriers, while increasing access, opportunity and ownership over our local food systems. Specifically, the community-driven plan will address: (1) uneven access to sustainable funding and resources; (2) limited access to green space for agriculture; (3) inefficient infrastructure for food access in neighbourhoods with high concentrations of Black population, such as limited availability of community kitchens, industrial cooking spaces, and community market spaces; (4) food apartheid and disconnected food networks; and (5) systemic racism and culturally inappropriate care in the health system.

Next Steps

In 2019, the AFB developed a community consultation process where people from the Toronto’s Black population came together to reflect on access to food and the possibility of Black food sovereignty. However, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically exposed and exacerbated Black household food insecurity in Toronto. 

In response, the AFB established the Black Food Sovereignty Working Group (BFSWG) to discuss food sovereignty as a long-term transformative strategy for addressing chronic food insecurity among Black communities in Toronto. The BFSWG convened a series of meetings with Black community stakeholders to explore options for a wider discussion among Black communities and policy makers.

The AFB-BFSWG commissioned three policy-oriented papers that will inform the effort to achieve food sovereignty and, together with its core supporters and partners, organized two conferences on Black food sovereignty in November 2020 and April 2021.8 The conferences brought together Black community activists, consumers, organizations, researchers and policymakers to (a) critically reflect on the food security crisis in Black communities, (b) strengthen their understanding of food sovereignty,(c)  discuss the potential for a food sovereignty approach to addressing systemic food access problems, and (d) commit to embarking on a community-focussed process to achieve food sovereignty

Following the conference, the AFB has been collaborating with its partners and supporters to:

  • Develop draft terms of reference for the Black Food Sovereignty Alliance (i.e., the body that will promote, champion and coordinate strategies to achieve food sovereignty)
  • Publish three policy-oriented reports that will inform the work of the Alliance and the process to achieve food sovereignty
  • Implement a community-based process to (a) ratify the terms of reference and membership of the Black Food Sovereignty Alliance (b) identify strategic priorities for achieving food sovereignty among Black communities in Toronto, (c) develop a workplan for the Alliance, and (d) formalize the Alliance’s relationship with the City of Toronto and the action plan on food sovereignty that has been adopted by thew Toronto Board of Health.

To be successful and meaningful, the community-based process to pursue food sovereignty must be feasible, representative, democratic, and driven by agreed core values or principles. Moreover, the process to identify and implement the strategic priorities should reflect a number of key pillars, including:

  • Institutional development to promote food sovereignty and provide leadership in community-based processes to identity, develop, implement and monitor strategic priorities to achieve it
  • Food access and distribution – private sector (food stores) and community-based initiatives (food coops, food buying clubs, emergency assistance, etc.)
  • Access to land and resources for farming (land for growing food in urban and rural areas)
  • Emergency food programs
  • Public policy advocacy around systemic anti-Black racism, access to resources, and the social determinants of health
  • Research and evaluation to better understand issues related food access and support evidence-based interventions to support food security, food sovereignty and related aspects of the social determinants of health
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Conclusion

The call for Black food sovereignty represents a new strategic phase in asserting our self-determination, addressing the structural roots of anti-Black racism, and promoting our health and wellbeing. This will be our collective effort.

1.) https://foodsecurecanada.org/who-we-are/what-food-sovereignty

2.) Patel R. (2009). Food sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies 36(3), 663-706. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03066150903143079 

3.) Brones A. (2018). Food apartheid: the root of the problems with America’s groceries. The Guardian, May 15. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/15/food-apartheid-food-deserts-racism-inequality-america-karen-washington-interview

4.) Tarasuk V, Mitchell A. (2020) Household food insecurity in Canada, 2017-18. Toronto. https://proof.utoronto.ca/.

5.) Fact Sheet – Race and Food Insecurity. A Research Collaboration between PROOF and FoodShare. https://foodshare.net/custom/uploads/2019/11/PROOF_factsheet_press_FINAL.6.pdf.

6.) https://blackfoodtoronto.com/

7.) https://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2017/ex/bgrd/backgroundfile-109127.pdf

8.) The AFB-BFSWG and its community partners (FoodShare, Caribbean African Canadian Social Services (CAFCAN) organized the conferences with support from the City of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit, the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University, and the Network for the Advancement of Black Communities (NABC). 

9.) https://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2021/hl/bgrd/backgroundfile-165110.pdf

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