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Inclusive Local Food Economy

A community where all members can meet their food needs

Photo of Sahar Ghafouri
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

North York Harvest Food Bank

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 3-10 years

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

Toronto, Ontario

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


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

North York, a borough in the city of Toronto covers an area of 177 km^2 with a population of approximately 673,000

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

North York Harvest Food Bank is the primary provider of emergency food in the borough of North York and across much of the "inner suburbs" of northern Toronto.  We have been headquartered in North York and have provided emergency food assistance in priority neighbourhoods there since 1986.  From our central distribution centre we provide food and food programs to 24,000 individuals each year through a network of member agencies.  In addition we operate three community food spaces in our highest priority neighbourhoods: Lawrence Heights, home to Toronto’s first large-scale public housing project outside of the downtown core, Bathurst-Finch, where the percentage of high-rise dwellings is more than double the city average, Don-Mills & Sheppard, home to many newcomers to Toronto.

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 often referred to as the most diverse and multicultural city in the world. It is the largest city in Canada and its primary economic engine. It is a desirable place to live and work, often ranking among the most livable cities in the world. Toronto's overall prosperity is not however, being enjoyed by all of its residents. Gentrification in the downtown core has led to a lack of affordable housing, driving many low-income households outwards, into the city's northern "inner suburbs" and beyond.

North York is one of those suburban areas.  Along with the neighbouring borough of York (also served by North York Harvest Food Bank), North York was originally the region’s agricultural hub and home to one of Toronto’s first Black communities.  By the mid-twentieth century, Toronto’s inner suburbs had become the city’s industrial heartland with major employers in the aerospace, chemical, telecommunications and meat-packing industries all locating here. 

Like many regions across the Midwestern / Great Lakes “rust belt”, Toronto’s inner suburbs have experienced rapid economic decline since the heyday of manufacturing in Canada.  Today, the inner suburbs are heavily segregated by income and race and are home to some of the most vulnerable, marginalized and food insecure neighbourhoods in all of Toronto.  Food bank usage has skyrocketed, increasing by 45% in the last ten years (compared to a decrease of 16% in the city’s downtown core over the same period). 

The inner suburban areas where we operate share common themes such as disproportionate rates of poverty and a predominance of high-rise apartment dwellings built in the “tower in the park” style popularized in the early twentieth century but now often associated with “ghettoization”.  They are also highly racialized communities, with disproportionate numbers of newcomers to Canada with concentrations of people immigrating from China, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

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


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


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

Despite the wide breadth of cultures and ethnicity within Toronto’s inner suburbs, the challenges that residents report with regards to their food system are remarkably consistent.  Not surprisingly, amongst our food bank clients, the affordability of quality food is a top priority.  This includes the price of food, but is also driven broader notions of value which include perceptions around the food quality and branding.  Access to a wide variety of foods is also a common challenge, particularly with regards to culturally-specific staples and food to accommodate a variety of dietary needs.  Community members also consistently cite access to food retail that are welcoming and non-stigmatizing as a key concern.

While many social service agencies operate to support communities in the inner suburbs in reducing poverty and improving food security, there is very little coordination in food production, acquisition and distribution.  Agencies often rely on donated food or, for those with food purchasing budgets, volunteers that buy food at local grocery stores.  As a result, Toronto's non-profit sector as a whole loses out on opportunities to leverage their collective purchasing power and increase access to high quality food on behalf of their clients and the communities that they service.  

As we move towards 2050, we can see a crisis on our horizon.  The Ontario provincial government projects that Toronto will be home to more than 10 million by 2045, making it one of the world's most diverse mega-cities.  If not properly managed, this influx will place massive strain on the city's core infrastructure, particularly with regards to housing.  When this is overlaid with the threat of shocks from climate-related events as well as Toronto's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks as part of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Working Group, we can see that without direct action that food security will be an increasing challenge across much of our community.  The cost of food from large, multinational producers and distributors will continue to outpace the growth in income required to access a wide variety of high-quality, culturally and nutritionally-appropriate food. Moreover, we appreciate that the current charitable responses to food insecurity will be insufficient as a long-term solution to this problem.

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

We seek to transform our food bank operations into an anchor organization and centre of economic development for the communities that we support.  We will leverage our core infrastructure and decades of experience procuring, packaging, warehousing, shipping and distributing food to create a key node in a new, community-driven food system.  Specifically, we aim to create a non-profit food distribution organization that prioritizes the social and economic needs of our clients as opposed to profit for multinational shareholders.  To achieve this, we will build upon our relationships with Toronto’s large institutions, often referred to as the “MUSH” sector (museums, universities, schools and hospitals) to serve their food procurement and delivery needs on a fee-basis. 

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.

Our vision will increase the scope and scale of our food bank allowing us to deliver more emergency food assistance to our clients.  As we increase in scope and scale, we will train and employ local residents thereby providing a direct stream of income back into the neighbourhoods where we operate.  It will help to consolidate the non-profit sector’s purchasing power, ultimately driving lower prices and increasing the accessibility of quality food throughout the inner suburbs.  Taken together this offers nothing less than an opportunity to create an entire non-profit, community-oriented food system in one of the world’s largest and most diverse urban centres.  This will provide income-generating opportunities where all assets are locked in our community with any gains reinvested into addition food programming and support.   Ultimately, we see that this type of model will be required for us to realize our organizational vision of a community where all members are able to meet their food needs.

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

We believe that our vision is transformative and inspiring and focused on facilitating the creation of a new food system that will provide benefits to all residents of Toronto’s inner suburbs.  By helping to procure, process, safely store and distribute food on behalf of the city’s institutions and non-profit agencies we will help enable these organizations to deliver upon their respective missions.  As a non-profit organization ourselves, we can make choices in the interests of our clients and broader community that may not be attractive to for-profit corporations.  For example, we aim to source as much of our purchased food as possible from local producers, particularly those from marginalized and racialized communities.   Most importantly, our food bank users and the specific underserviced, low-income neighbourhoods that are our priority as an organization will see improved access to high quality food that is appropriate for their specific needs.  To that end, we have already piloted this initiative on a limited scale, delivering prepared meals for more than 32 childcare centres in the inner suburbs.  We purchase fresh produce, dairy and eggs for a network of 30 drop-in meal and shelter programs across Toronto.  In addition, we have launched an online purchasing portal ( currently used by 30 Toronto schools to purchase a variety of products.  Through this endeavour we have partnered with a network of hospitals throughout Southern Ontario to leverage significant combined purchasing power.  As a result, we are able to offer our partners extremely competitive prices on a wide range of food items.  These programs were built along with these customers in a spirit of partnership and co-creation such that our services are customized to their specific needs in terms of order quantity, delivery methods and time, range of products, etc. 

Importantly, these programs provide additional capacity – staffing, vehicles, cold-chain assets – that our food bank agencies and clients are able to benefit from.  By re-imagining our food bank as a social warehouse, food processor and distributor we can see a tremendous opportunity to create a virtuous circle that addresses food insecurity and its root cause -- poverty.  As we grow  our scale, we purchase more food for emergency distribution while training and employing local residents through the process.  This augments our charitable activities and funding, and has also inspired us to explore addition enterprising opportunities at different points along the food system.  In the past year, we have explored the development of a non-profit social supermarket that would help to address the lack of affordable quality food and safe, welcoming retails spaces that our clients consistently report.  We are also examining our supply chain to identify opportunities to source from local producers, ideally from the same marginalized communities that we support.  This community-directed food system is the core of our vision for a community where all members are able to meet their food needs. 

We believe that this vision is also more resilient to the threats posed by climate change.  Our current system of institutional purchasing as well as the retail grocery sector is based on a large-scale industrial food chain, along with the inherent monocultures and global logistics.  As Toronto continues to pursue its obligations as a C40 city the costs associated with this type of supply chain will only continue to grow.  Moreover, we know that in the event of a climate emergency – most likely a winter ice-storm or extreme summer heat in Toronto – it will be neighbourhoods that already lack income and access to appropriate food that will be hit hardest.  Building a local food system that is directed by these communities will help to mitigate the threat posed by climate shocks.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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1 comment

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Photo of Archiebold Manasseh

An amazing project! all the best!