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Food for all: the story of FoodShare shows how community food security programs can make a difference, even if they can't end hunger.

FOODSHARE did not start off particularly green or radical. When it was created in 1985, FoodShare was envisaged by Art Eggleton, then mayor of Toronto, as a way of coordinating access to the emergency food sector, and as a self-promotion tool for his re-election campaign. FoodShare still runs a hotline that refers callers to food banks, but the "Hunger Hotline" has been renamed "FoodLink" and now also contains information on community gardens, farmers' markets, bulk buying, organic food and community kitchens.

The FoodLink name embodies FoodShare's shift towards community development programs and sustainable food provision, and away from a charity-based model of immediate hunger relief. While this might seem a logical course, a community development approach to food is neither easy, nor uncontroversial. Simultaneously balancing environmental goals with income redistribution is a difficult and often contradictory task that requires an appreciation for small victories, alongside a critical view of the big picture of food security.

Take FoodShare's Good Food Box--a collective buying program that delivers fresh produce to at least 8000 people in the city every month. At least half of the customers of the regular good food box are low-income Torontonians, which is an impressive achievement. At the same time, the program remains out of reach of the poorest and most marginalized populations, many of whom rely on food banks. The emergency food sector feeds at least 155,000 people monthly in the Greater Toronto Area, and 40 percent of these recipients are children.

Delivering an affordable organic produce box is also challenging, since paying local farmers a fair price makes it difficult to compete with cheap imports found at big grocery stores.

Despite these obstacles, the Good Food Box program supports local agriculture and feeds several thousand people a diet of healthy produce from area farms. Partially inspired by the success of FoodShare's programs and the publication of how-to manuals, food box programs are sprouting up throughout the country. This suggests that projects like the Good Food Box are important not just for their direct effects on participants, but because they provide models of more sustainable and socially just ways of growing and eating food--as well as a sense of hope that alternatives are possible.

Community food security programs can be quite successful at a micro-level, and these successes should be celebrated. But the macro-picture of food insecurity and poverty must simultaneouslyremain prominent. Student nutrition programs do not solve the problem of child poverty, but they do feed thousands of kids and mobilize popular energy behind the need for a universal school lunch program. Community kitchens do not eliminate the problem of inadequate income, but they can break the social isolation of low-income women struggling to make ends meet.

Autonomous communities are important, but so are capable, democratic states. Because of their inherently local scale, community programs cannot single-handedly stem the rising tide of food insecurity in Canada, nor have they been able to force greater state accountability for meeting citizens' basic needs. As social assistance provisions shrink, large numbers of people continue to rely on the emergency food system, while the majority of consumers buy industrially processed food sent across thousands of kilometres through corporate distribution channels.

At minimum, meaningful community food security for all communities requires the guarantee of a basic income that fulfils shelter and food needs, infrastructure for sustainable agriculture, the channelling of surplus food away from landfills, and state subsidization and expansion of projects to connect local eaters and growers and shorten the distances food travels. In short, community food security requires the state to turn away from global markets, and back towards the food needs of its citizens.

The history of social movements suggests that none of this will be provided voluntarily by governments. Massive social pressure is required, directed through well-run organizations and popular social movements to force state responsibility for food security.

Many community food security groups like FoodShare realize the magnitude of this challenge, and recognize that local organizing is necessary, but not sufficient. While FoodShare devotes much of its energies to rooftop gardening and packing food boxes, it also reserves valuable staff time and resources to build food security coalitions through participation in structures like the Toronto Food Policy Council, Toronto Food Justice Coalition and World Social Forum events. FoodShare sponsored a national food security conference in 2002 that brought together nutritionists, antipoverty activists, sustainable agriculture advocates and green entrepreneurs, among others. It also advocates the development of a national food security network.

It might seem easy to find agreement on the joys of good food--food that is lovingly prepared, nutritious, delicious and enjoyed in the company of friends and family. Yet ensuring universal access to good food is more complex and challenging than nostalgia for a home-cooked meal. Power, inequality and privilege are interlaced within struggles for good food. But there is likely no other area around which broad-based coalition-building is as necessary, of as fruitful.

Follow up

Details on FoodShare's many programs and coalition partners can be found at

For a full definition of community food security, see the US-based Community Food Security Coalition:

The Canadian Association of Food Banks provides statistics on the scope of hunger in Canada:

Josee Johnston is a post-doctoral research fellow supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada fellowship at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.
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Author:Johnston, Josee
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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