A Vision of Toronto’s Food Future

3 11 2011

Urban Ag - yonge street mediaPhoto credit: www.yongestreetmedia.ca

Over the summer I enrolled in an urban agriculture course at Ryerson University after starting to learn more about the local food movement and the players within it. I started attending events and seminars and met amazing people working to create a more sustainable and equitable food system. Some of the organizations that I met were The Toronto Food Policy Council, Food Forward, FoodShare and The West End Food Coop. Please check them out and get involved in the great work they are doing. I wanted to post my final exam paper here that talks about my vision of a food future for Toronto. I hope you enjoy it and I welcome any comments.

A Vision of Toronto’s Food Future

Toronto is a culturally vibrant city with the largest visible minority population in the country. According to the 2006 Census on Ethnic Origin and Visible Minorities, the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area surpassed the Vancouver CMA slightly, with the highest proportion of the visible minority population of any Canadian CMA.[1]  Toronto also surrounds a vast and fertile area of land, known as the Greenbelt where a diverse range of crops is grown each year.  The Greenbelt is the largest area of protected near-urban greenspace in the world [2] and the food industry in Toronto is recognized as the city’s number one service and industrial employer. [3]  With these advantages and its many others it is poised to become one of the greatest cities for urban agriculture on the planet. One of Toronto’s greatest advantages is its people. Toronto residents are engaged and knowledgeable and have shown their support through action to improve the environment and livelihoods of the people who call this city home. With social enterprises like The Stop and FoodShare that strive to increase access to healthy food to all through community building and education and the countless community garden groups that offer garden plots, resources and food education and youth training like The Scadding Court Community Centre and Greenest City, Toronto residents have shown that they want local and sustainable food.

There have been great strides in integrating local food into the Toronto health system and leading the charge is Toronto Public Health (TPH) with their Toronto Food Strategy that outlines six priority action areas that will work to embed food system initiatives in policies and programs. Toronto hospitals have also started offering local food to its patients and visitors like the Hospital for Sick Children, which earned MyMarket status through the Farmers Markets Ontario certification and inspection process that ensures vendors are selling certified local products. Joshna Maharaj, a star chef has been working to transform the way hospitals feed their patients and was hired by The Scarborough Hospital with a $191,000 grant from the provincial government and the Greenbelt Fund. She aims to prove that scratch cooking is a feasible panacea in this publicly funded, cash-strapped system.[4]  With the provincial government supporting this change it shows that policy is shifting and that politicians are recognizing that nutritious food is a public-health tool that can help prevent many food related diseases like obesity, heart disease and cancers. I envision hospitals becoming community food hubs with proper kitchens that enable chefs to cook healthy, local food from scratch with a variety of ethnic foods available to satisfy the many cultures in Toronto who need holistic care. Currently hospital patients are fed some of the nation’s cheapest food with each meal costing less than three dollars per person and about 40% being rejected by patients and thrown in the trash.[5]  I envision a provincial policy change that would see all hospitals, health clinics and elderly care centres provide certified local food in its kitchens, cafeterias and offer farmers markets to consumers. This policy change would create a larger market for local and peri-urban farmers, as there are currently not enough farmers to support demand for local food at farmers markets in the city. Bob Chorney, executive director of Farmers Markets Ontario says that there are many markets popping up but there are not enough farmers. With the $1 million injection from the Greenbelt Foundation he has hired a recruiter to help find the growers necessary to make sure Ontarians buy local when visiting one of the MyMarkets.[6]  These new market channels would also provide farmers with much needed income as the average Ontario food producer earns a little more than $8,000 annually from farming operations.[7]  Community gardens with edible and non-edible plants would also exist at every site providing patients with green space and an opportunity to connect with hospital workers and other patients. A holistic approach to health needs to be adopted with more coordination between health, agriculture and environmental departments as a prevention strategy for patients at hospitals.

The Toronto of the future would see more support for urban and peri-urban farmers in the form of subsidies with taxes imposed on heavily processed food imports that travel more than a few hundred miles to reach the city. A policy enforcing all major grocery retailers to sell 50% or more of local and sustainable food items would be in place and government support for co-op food stores would see more opening each year eventually having at least one in every neighbourhood.  The Community Urban Agriculture Council would be established to collaborate with various stakeholders to infuse the city with local food. The council would work with the Parks, Forestry and Recreation Department to free up under utilized city space for urban agriculture projects. Each park would have a dedicated area for community gardens, greenhouses and bake ovens that would be maintained by area residents and some city staff. Minimal fees would be charged for plot use to help with the purchase of materials like seed and tools. Unaffordable or under used city pools could be used for aquaculture where fish could be farmed and sold during the spring and summer months like the Gone Fishin’ program at The Scadding Court Community Centre that currently only happens for one week in June and also educates kids and residents. The Transportation Services Department would work with the council to open up more streets for farmers markets and other community events like food education workshops similar to the Apple Tree Markets, the new 15-week pilot project at Yonge St and Orchard View Blvd. The Toronto Transit Commissions Community Garden policy would be adopted and supported by the TTC and would see the policy expand from its current position to allow the cultivation of edible plants. The policy that was proposed in May 2011 states that: “Community gardens within TTC property will not be allowed for agricultural or for-profit, use whereas the City allows urban agriculture within its sites.”[8]  The policy would also expand to allow for farmers markets at heavy commuter transfer points and TTC parking lots. The future of Toronto would also see the chicken by-law that prohibits the keeping of backyard chickens changed to allow them similar to other cities in Canada like Niagara Falls, Brampton, Guelph, Victoria, Vancouver and Surrey. Currently Toronto residents are waiting for the issue to be listed on the September 2011 agenda at City Hall with findings from Toronto Public Health and Municipal Licensing and Standards on the feasibility of urban hens still to be released. Much like the Bieslandse Bovenpolder project in the city of Delft, Netherlands that saw the commitment from politicians, the water board and an environmental planner[9] the multifunctional land use proposed above could only be implemented with the cooperation between city departments and environmental and community groups that would support a strategy for increased urban agriculture in Toronto.

In regards to urban planning and development I envision the Toronto Green Roof Bylaw integrating food production into the Construction Standard so that the goals of reducing stormwater runoff, heat island effect, and energy consumption are met without the installation of an intensive green roof. The current Bylaw states that intensive green roofs are the only form of rooftop garden permitted in the Bylaw with strict specifications for plant selection with a suggested depth for the growing medium of 100 mm, the minimum depth likely to provide a 60% reduction in runoff, which is the performance standard aimed for in the Bylaw.[10]  In her report, Toronto’s Green Roof Policy and Rooftop Food Production Penny Kaill-Vinish states that this technical specification along with the strict specifications for plant selection and coverage may exclude some types of food crops and planting arrangements.[11] She also says that it would be possible to cover the minimum required roof area as expressed in the Bylaw with forms of food production other than an intensive green roof, such as containers, built beds or simplified green roof systems consisting of minimal layers.[12] I support Penny’s view and would add that the Bylaw should be more flexible in order to allow for the growing of edible plants with a percentage of the harvest going to food banks and soup kitchens throughout the city. In addition to the expansion of the Green Roof Bylaw, The Affordable Housing Office (AHO) would continue to work with the Toronto Community Foundation and its Recipe for Community program who’s aim is to work in partnership with residents and other stakeholders to build upon opportunities for strengthening a sense of community and enhancing the vibrancy of the neighbourhood.[13] The Toronto of the future would have a policy in place allowing all low-income housing complexes and high-rises to have a community garden and bake oven that tenants would maintain with some support provided by the city in the form of materials like seeds. The city would also install an onsite compost system to divert waste to their central system and be used for organic soil fertilization. Each building would also be outfitted with a rain barrel to collect water that could be used for plant watering. This would build on the work currently being done with the Toronto Community Housing (TCH) Tower Renewal program who’s goal is to drive broad environmental, social, economic, and cultural change by improving Toronto’s concrete apartment towers and the neighbourhoods that surround them.[14]

Education is one of the most important components in the realization of creating a city with strong local food connections. My vision for Toronto would see the growth of more community kitchens that would teach residents the importance of local food preparation and preservation, offering cooking and canning workshops on site. These could operate in church basements, community centres, park clubhouses and health centres like the one proposed as part of the West End Food Co-op store in the Parkdale Community Health Centre.[15] The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) would also expand it’s curriculum to include food education and each elementary and high school would have an area dedicated to a community garden that would be used as a learning tool, teaching students about urban agriculture. The curriculum would be similar to the Xara Garden School in San Diego, California that uses a project-based learning approach featuring a heart/earth curriculum that focuses on humanities, engineering, arts, research and technology.[16] If it was impractical to have a garden at each school the installation of park gardens mentioned above could be utilized for educational purposes like the teaching and kitchen garden programs offered at the Toronto Botanical Gardens. These programs work with about 5000 children each year and the produce harvested is donated to local food banks in the city with a goal to produce 700-pounds every year.[17]  The produce harvested from the TDSB teaching gardens could be used for snack and lunch programs with a portion donated to food banks. This would increase the amount of local food available for students helping to close the gap with the current Local Food Procurement Policy passed at Toronto City Hall on July 14, 2011, which states that products be made with a majority of Ontario ingredients (51% or greater); and 80% of the direct processing costs be returned to Ontario.[18] There would be more support for local food catering companies who provide local, healthy and nutritious food to day cares and camps with a focus on education like the education program offered by Real Food For Kids who’s goal is to empower parents, caregivers, teachers and kids with the tools and knowledge to reverse the trend of the “fast food nation” in which we live, and to carry the real food philosophy forward, becoming active and responsible participants in the larger life cycle of food.[19] Toronto would have more food education centres providing resources and knowledge about how to improve urban agriculture in the city, which could be funded by the Community Urban Agriculture Council. The centres would be modeled after The Toronto Urban Food and Agriculture Learning Centre (TUFALC), a joint venture of FoodShare Toronto and MetroAg – Alliance for Urban Agriculture, which provides resources to researchers, practitioners, advocates and others interested in urban food and agriculture matters in greater Toronto, as well as across North America and worldwide.[20] More funding would also be available to support research into crop diversity with university and masters students and to support immigrant farmers in Ontario. The research being conducted on The Vineland Campus at the University of Guelph and the FarmStart program are examples of what would be in place in the future Toronto.

Job creation is another crucial part of the local food puzzle and my Toronto would see The Agricultural Adaptation Council and the Toronto Economic Development  department funding more programs that support food entrepreneurs to get training in food processing like the Toronto Food Business Incubator. This innovation resource would help create valuable jobs in the food industry and could be combined with an apprentice program with high school and university students who want to learn about food production and receive job training. There would also be on the job training programs at community centres that would focus on working with at risk youth who have dropped out of school. Community kitchens and cafes would be used as teaching tools to train young people and get them ready for employment. A joint program could be established between entrepreneurs from the business incubator and at risk youth who graduate from various community centre food-training programs. Community compost facilitates would be implemented in each neighbourhood possibly at the community garden sites in the parks where residents could take their food waste to be used for soil improvement. Excess compost could be sold to property developers and managers for their rooftop food gardens at condo and office towers.

In order for Toronto to become a city that integrates urban agriculture into its infrastructure more community animators need to be present at city hall that support community groups working in urban agriculture including land sourcing and permitting for example. FoodShare should be hired by the city to take on this work as they are already working closely with many groups to develop policies that create an equitable food system for all. There should be more knowledge sharing among those involved in local food production and incentives to attract landowners to provide financial or in-kind support need to be established. A comprehensive marketing campaign needs to be launched that involves traditional and social media channels in multiple languages to reach a large amount of our diverse population and send the message that having a local and sustainable food system is possible with their support. An urban farming union can be created to strengthen the urban farmers voice in the city that would work with local government, citizens and community groups to create a practical plan for urban agriculture in Toronto. The suggestions highlighted throughout this paper offer a practical and feasible way to put Toronto on the local food map and provide residents with a healthy, sustainable and reliable food system.


[1] 2006 Census on Ethnic Origin and Visible Minorities, pg 1 http://www.toronto.ca/demographics/pdf/2006_ethnic_origin_visible_minorities_backgrounder.pdf

[2] Dr. David McKeown Medical Officer of Health, City of Toronto, Food Connections: Toward a Health and Sustainable Food System for Toronto, A Consultation Repot, Feb 2010, Toronto Public Health, pg 4, http://www.toronto.ca/health/food_connections_report.pdf

[3] Dr. David McKeown Medical Officer of Health, City of Toronto, Food Connections: Toward a Health and Sustainable Food System for Toronto, A Consultation Repot, Feb 2010, Toronto Public Health, pg 3, http://www.toronto.ca/health/food_connections_report.pdf

[4] Jessica Leeder, A Cure For the Common Hospital, Globe and Mail, June 24, 2011 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health/new-health/health-news/toronto-hospital-chef-team-up-to-find-a-cure-for-the-common-hospital-meal/article2075519/

[5] Jessica Leeder, A Cure For the Common Hospital, Globe and Mail, June 24, 2011 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health/new-health/health-news/toronto-hospital-chef-team-up-to-find-a-cure-for-the-common-hospital-meal/article2075519/

[6] Kim Honey, Wanted: Real live farmers for city markets, Toronto Star, May 17, 2008 http://www.thestar.com/article/425015

[7] Statistics Canada (2006). Statistics on Income of Farm Families. Catalogue no. 21-207-X.

[8] TTC POLICY ON COMMUNITY GARDENS, May 11, 2011 pg 2 http://www3.ttc.ca/About_the_TTC/Commission_reports_and_information/Commission_meetings/2011/May_11_2011/Reports/TTC_POLICY_ON_COMMUN.pdf

[9] Deelstra T., D. Boyd and M. van den Biggelaar, 2006. Multifunctional land use, promoting urban agriculture in Europe. In: R. van Veenhuizen (ed), 2006. “Cities farming for the future, urban agriculture for green and productive cities.” http://www.ruaf.org/sites/default/files/Chapter%202.pdf

[10]  Toronto Green Roof Technical Advisory Group. Report from the Chair; March 2009. Retrieved 15 March 2009 at: http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2009/pg/bgrd/ backgroundfile-20564.pd

11 Penny Kaill-Vinish, Toronto’s Green Roof Policy and Rooftop Food Production, 2009, pg 40 http://www.cip-icu.ca/_CMS/files/PC492%20-%20page%2039-41.pdf

12 Penny Kaill-Vinish, Toronto’s Green Roof Policy and Rooftop Food Production, 2009, pg 41 http://www.cip-icu.ca/_CMS/files/PC492%20-%20page%2039-41.pdf

[13] Tower Renewal: Implementation Book Draft, June 1, 2010, pg 31 http://www.toronto.ca/city_manager/pdf/tr_implementation_book.pdf

[14] David Miller, Tower Renewal: Implementation Book Draft, June 1, 2010 pg 5 http://www.toronto.ca/city_manager/pdf/tr_implementation_book.pdf

[15] West End Food Co-op, http://westendfood.coop/contribute

[16] Mark Hinkley, Xara Garden School, http://www.xaraschools.org/charter_excerpts.htm#Garden School: Grades K-2

[17] Paul Zammit, Director of Horticulture, Toronto Botanical Gardens, CBC Radio Interview, July 14, 2011 http://www.cbc.ca/metromorning/episodes/2011/07/14/stealing-plants/

[18] Local Food Procurement, City Council Decision http://app.toronto.ca/tmmis/viewAgendaItemHistory.do?item=2011.GM5.13

[19] Lulu Cohen Farnell and Hope Paterson, Real Food For Kids, http://www.rfrk.com/education/program/

[20] The Toronto Urban Food and Agriculture Learning Centre http://www.organicprinciple.com/node/1746


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