Against the Grain: Agency & Urban Agriculture in Toronto

Introduction – Imagining a Food Secure Future in Toronto

Over the past decade, Canada has seen a dramatic rise both in local food awareness and urban agriculture projects, while simultaneously witnessing a growing dependence on food banks by its most vulnerable citizens. “In March 2010, 867,948 people were assisted by food banks in Canada. This is a 9% increase over 2009 – and the highest level of food bank use on record.” Time and again, statistics point to a relatively uniform segment of the population requiring annual food aid: the un- and under-employed, single mothers, seniors, visible minorities, students, recent immigrants, and people with physical disabilities.

Unfortunately, with the election of the Rob Ford administration to Toronto’s City Council in October 2010, the future development of a municipally-led and legislated urban agriculture movement has never looked so bleak. The Ford agenda presents an enormous challenge for food and poverty activists in the city. Policies which benefit high income earners and property owners (e.g., tax breaks) have already created budgetary shortfalls which the administration has indicated a willingness to remedy with massive cuts to social spending, the elimination of grants and regulatory oversight, and the privatization and elimination of many city services. Within this toxic policy and financial environment, the likelihood of leadership from City Hall on issues such as short-term investment designed to secure long-term quality of life improvements is slim. Nevertheless, it also creates a perfect opportunity to draw attention to the linkages between food security and income security and to imagine the genuinely radical ways in which supporting urban agriculture in Toronto can create alternative spaces in which resistance to the types of neoliberal policies mentioned above can flourish.

The relationship between hunger and income insecurity is well-established and thus forms the philosophical foundation upon which most food security organizations guide their policy, research, outreach, and community engagement. The development of urban agriculture is a symbiotic solution to both cause and effect. Urban and semi-urban food production is uniquely situated as a means to promote income security through sales and directly confront food insecurity by providing food for household and community consumption. In general terms, any comprehensive urban agriculture policy framework would be created with the input of direct and indirect stakeholders and local communities, would take into account food safety and health risks, and would focus on projects which could be instituted in a sustainable manner with organic and locally-derived inputs and little reliance on industrial production methods. The foundation for such a progressive transformation of Toronto’s foodscape could easily be appropriated from other cities with similar characteristics and already-existing urban agriculture frameworks and further developed within a local context. Additionally, provincial and federal policy could directly support programs in Toronto by, for instance, making access to safe, nutritious, and culturally-appropriate food a fundamental and constitutionally-inalienable human right.

Most importantly, urban agriculture allows for the development of agency in the very communities most likely to be affected by Rob Ford’s austerity measures, and agency comprises one of the most radical ingredients in any revolutionary reorganization of socio-political and economic systems. Forming zones of resistance to capital – zones which exist outside of its logic (i.e., co-ops, non-monetized community gardens and orchards, food shares, non-profits, etc.) – is an integral part of creating viable alternatives to the ultimately unsustainable and dis-empowering neoliberal market. By situating urban agriculture as one such site of struggle and allowing vulnerable groups to empower themselves, a future vision of a food and income secure Toronto is also a radical future vision of a Toronto where human lives and the environment come before tax breaks and profits. “In the food system […] the possibility of achieving a more equitable path of development and the social stability that only greater equity can secure requires a successful challenge of the powerful interests that have captured the economic and political agenda.”

A Framework for Building an Alternative

For most food-focused charities, agencies, and non-governmental organizations, the difference between providing short-term solutions to food insecurity and finding long-term solutions to the systemic causes of that insecurity can be found within the gap between a radical analysis and critique of neoliberal market mechanisms and its acceptance. The very structure of such organizations needs to be built upon a foundation which consists of ultimately eliminating the need for their future necessity.

To advance beyond mere food aid, food-based organizations need to actively engage in a series of multifaceted activities with the goal of one day securing a sustainable and equitable food system. The first of these activities is an active engagement in research and policy analysis (e.g., questionnaires, stakeholder interviews, etc.), the second is the fostering of client and community agency (e.g., the development of a robust urban agriculture plan), and the third is in the formation of alliances with other (non-food-based) organizations and agencies that also explicitly link poverty and class to arrive at an equally damning critique of capital. A combination of all three of these activities can challenge capital even more effectively than one or two in isolation.

Research & Policy

Research and policy analysis are needed to link food insecurity directly to income insecurity and other issues surrounding poverty including minimum wage levels, affordable and accessible housing issues, job security demands, social spending and investment, and accessibility barriers. To this end, the Toronto-based Daily Bread Food Bank has created a ‘poverty measure’ that combines income levels with a questionnaire about the absence of certain material goods which would be considered necessities by the community at large to more accurately measure susceptibility to food insecurity. Research and policy analysis are also required to improve urban agriculture outcomes and can be undertaken with a sociological, economic, or scientific lens. For instance, the Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard has an existing need for more research into non-chemical, locally-based alternatives to pest control for its fruit trees, and projects, such as the movement to amend by-laws to allow backyard chickens for personal egg production, require strong policy analyses of existing programs in similar cities in order to present a compelling case to Toronto city councillors.


Agency can be defined in many different ways – as self-empowerment, self-valorisation, independence, etc. – but what agency ultimately means for the clients of food-based organizations is the development of dignity and the creation of theoretical linkages between cause and effect in the food economy. In the long-term (and possibly more than any other single strategy) fostering agency should also mean an increasingly diminishing role for staff and volunteers running the organization and the movement from facilitating clients’ needs and goals towards having clients actualize their own set of priorities, all while developing the skills, experience, and resources necessary to achieve them. What better way to achieve these goals than the implementation of a strong, city-wide, urban agriculture policy?

Such a forward-looking strategy would go a long way towards simultaneously improving direct democracy at the community level while raising environmental awareness and strengthening food security for the city at large. Initially, the municipality could provide strong top-down support, including funding for educational services and extension work, agricultural research, and technical support for the practical implementation of sustainable projects. Prices and taxes could be adjusted as incentives to encourage the use of natural products and organic techniques over chemical inputs and industrial methods. Urban gardens, orchards, and chicken coops run at the community level could provide increased food security for the immediate neighbourhood as well as for other individuals directly and indirectly involved in production as stakeholders. Urban agriculture in Toronto could also increase local employment opportunities; improve environments, wildlife habitats, and aesthetic values; strengthen community relations and reduce crime; empower underprivileged residents; and foster greater food awareness among all food consumers in the city.

Building Bridges

Finally, forming alliances is both strategically necessary and tactically sound; food insecurity is a multifaceted issue with equally complicated and nuanced causes. Forming alliances with radical organizations that focus more directly on some of the root causes of food insecurity (i.e., affordable housing, eating habits/food nutrition knowledge, mobility, urban planning, education, etc.) can help support and encourage the larger socio-economic changes needed to bring about sustainability and equality in the food system. For example, Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank formed an alliance with St. Christopher House to agitate for change in the way that seniors apply for extra food benefits and also formed alliances more recently with a host of local charities and agencies to create a campaign designed to lobby for a new child benefit for low-income families. This new benefit should reduce future reliance on food aid by children in the GTA, and would have been unlikely without a large coalition of diverse community groups.

Toronto’s Current Capacity

Toronto has already begun in earnest to implement a wide-ranging and ongoing reimagining of its local foodscape. Despite the likelihood that it will soon become more difficult to secure funding from the city, other sources of income do exist and engaged residents and volunteers are willing and able to pitch in. During the 1990s, Toronto was able to create one of the world’s first food policy councils. “The Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) is a City-supported, community-led organization that has pioneered the field of urban food system thinking. It has helped put a whole range of new food issues on the radar of local, national and international policy makers, including community and rooftop gardens, local and sustainable food, rural-urban partnerships, nutrition labelling and GE-free milk.”

Recently, Toronto Public Health has released its list of ‘Priority Areas for Action’ on improving the city’s food system. These priorities include: supporting food-friendly neighbourhoods, making food a centerpiece of Toronto’s new green economy, eliminating hunger, connecting city and countryside through food, empowering residents with food skills and information, and urging federal and provincial governments to establish health-focused food policies. “Part of the ongoing work will be to develop an evaluation framework and indicators to measure the effectiveness of the Food Strategy project. The Medical Officer of Health will report to the Board of Health and City Council on progress in early 2011.” Toronto Public Health is also working hard to developing new soil safety guidelines which will include a soil contaminant protocol as “a resource to guide and inform urban gardeners about ways to minimize the risks associated with soil contaminants, including options for soil testing.”

On the urban agriculture front, two significant projects are currently underway; both supported and coordinated by the Toronto Environment Office through its Live Green program. Between 2008 and 2009, almost $800,000 was invested in the community in support of developing and expanding food production spaces and projects such as the establishment of community and backyard gardens. The Office also coordinates a team that has been tasked with identifying “barriers and opportunities to increase urban agriculture initiatives in the city.” This year, the Office with present reports to the city’s Parks and Environment Committee, “that will discuss policy and program options to support an increase in urban agriculture activities, including a discussion on permitting the raising of chickens in backyards and how city owned lands, outside of parks, may be utilized in support of urban agriculture.”


There should not be much dispute that the global food distribution and production system needs to be relocated – away from profit, away from commodification, away from environmental degradation and heavy industrial, chemical and financial inputs. Reforming the food system in this way would go a long way towards improving rural and urban livelihoods in Canada by ensuring better forms of investment (i.e., in human capital, not financial capital), more democratic decision-making (i.e., local, grassroots, community-based consensus decision-making instead of the type of decision-making that takes place thousands of miles away in corporate board rooms), and by encouraging and rewarding alternative agricultural practices which have already been proven to be both environmentally responsible and more productive.

To imagine a truly food secure Toronto is easy; the imagination and passion needed for the development of a healthy and sustainable food system can be found in abundance. What is difficult, however, is how to translate visionary exercises into a grounded reality. Luckily, there are also an abundance of individuals and organizations working every day, in the face of increasingly difficult odds, to do exactly that.

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