food justice


Invisible colours of food

The words “race” and “power” are seldom spoken aloud, let alone seen in print in recent initiatives in Toronto to embrace diversity in the food system. A veritable buffet of activities-to-aperitifs spanning the city brings acclaim and acceptance to Toronto as a thriving leader in policy and practice, adding flavour to our local and international reputation as a multicultural mecca. Our food system is, arguably, necessarily complex and respected in its many manifestations. Yet, Toronto has yet to acknowledge multiple forms and sites of racism, and to seriously embark in action for racial justice in the food system.

On May 9th, participants came together in a conversation organized by Food Forward to talk about the connections they see between racism, food systems, and the "food movement" in Toronto and elsewhere. Prior to the meeting, over 20 members of Toronto’s food community groups submitted questions and articulated issues related to food and race in our city. All expressed an enthusiasm to see the links between these issues be made more visible, be better understood, and be actively addressed in their work and the work of other Toronto food organizations.

“How can we bring a critical food justice perspective to the forefront in Toronto's food security movement?”"How can we address intersecting oppressions and barriers in the food movement?" These questions and many more helped to guide the discussion facilitated by Darcy Higgins, Vanessa Ling Yu and Linda Swanston.

We began the discussion by recognizing our varied interests in food and areas of food work, and then sketched out links between the food system and Toronto’s infrastructure, including health, transportation, land, education, income, and employment. 25 Food Connections to the City of Toronto provides a visual map of many sites of intersection that our municipal government attends to in collaboration with partners across the city. Underlying these connections is an inherent understanding of the significance of food security for all. It was noted that in contrast to definition of food security doesn’t mention it.

It seems virtually every organization in Toronto’s food system is engaged in diversification efforts, scrounging from funding and farm sources for product and program offerings to meet the demands and needs of “diverse communities”. Because we all have to eat, food-based initiatives are an excellent platform from which to garner attention and action among people to build assets and address issues across and within communities.

But embracing the many ways food helps to bring people together does not preclude redress for the ways by which food has and continues to separate and stratify people on the basis of racial attributes. As the idea of food is propagated, picked, polished, and politicized with different working definitions, often absent from the various food discourses used across Toronto’s food communities is a critical perspective on race and representation.

We all acknowledge and recognize the need to include diverse communities that are often interchangeably and convolutedly referred to as “ethnic”, “cultural”, “migrant”, “immigrant”, “newcomer”, and “priority” populations. Still, it seems like window-dressing for deeper implicit and explicit implications of these categories (and other intersecting forms of oppression) in the context of Canada’s food system. Shifting our focus to individuals and organizations, we find a hazy line separates carefully crafted PR opportunities and token representation from diverse communities. The roots of racism are festering in a proverbial raised bed brimming with the potential of good food. The scent is so strong that we can taste it on our tongues, but how do we talk about race and racism in the food system?

“Where/ how can we access/ create anti-racism training for foodies?”“What approaches to food programming have other groups used to link race and food in discussion groups? How can my organization develop a dialogue around race and food with our participants?” Many participants sought resources to help to guide the discussions about race in their food work. Participants completed the ‘Invisible Food Basket’ activity, a tool I developed that re-visions the classic anti-oppression tool, the invisible backpack. We met with members of the Growing Food Justice for All Initiative Toronto Local Empowerment Group (Toronto GFJI-LEG) and appreciated their participation in the conversation. Toronto GFJI-LEG contributes to the Growing Food and Justice For All Initiative internationally - find some history of this organization written locally,  here

We didn’t end with any answers, but rather a shared commitment to continue the conversation and make sure that issues of race and justice remain on the table in our efforts to revitalize and make resilient our food systems. Earlier this year, the Applied Research Centre (ARC) released The Color of Food Report, which provides a broad survey of the food system in the US, to map out race, gender and class of workers along the food chain. Analyses of this type of data are not yet available in Canada.

The report provides a great summary to underline how to move forward: “A movement for food justice must advocate for the dignity of and respect for the workers who help to produce, process, distribute and serve us our food. This will require us to build meaningful and durable bridges between the food, labo[u]r and racial justice movements.” ARC, 2011, p.20

If you’re interested in finding out more about the meeting or future Food Forward initiatives related to food and race justice please get in touch with Vanessa at