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Neighborhood Food Hubs: from aging buildings to community food centers - laying the foundation of the future food system

Transforming vital community buildings into Neighbourhood Food Hubs so every community in Toronto produces at least 25% of its own food

Photo of Madeline Chambers
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Greenbelt Markets

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.greenbeltmarkets.ca

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Toronto

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Canada

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Toronto

What country is your selected Place located in?

Canada

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America by population, to over 2.8 million people - including ourselves. 

Sitting at the base of one of the most bountiful and fertile landscapes in Southern Ontario, The Greenbelt, we are surrounded by over 2 million acres of protected lands, ripe with opportunities for fresh, nutritious, local food production -- mere kilometres from our city centre. 

Our city is also rich with food-growing potential: lush greenspace, empty rooftops, overgrown lawns, private residences, public parks, courtyards, and more. 


This got us thinking: If we’re surrounded by bountiful, fertile lands for food production - and we see the many opportunities on rooftops, in our public spaces, in private yards - how can we better support the networks and systems that bring food into our city, and learn from their practices to grow within the city limits? Our city has a food security problem. Estimates in 2019 show that almost 1 in 5 households in Toronto are food insecure. That’s almost 560,000 households that do not have regular access to nutritious food. This figure doesn’t even address the issues of food literacy; if every one of those 560,000 households were provided with fresh vegetables today, would they know how to cook them? This is where the Food Hub model comes in. 


Toronto is the home to the first pilot project of the Neighbourhood Food Hub model, located in Toronto’s East End in a forgotten Church. A one year feasibility study resulted in resounding impact, from fresh food access through markets; to a gathering space for the community; to an event space hosting over 300 local champions; to a learning place for skill development and food literacy, and much more. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Toronto is not only our hometown - it is one of the most culturally diverse and dynamic cities in the world, with a food landscape that reflects the incredible multiculturalism that the city boasts. From every cuisine one could imagine on a bustling downtown city block, to the small communities supporting each other with markets, soup kitchens and community dinners, Toronto’s cultural diversity is reflected in one of the most unique and diverse food landscapes in the world. 

Toronto’s diversity is undoubtedly it’s more unique characteristic. Walking the streets and hearing languages from all over the world; passing the scents of the many cuisines on every city street; the faces, the kindness, and the neighbourly atmosphere, even on a packed streetcar or subway train in rush hour. Each morning, highways, trains, and subways bring thousands of people in from the suburbs and surrounding areas; each evening, they head in the opposite direction. The city ebbs and flows, and with it, it becomes evident that it’s not only the city centre that is so culturally diverse; the surrounding areas are home to families from all over the world. 


Toronto sees weather extremes that are both incredibly special and uniquely challenging. From sweltering summers to the deep freeze of winter, the city experiences the most drastic of climates. While the growing season is short compared to our U.S. neighbours, Toronto’s local food scene is lively in the summer months in farmers’ markets, Good Food Markets, food festivals, school-grown programs, and community gardens. When the weather turns cold, tech innovations jump in; the city is dotted with heated container greenhouses growing aquaponic greens, old factories turned hydroponic growing vegetables year-round; indoor green walls; and more. Die-hard local food lovers support their favourite farms through Community Supported Agriculture or Farm Share programs that deliver winter squash (and maybe too much of it to know what to do with - but we’re not complaining!) directly from the farm to your door, even in a snowstorm. Toronto is resilient and welcoming; it is all-weather, all-languages, all-cultures, and all-cuisines. 

Unfortunately, with great levels of poverty within the City and rising food prices, Toronto faces a great deal of infrastructure challenges related to food access.





What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

640

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

28000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Toronto faces a range of health, social and environmental problems connected to food,

including but not limited to hunger, obesity, chronic disease, and environmental pollution –

These impact people of all ages and social groups. Serious threats to the stability of its food system, from shared issues such as the steep rise in food prices across Canada (4% in 2020 alone, or about $500 added to the average individuals food budget) to issues specific to the city: such as the threat of increasing extreme weather events on the vital infrastructure that moves food in and around the city.

Environment

  • Extreme weather events due to climate change along with declining soil quality due to monocultural farming will negatively impact local farmers harvests and growing seasons, negatively impacting agricultural production.

  • Threat to city food infrastructure from extreme weather events - electricity, road network, access to fuel most significantly. 

  • The Ontario Food Terminal’s location and market-dominance make any risk to its infrastructure potentially catastrophic as it sits in a flood zone and susceptible to localized power outages.

  • Extreme weather will threaten distribution systems along roads and rail systems.


Economy

  • Large expected rise in food prices in the future, reaching epic proportions by 2050 

  • Rising real estate prices are creating stress across the economy. SUnaffordability is making it harder for small food businesses to survive. Small scale food economies are largely leaving the city for the suburbs. 

  • Without public intervention, the price of land will make it almost impossible to produce food in the city.

  • Farmers in the nearby region are increasingly under economic, social and mental strain from lack of support.


Diets

  • People now need food banks for far longer, not just a temporary state of affairs.

  • The diets of low income folks people largely innutritious and unhealthy, leading to a host of negative health outcomes from diabetes to obesity.


Culture

  • Rising unaffordability is choking Toronto of the vibrant ethnic food cultures that are represented through its myriad immigrant and permanently settled cultures. 

  • As one of the most multicultural cities in the world, it’s risking becoming a homogenous food place for everyone but the wealthy. 


Technological Challenges

  • Food technological development is under-funded and ad-hoc, almost entirely private and largely lackadaisical when it comes to radical innovation.

  • Technological innovation that focuses on using already existing resources is lacking - mainly focusing on flagship, high profile pilots such as tower agriculture which is expensive, energy intensive.


Policy Challenges

  • Business as usual policies will lead to decreased food reliance - from an average of 40% reliance in the province to under 25% by 2050.

  • Coordination: Multiple municipal and provincial agencies will need to be engaged in helping change the food system. There is no structure to assist and support the needed coordination.



Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Environment

  • NFH’s will increase local farmers access to different markets - acting as a hub for farmers’ markets, CSA’s and a micro-food terminal which will purchase produce at a base rate and sell or provide to the community. Increased agency of farmers will increase their ecological services from soil to water. 

  • Encouraging polycultural and regenerative farming will help dampen the impacts of extreme weather. Farmers can make more money having a wide variety of crops which are more resilient to climate change.

  • Localizing food production and distribution through a network of NFH’s will decrease the need for long-distance travel and add food supply and production right in every neighbourhood.

  • The Ontario Food Terminal’s dominance will be mitigated by having many smaller neighbourhood hubs and a few regional hubs. 


Economy

  • Dramatic rises in the price of importing food will be mitigated by neighbourhoods being able to produce up to 30% of their own food supply through the transformative action of their local NFH.

  • NFH’s will be hubs for local food economic development. From teaching, workshops and classes to certifications and incubation for new food business and organizations. Kitchens, growing space, storage spaces, learning spaces and access to city services will stimulate a vibrant local food economy.

  • NFH’s will create more economic opportunities for community members as well regional farmers. They will also help save valuable land for growing and help develop community gardens and urban agriculture in the area. 


Diets

  • NFH’s will give people more agency over their food system as well as provide a conduit for public services to support those in need. A mixture of food bank-style provisioning coupled with the ability to grow one's own food, learn to cook and use public kitchens will help provide healthy diets


Culture

  • NFH’s will act as a cultural multiplier, providing a place for a new culture around food to develop. Just like libraries created habits of reading, literacy and learning in the community, NFH’s will create magnify the cultural assets of each community they operate in.


Technological Challenges

  • NFH’s will be technological incubators for community-level development such as indoor micro-green growing, affordable greenhouse construction, digital food sharing applications, waste retention and diversion technology and technologies aimed at increasing the ease of community agriculture.


Policy Challenges

  • NFH’s will be in many ways a natural policy reaction to the coming challenges to our food system. 

  • They will help municipal government engage with communities around food issues, helping develop policies that further encourage urban agriculture, food production and self-reliance. 

  • As NFH’s increase the democratization of the food system, citizens will have an increasing influence on public policy. 





High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

With a network Neighbourhood Food Hubs reaching across Toronto, converting dozens of old community churches into these new hubs for community food development, life is radically different in 2050. After these food crises of the 2030’s, the radical policy that led to their construction has vastly changed to food routines of every Torontonian. 


The Neighbourhood Food Hub will be the anchor of a transformed food system and radically alter the daily habits of people who live in the city. While supermarkets and regular retail will still exist, every community will need to grow and produce a certain amount of its own food to handle the regular climate shocks that disrupt regional and global agriculture. The NFH will host community gardens, but also be a place people can go to sign up for gardening plots in their area. Each hub will partner with the Toronto District School Board to provide the required courses that students are required to complete - assuring basic food and agricultural literacy. 


The NFH will catalyze massive increases in community-food activity by essentially making most facets of engagement publicly accessible. People will drop by to do shopping from a fresh food market with food coming from regional farmers as well as community growers and urban farmers. It will be a place for all food produced in the neighbourhood to be stored and redistributed to the community. Integration with all the different city departments and services will make it a one-stop shop for everything from buying vegetables, food for those in need, gardening and farming equipment, skill-building and certifications, to organic waste and repair shops.


By 2050, most Torontonians won’t think about their NFH very much - just like we rarely think about our local elementary school, library or hospital - but they will interact with it every day of their lives, to ensure that they have regular, easy access to nutritious, fresh food that regenerates the body and the environment. 




Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?


By 2040 food prices in Canada have been increasing steadily year on year, with increases of 4,5 and 10% year on year. The cause is a bewildering set of factors, from extreme weather events, a collapsing ecology resulting in ever shrinking harvests and a food system dominated by the private sector, built for profit not nutrition. The sheer intensity of the unrest, public anger and calls for radical action create a volatile and radicalized political landscape. In 2043, a radical politician Paula Fletcher, now over 120 years old thanks to medical advancements, proposes a radical solution. Like Canada overcame the challenge of access to medicine with Universal Healthcare and access to reading and education with Universal Literacy, what was proposed was converting empty churches, warehouses and public buildings across Toronto into Neighbourhood Food Hubs to assure that every community could produce, harvest and eat at least 25% of its food. A partnership between the federal, provincial and municipal government provided billions to turn Toronto into a test-bed for Universal Food Security. 


It’s 2050 and the average Torontonian now spends one day of the work week at the local urban farm or community garden, or it’s spent at cooking workshops or classes or helping build some piece of farming infrastructure in the NFH repair shop. The average person will shop at their supermarket for non-perishables, drop by the NFH farmers’ market or if times are tough use a public voucher for free vegetables. Besides, they’re always the community gardens (which always need new gardeners) and there’s always enough food from that to last week. For fun, they’ll probably head to one of the community dinners hosted weekly, or catch a talk or a concert at the local NFH, or just hang out with farmers that are always milling about after dropping off their produce. 


Our Vision for a food secure future in Toronto is of a network of publicly-supported Neighbourhood Food Hub converted out of the aging community-churches that are ubiquitous in every neighbourhood of Toronto. Each NFH will be a focal point and nexus for all the community-level food activities happening in each community. Addressing the critical challenges in each major theme of the Vision: Environment, Economy, Diet, Culture, Technology and Policy, the NFH model will provide an interface for all the stakeholders of a future sustainable food system to interact. These include regional and urban farmers and community growers, city departments such as Public Health, Waste and Planning, to the local community members who will be responsible whose needs will guide each NFH. 


Environment

Hosting farmers’ markets, shared community agriculture and cooperatives, NFH’s will massively increase sustainable farmers access to new markets through direct sales and networking. Increasing the profitability and agency of local farming will increase the ecological services they can provide. NFH’s are an engine for the local farming economy both as micro-food terminals with cold and dry storage as well as points for direct sale. 


Economy

Housing public kitchens for community-use, business incubation and support services for people opening new food businesses or even their own urban farms, as well as skill-building will create a new local food economy that is far more complex than a simple urban-rural linkage. NFH’s will transform farming from a precarious labour of love to a relatively safe and predictable middle-class job. 


Diet

Toronto Public Health will have a big role to play in each NFH providing nutrition services such as testing and meal planning to classes, workshops and skill-building. They will also increase access to fresh vegetables by acting as a mini-terminal for food aggregation. Local farmers, urban farmers and community gardeners can store foodstuffs in onsite cold and dry storage to be sold or distributed back to the community. Just like anyone who can’t read can learn at a library, anyone who doesn’t understand their nutritional needs, or needs them met, can go to their local NFH.


Culture

Each Neighbourhood Food Hub will reflect the culture of the community - both promoting cultural cuisine, celebrating Toronto’s rich immigrant communities and the food knowledge they contribute to Toronto’s culture. With land and real estate prohibitively expensive, NFH’s allow for an affordable place for small food businesses to operate out of public markets with all the infrastructure they need to support themselves. 


Technology

NFHs will be a testing ground for new technologies and innovations that make it ever easier for communities to produce their own food. These will include small solar-powered farming equipment, digital technologies for easier food sharing and communicating helping facilitate self-organizing community projects. NFH’s will also be a monitoring place for the health of urban agriculture in the area employing myriad sensors to monitor the agricultural and ecological health of the area. The direct conduit between community feedback and technological development will spur innovation and synergies. 


Policy 

NFH’s will also act as policy development hubs where city departments, political leadership and policy developers will engage directly with communities to constantly innovate policies to better meet community food needs. They will also help departments coordinate with each other to develop a sustainable food system, solving a major issue they are currently facing. 


On January 17, 2018 the Community Development and Recreation Committee moved that the Deputy City Manager, Cluster A assist in the exploration of increasing food access in east Toronto through the potential of a “Community Food Hub” at Glen Rhodes to meet the deep needs of the community through establishing a working group in consultation with the local Councillor. Glen Rhodes Church (1470 Gerrard Street East) is home to a weekly food bank that has been operating for over 30 years. The food bank is an important community resource used by families from all over the east end of Toronto, with approximately 30,000 visits per year. Like

many faith-based organizations Glen Rhodes is increasingly challenged to sustain its facility as

operating costs increase and its congregation decreases.


On May 22, 2018 City Council approved one-time funding for the Community Food Hub

Feasibility Project to support the development, implementation and evaluation of a Neighbourhood Food Hub model for the neighbourhood around Coxwell and Gerrard. Working with City staff, the Ward Councillor and a Partners Table of 15 local stakeholder groups, the project is currently underway. Results from its environmental scan, preliminary needs assessment, and ongoing community engagement all supported the evident community need and desire for a food hub.


Through the Food Hub, multiple City agencies and divisions (Applegrove Community Complex, Eastview Neighbourhood Community Centre, Social Development, Finance & Administration, Solid Waste Management Services, Toronto Public Health, Shelter, Support & Housing) and food-focused organizations (Food Share, Daily Bread) are working with 9 local agencies/service providers to deliver programming that meets local needs and advances City objectives. Programming includes emergency food provision and assistance (e.g. food bank, community dinner), activities to educate, build skills and social connection (e.g. community kitchens & canning), special events (e.g. planting party), increase access to sustainable food (e.g. local market) and community engagement. Additional activities with a focus on sustainable living are currently in development. Programming is based on a needs assessment that includes ongoing public consultation, and has a focus on engaging marginalized residents that experience access barriers to fresh, nutritious and culturally appropriate food. The Food Hub is also cultivating a growing network of neighbourhood and food leaders, providers and advocates.


The entire project has been guided through regular consultation and feedback from a team representing all the major stakeholders of the neighbourhood food system at Coxwell and Gerrard. The Neighbourhood Food Hub Partners Table, a proto-model for future community leadership on future food hubs comprises of 15 stakeholders (guidance and support for planning, outreach and programming)


● 9 local agencies/service providers (FoodShare Toronto, The Leslieville Farmers’ Market,

East End Community Health Centre, Mustard Seed and Fontbonne Ministries, Daily

Bread Food Bank, Red Door Shelter, Toronto Community Housing, Glen Rhodes Church,

Glen Rhodes Food Bank)

● 2 City Agencies (Applegrove Community Complex, Eastview Neighbourhood Community

Centre)

● 4 City Divisions (Social Development, Finance & Administration, Toronto Public Health,

Solid Waste Management Services, Shelter, Support & Housing)

Community engagement


In 2019, the Neighbourhood Food Hub undertook the following activities to achieve the completion of the feasibility study. 


● 2 E-newsletters sent to a mailing list of 95 recipients

● 300 social media engagements across 3 platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)

● Community consultation feedback received from 75+ people

● 20+ program volunteers

● 8 engaged Local Community Food Champions

● 4 university student placements

Programming

● 6 partners delivering programming

● 511 total program contacts, including 4 programs with 205 program visits; 5 one-time

workshops/trainings with 61 participants; 3 special events with 170 attendees and 3

Good Food Markets with 75 clients


In January of 2020, the City of Toronto received the feasibility study for the first Neighbourhood Food Hub in the city. Not only was the feasibility study deemed a success but a further $120,000 was approved by Toronto City Council to operate the Neighbourhood Food Hub all full capacity for one-year and to begin exploring possible future sites.



How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website

4 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Spam
Photo of Zsofia Pasztor
Team

We have many elements in our vision that are similar. I would love to connect with you.

Spam
Photo of Manisha Laroia
Team

Hi Madeline Chambers 
Please check out Zsofia Pasztor vision here: @Foodcare for Everyone
There could be scope for collaborative building and learning.

Spam
Photo of Zsofia Pasztor
Team

Yes, I agree. Thank you! My email is zsofia@farmerfrog.org

Spam
Photo of Manisha Laroia
Team

Hi Madeline Chambers 
You have so beautiful covered different aspects of the visions like health, social, cultural, policies and the land, addressing the system as a whole!
Cheers!
__
Manisha