Think about where you live. Is anyone struggling with food insecurity? Are there food deserts, examples of food apartheid, or urban agriculture initiatives in the community where you live or in the city you live in? Investigate grass-roots actions in response to these issues.
How is the farm engaging youth and seniors? What is the value of this intergenerational engagement?
How does Leticia’s experience connect with the experience of other Legacies collaborators on the issue of food justice?
Read the photo essay “Organic Agriculture in Mexico” and compare urban agriculture in suburban Guadalajara with urban agriculture in Toronto.
How does the Black Creek Food Justice Network organize around food justice issues in the community and beyond?
What role can an organization like Black Creek Community Farm play to galvanize collective action in a community?
How could urban agriculture address issues of food security, food sovereignty and food justice in cities? in your local context?
The U.S. and Canadian food movements have been criticized for structural racism. What are the ways that it is manifested? How are these issues being addressed by food movement leaders and organizations?
Lauren: Black Creek Community Farm (BCCF) is a seven-acre urban farm in the City of Toronto, Canada. It is located in the vibrant and dynamic Jane-Finch neighbourhood on Toronto Region Conservation Authority property. As a community hub, the farm brings together a number of partners to run food and nature-based programming and grow food.
I have worked closely with BCCF since 2014 as a board member of Everdale Environmental Learning Centre and then as part of the farm’s Steering Committee. Leticia Deawuo has been the Director of Black Creek Community Farm since 2017. She and I sat down to talk about the farm and her work on food justice in her neighbourhood and across the City of Toronto.
Leticia: I had been working on social justice and anti-poverty related issues in the neighbourhood when I first learned about the farm. When I was told about the farm I couldn’t picture it. Where is there eight acres of land in the Jane-Finch community?1
At the time I was doing a lot of community organizing work. I’m one of the founding members of Jane-Finch Action Against Poverty (JFAAP) and several other initiatives working on poverty in the neighbourhood. We didn’t call it food justice, but did a lot of work on Ontario Disability Support Program rates, special diet cuts, and anti-poverty related action that included housing. We did some work on vertical poverty which is very much related to food, the cost of food, and the challenges people face in high rise buildings. A lot of times when we talk about homelessness, it is very much associated with a downtown issue, not a community issue that includes us. We were raising awareness and bringing in new people to organize around our own community issues.
While I was on parental leave with my daughter I was invited to come to a community consultation for the farm. I remember it well because I was given a sheet of paper with the first site plan for BCCF and it included partner organizations including African Food Basket, Fresh City Farm, and Everdale. I remember as a resident I thought: what is the point of a consultation? The land is already divided. I didn’t understand why I was there. Were we just there to put a stamp of approval on something that was already planned? It wasn’t very clear to me.
Later that year I got a letter saying that my community work was being reduced to part time. I was very stressed – two kids, half the money, how was I going to do it? Someone sent me an email asking if I was interested in a position at the farm. It was May 2013 that I became involved.
Lauren: A lot of the work that you have done at the farm centres around food justice. At the farm this includes making healthy food available to local residents, children and youth programming, anti-racism workshops and training, and being involved in wider advocacy efforts to address poverty, structural racism and oppression in the city and beyond. I think you and the Jane-Finch community members who are working on food justice have been an essential part of creating awareness and inspiring action about these issues across the city and across the food movement. What does food justice mean to you?
Leticia: As I got into the farm project, I didn’t understand the term food justice. Everyone had different definitions of food justice, food sovereignty, and food security, and different ideas about what the work needed to be. Because I come from a community development background, I knew we needed community members to determine what the issues are for them, and come up with the recommendations for how we move forward with the work. For me it wasn’t about an outside group of people, the dominant number not from the community, determining the work. Does everyone really want to garden, actually? What about the grocery store? How do we do the work?
“Instead of sitting in a room with academics, we held small community focus groups to really listen to people about what the issue was for them, how they see the challenges in their community, and what kind of actions to take.”
I remember one evening where we had 44 people in the room. It was very cramped, very tense, everyone using big words, big terms. The meeting was finished and one of the moms stayed back. She said, “I need to talk to you because I’ve been coming to this meeting for a long time and I’m questioning why I’m here because I don’t even know what food justice is.” And she said, “Well, I was at the grocery store and they emptied out my purse onto the conveyor belt because I was accused of stealing baby food for my son. I was so humiliated in front of my child, in front of other people. Is that a food justice issue?” I said, “of course it is a food justice issue.”
But these weren’t the conversations we were having here at the meetings. For me, then, it was important to change the conversation. Instead of sitting in a room with academics, we held small community focus groups to really listen to people about what the issue was for them, how they see the challenges in their community, and what kind of actions to take.
A few important issues came up that helped me better understand food justice. Policing in grocery stores came up. None of the mainstream stuff I have read has talked about food and policing and how different communities are policed differently in grocery stores. Grocery stores in predominantly low-income communities have a different system, they have security. If you go to affluent communities, the shelves are open, they have beautiful deli sections and a bakery. Some even have restaurants within the store. But if you go to No Frills at Jane and Finch there are security bars. When you pick up your stuff you’ve got to go around to the cashier. Baby formula is locked up. Other things too. This is one aspect of food justice that became clear.
In our focus group research on poverty and food justice in the community we sat down with seniors and heard that some of them have to make choices between filling their medical prescriptions, paying their rent or getting fresh food. If you are a senior who is getting $1100/month and your rent is $800-900, how much do you have left for transportation? How much do you have for food? Not that much. And then we heard that some seniors are banned from the mall where No Frills is because the No Frills uses the same security service as the mall. So, if you get caught shoplifting from the No Frills, you get banned from the mall. The problem is that the mall is also where seniors go for their programming and other services, their doctor, their dentist. So you have the most vulnerable, seniors, who are so isolated, banned from that place where all their services are located. The fact that these corporations have the power to ban people from the mall, and the fact that there are undercover police in these grocery stores, but not in every grocery store in the city, is really a serious issue in our community.
For many different people in our communities these are everyday realities that they have to deal with. I think of this as food apartheid. One of the reasons that I like the term food apartheid over food desert is that food desert makes it seems like it just happened. Kind of like explaining climate change as a phenomenon that is just happening and not something man-made. For me, the word apartheid makes it clear that these are systemically constructed communities, in the way that food is distributed across the city and the way that people experience food. The fact that you have the Jane-Finch community with fast food restaurants at every corner, and a community that pays more than other communities for fresh produce, a community where police are surveilling the grocery stores.
Out of those conversations and that focus group research came the report on Food Justice in Jane and Finch. It had a huge impact and opened up a lot of conversations, including conversations about the farm and what we are trying to do. People raised questions about how the farm is operating, how food is being distributed, where is the food being sold, and how decisions are being made. And when you talk about food justice, food security, who manages that work, who leads that work?
The community has seen a pattern over time of people parachuting into the community, of projects not hiring people from the community, but getting dollars for the community, on the backs of community members. These kinds of partnerships have failed several times. This is what a lot of low-income communities face. When these projects and partnerships don’t prioritize hiring local people our neighbourhood doesn’t reap the economic benefit that comes from hiring people who live here. A lot of residents that were engaged with the farm were worried. There were questions about who gets access to the land, who makes that decision.
To have a situation at the farm where you have dominantly black people working in the field and other people who are white managing the work sets up a dynamic, a negative pattern. And what is the value of the work of people working the land? If we are going to talk about food justice, we need to ask who is doing that labour and acknowledge that farmers are undervalued. Those farmers happen to be black people and they are getting paid less. Then to have other positions led by dominantly white folks who are getting paid more, that just didn’t work. We need to realize that these dynamics can be triggering and pose a huge problem. If we are doing this work to dismantle injustices across the food system we need to make sure we aren’t creating our own local food system that is just replicating those dominant problems.
Leticia: As these issues surfaced at the farm there was a very difficult transition process that took place. It was very challenging, with lots of emotion involved. It became very important for the community to have ownership and leadership over the farm and to be able to provide support for that. The community who became deeply engaged in the governance of the farm asked really good questions about things like wages, about the human resources policy, about all of the important things that create solid ground and safety for people who are working on the farm. The steering committee led this process. There is still a lot of work to do related to governance, strategic planning, programming and funding. It is all part of the process. It’s a huge learning process and it takes patience because the process takes time and nothing happens overnight. It has been challenging, but it’s also beautiful to see everybody come together in the end, and even if they don’t agree on everything, they agree that community ownership of the farm is important for the future of the farm.
Lauren: The process to examine and restructure the governance of the farm was really challenging and important. It took a lot of time and commitment from yourself and the community members involved. Together, we worked on everything from HR policy, wage equity, determining what partnership meant in the context of the farm, decision-making, business planning and fundraising, and ultimately made a decision to move the project from one organization to another with the ultimate aim of creating an independent board and non-profit. At the centre of this work is the amazing programming at the farm. Can you describe the programs at the farm?
Leticia: The programming at the farm is very strong, and addresses some of the critical issues in the community on a day-to-day basis.2
Our community supported agriculture program (CSA) offers sliding scale prices and is constantly trying to improve access to healthy food. For instance, we understand that the CSA model is not well known; it’s not something that most folks are used to engaging with at the market. So we have developed an on-site market where people can drop by Monday to Saturday and purchase whatever we have here. The sliding scale enables people who are low-income to afford some of the vegetables, but it also builds respect and dignity. The model is not one where you have to show all your paper documents, to prove that you’re really poor to be able to receive that. Instead it builds an honest connection with people.
“The sliding scale enables people who are low-income to afford some of the vegetables, but it also builds respect and dignity.”
Our seniors’ program is a free program to address seniors’ isolation by building connections. We use gardening as a tool to do that. It’s really important for people’s mental health, especially in a community that has a large senior population who live in poverty. Even the small thing of creating a space where seniors can come once or twice a week and just hang out, do workshops, garden, yoga, whatever it may be. This is our own way of utilizing the space and the infrastructure of the farm to make a small difference in the community.
One of the things I always say about our children’s program is that we are building little environmentalists. The kids learn how to grow certain vegetables, how to take care of them naturally. They ask questions: Why do we need to grow things this way? And also, they’re very likely to taste the food that they helped grow and helped cook together. That’s also making a difference in the community. Now teachers and schools in the area have the farm as another space that they can come to with the kids. We provide subsidies, for them to be able to engage in the farm activities.
We also have the community garden plot program, where community members can get a plot of land to grow their own vegetables to supplement their food needs.
Lauren: What would food justice really look like for the farm and for Toronto in 20 years?
Leticia: There’s still a precariousness that the farm faces. Last year was the first year we were able to make $150,000 of our own revenue; it’s really great that we were able to bring in a bit of income to support the work on site. But we face so much precariousness. So, in the next 20 years, I don’t know what this farm is going to be. Politically, things are not looking that great.3
People are taking urban agriculture seriously. Urban agriculture is making a difference in our local food system; it is actually producing food. When I tell people that we grew over 20,000 pounds of vegetables here on this site, they’re shocked because I don’t think people assume we’d actually be able to grow that much food.
I don’t think people value urban farms in the same way they value other farms. So having the farm has made a huge difference in urban agriculture across the city. There are more farms popping up now. There is more interest from different groups around the world interested in the Black Creek Community Farm; they are interested in the model and want to create something like it within their own communities. I think Black Creek Farm can be a lead organization in showing the different levels of impact that urban agriculture can have: from growing food to improving mental health. There are many different social issues that urban agriculture can tackle. But we need to do a better job at looking at that evidence base and sharing that evidence with funders and different stakeholders within this work.
I hope that in the next 20 years Black Creek Community Farm will still be here, and that there will be core money that really supports the work that needs to happen here. I hope that we’re growing on at least three acres of land, because last year it was less than an acre. Imagine doing more acres and being able to do that!
The farm is like an anchor for community transformation. It is addressing food security issues by supporting people to garden all across Jane-Finch, but it also raises the level of the conversation about food justice and food sovereignty in this neighbourhood.
The impact of the farm is starting to show. We have great stories from the seniors, from the kids, from the community. Recently some of the past youth were here, talking about different ways the farm touched them. Zak’isha who was in the youth program has a new music video out, which has to do with her journey around food and how food is important for her as a black young woman. She’s vegan now and she talks about how the farm also influenced her and her mother around her new journey of starting a farm in Ghana. She’s a hip-hop and poetry artist, who’s incorporating food and food justice into the conversation.
I’m hoping to tell these stories of impact, and the impact beyond the gates of the farm. How the farm is impacting people’s choices or the choices of different organizations that want to do work in this area. I think there is some level of shift. One of the positive signs is that more and more people are really interested in and committed to food justice work.
The change that I’m seeing is that more and more people are becoming aware of the inequities and are looking at their own organizations and asking: how do we change this? How did it happen that we hired all white people? Was it that no black person applied or was it that we didn’t see their strengths? How do we change that culture? What is the training that is needed? I think we’ve still got, oh my gosh, a long way to go. But it’s still very good to see that people are actually reflecting on that, are asking the questions, and doing something about it.