Seed, Skill, and Soil

Organizing for Food Justice, with Leticia Boahen, Rachelle Sauve, Vanessa Ling Yu, and Gabriel Allahdua

According to the United Nations, food security is achieved “when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” While this framework allows us to identify cases of food insecurity, it does little to question the social and economic conditions that create and sustain it. For example, it allows for the identification of food deserts—neighbourhoods in which residents are unable to access nutritious foods due to lack of availability or affordability—but fails to ask why food deserts exist and why they are located largely in low-income communities and communities of colour.

A food justice framework, however, addresses food insecurity as a symptom of structural injustices in the global food system produced by capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. With roots and leadership in working class communities of colour, the movement for food justice extends beyond questions of access and availability towards challenging the gross inequities of power characterizing our entire food system, from food production to manufacturing to distribution to consumption. Guided by a vision of social, economic, and environmental justice, it recognizes that racialized and Indigenous peoples across the globe have historically formed the backbone of our food system, yet continue to be disproportionately subject to the burdens produced by it. Over the years, this grassroots work has taken a multitude of forms across North America such as advocacy for labour rights for food workers, challenging corporate farming practices through urban farming and community-supported agriculture, and food initiatives rooted in self-determination like the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children program in the 1960s.

Although this work has been happening for a long time, the food justice movement has become increasingly vibrant in recent years. This is largely in response to the mainstream food movement’s advocacy for band-aid measures to address ongoing food insecurity including food banks and the redistribution of corporate food waste to poor communities, as well as for solutions that further entrench inequity (“local food” which is inaccessible to poor people and invisibilizes the labour of migrant farmworkers). In this roundtable, Gita Rao Madan engages four grassroots organizers committed to food justice organizing and advocacy in Toronto and beyond to paint a picture of their work, including some of these tensions. The participants introduce themselves in the context of their work below.

I am a high school teacher here in Toronto and I do a lot of organizing around education. I’ve always been captivated by the power of food as a way to connect people, to build community, and to bring people together across movements. My own work in this area has focused largely on developing a food justice pedagogy and curriculum that contextualizes food, something that is so personal and intimate for people and communities, within the food system—the interconnected web of people and resources involved in the production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food. What does food justice mean to you? What does it look like in your work?

Leticia Boahen: I am the Director at the Black Creek Community Farm, a non-profit organization that works on food justice issues mainly in the Jane and Finch area, but extends across the city of Toronto. The Jane and Finch community faces multiple systemic barriers in regards to employment, health, job security, and food security, but it’s also a very vibrant community with a high rate of community engagement as well as community leaders like myself who are working hard to challenge some of the systemic barriers. I also coordinate the Black Creek Food Justice Network, which is a resident-led grassroots group looking at food justice issues in the community and across the city.

Our community defines food as a human right; everybody needs access to food. When the Black Creek Community Farm first opened its doors, we used the term “food security.” However, the initiative was heavily dominated by people who did not live in the community or necessarily understand its challenges. So the definitions that were used and the proposed solutions were predetermined by people and organizations who lived outside the community. I remember, for example, a meeting where multiple people in the room were telling us that the UN already has a definition for food security, and that we really just needed to use that and get everybody to start growing food. After the meeting one of the residents was confused, because she has been accused of stealing food and was searched in front of her son at the grocery store. So she wanted to know: “Is that a food security issue? Is that a food justice issue?” The policing of food is a prominent issue in the Jane and Finch community, but the mainstream definition of food security does not account for this. Why do racialized, low-income communities have baby food locked up in their grocery stores? Why do they have security guards inside grocery stores? In addition to issues of affordability, you have to deal with police just to physically access that food. So we work to make sure that the people who are most impacted lead our work. Community members define “food security” and decide on the types of projects that they feel will best address the challenges. Otherwise, it becomes about “people just don’t know how to cook kale, so let’s teach them how to cook kale.” How is that going to address the challenges of affordability and policing?

Rachelle Sauve: I’m a movement cook, which is to say I’ve spent the last 15 years cooking at blockades and other spaces where justice-based communities are mobilizing. I was one of the primary cooks during the G20, and I do a lot of grassroots anti-poverty work and cook a lot of free meals in my community. I’m very much dedicated to taking action around poverty, policing, and prisons—the three golden Ps that galvanize the rest of the politics that I engage in. I’m also dedicated to sharing skills, which includes workshops on the history of trade agreements, anti-capitalism and food, or teaching people how to make sauerkraut or bake bread. I really do believe that seed, skill, and soil equal sovereignty.

For me, the concept of food justice is the same as justice on a greater scale. Food is one of the universal gatherers; it’s one of the only things that we truly do have in common across the globe, and that allows us an opportunity, a universal language. To me, food justice necessitates a recognition of our relationships to the earth and to each other—this connects us not only to a sense of empowerment but also a sense of responsibility. Food is the lens through which I see all other politics; it is my gateway to understanding colonialism, white supremacy, racialization, class, gender, patriarchy, and the way that power flows.

To me, inherent in the concept of food justice is food sovereignty, which brings the legacies of colonialism into focus and attempts to re-centre human interaction with the land that we live on, its ability to feed us, and our co-responsibility to keep it healthy so that it can feed us. This is a cornerstone to my vision of food justice.

Vanessa Ling Yu: I began organizing in Toronto around food and social justice in 2010 when issues of race and food were being omitted from critical conversations in the food movement. My organization caterToronto began four years ago, initially as an advocacy initiative. We work predominantly with people of colour in low-income neighborhoods where there is a need around access to kitchens. There are already assets, skills, and interests in starting food businesses within these communities but people are often in precarious situations. In order to facilitate community food initiatives, we provide access to 14 commercial kitchens, which are required in order to sell food to the public.

To me, food justice is personal and political. Food itself is a powerful lens through which we are able to see how power relations are systemically institutionalized. Most of us don’t experience the life-cycle of food—generally speaking, we interact with food as consumers. In my work, I strive to make connections within the food system that are better for communities that have been disenfranchised by the “food as commodity” model.

Gabriel Allahdua: I grew up in the countryside of St. Lucia, where there was a lot of agriculture. That is how my interest in agricultural production came about. In 1986, I was able to complete a full secondary education at a school that was actually funded by the Canadian government. In most of the subjects I studied, we had to study Canada. The way my school taught us showed Canada as an ideal place—you wouldn’t be taught anything bad about Canada. In 2009, I was self-employed doing five different jobs related to agriculture. But as a result of a hurricane, everything was wiped out. In the small countries, we are the ones paying the price for the global warming and climate change produced mainly by Western countries. During that time I got the offer to work in Canada as a migrant farmworker through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Coincidentally, 2017 marks the 50th year of that program. When I came here, my perception of Canada came face to face with the realities of this country. I saw the many dark sides of Canada. During my first stay here there was a vigil in the Kitchener-Waterloo area for 10 farmworkers who had died in a major accident. At that vigil I was asked to speak, and I came across a group called Justicia (also called Justice for Migrant Workers). From that day, I began to speak and organize for justice for farmworkers, and this much is clear: food is a basic need, but the system we live in uses food as a weapon. There is no justice in the production of food in Canada.

There are many points of entry into food justice. So much work is being done in different spaces and connections are being made across movements. Do you feel like this is a moment of convergence where food justice is becoming more popular? Is there something about contemporary neoliberalism that makes it a critical time to be having these conversations?

Leticia: It has always been important. But I think that as time goes by, certain issues become more appealing for some. For instance, right now in Toronto urban agriculture is huge. But what is also very scary is that many urban agriculture models take food from the farmers who are growing it—many of whom are not doing well at all—and give it to the people who already have many resources and choices at their feet. The urban agriculture movement hasn’t been able to change anything about the food system in a way that serves the people most in need. The farmers’ markets at Dufferin Grove or the Brickworks are places that many farmers strive to sell at because of the willingness to pay $4 for a carrot. And this is in part because our government has refused to create funding to support local and small-scale farmers.

So I think food injustice has always been crucial. Also, we can’t separate food justice work from rising unemployment under neoliberalism. The cost of living is going up, and food is a big aspect of this. We have seniors in our community that will tell you, “I skip my medication so that I can buy the food that I want to eat.” Or they choose between the two—if the medication is urgent, then they don’t buy the groceries they need. If you look at how many kids are on food bank lists, it is ridiculous. We need to act now to transform the food system for the benefit of those most impacted by its disparities.

Vanessa: I think that now is a great opportunity for food justice work because, even though the food movement still has lots of room to grow, we are approaching a greater awareness of the conditions under which workers and corporations are producing, processing, and wasting food. I wish we would stop focusing so much on food itself and start focusing on people. It’s people who grow, process, make, and waste food. When food has such potential to nourish and enliven communities, it is essential to consider and act in ways that alleviate chronic disadvantage and at the same time address exploitation. Beyond critique, we can also demand that we at least want a living wage and better conditions for all the people who put food on our tables.

Rachelle: For most of my life, I would argue with people who would say that we have a problem of scarcity, but the truth is that climate chaos is upon us and in the last five or six years the entire global capacity to grow food has shifted so dramatically that in the first time in human history we actually don’t have enough seed in stock, the soil is depleted, and we’re running out of water. Our global food system is about to collapse, so we’re in this tremendously precarious place that we’ve never seen historically.

The sovereignty of the Canadian nation-state has been gradually ceded to global economic influences, giving mega corporations the ability to sue municipalities for trying to create water protections or protect labour rights for migrant workers. What this means is that all we really have left to create change is people power. Many people are making these connections and asking: how do I actually connect to myself as this sacred being like the water, the trees, the animals, and honour the fact that I need to feed myself and be skilled and self-reliant in some way? We’re so far removed from that which nourishes us, and I think that disconnection allows us to poison our waters and poison the land.

Gabriel: This is powerful stuff. One thing I want to add is that the politicians are not leaders. They are not leaders because they are loyal to their donors, not to us. We need to take back the political system; to do so, we need to have a plan. I believe that people power is the way forward. We are at a point where a lot of people from diverse groups realize that the system is robbing them, and now is the time for action. The issues and inequalities in the system—it all boils down to food. It boils down to: Can I afford food? Can I afford rent? Can I support my family? We need to address the issues that the masses face. In every sector, I have realized that people power that is the way out—people coming together to bring about social change.

What are some of the demands of the food justice movement? And on whom are they placed?

Gabriel: The way that food is produced in Canada is not fair. Food is a commodity, and a profitable one. Our focus is on commercial farms in Canada—they are profit-driven, and they bring in migrant workers. It subsidizes farms by providing very cheap labour. Our poverty is created and maintained by Canadian laws and policies; the politicians keep our labour cheap and help the farmers to be profitable. So our demand is a political one, and it is very simple: full immigration status. Being denied status in Canada forms the root of many of our problems: temporary permits tie us to a single farm and prohibit us from changing employers; temporary work programs offer no pathways to permanent residency; and the employer controls our housing, which is often overcrowded and inadequate. This year, the federal government decided to do a review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. But the government is not consulting with us, the workers, who form the backbone of the program. How can they understand and address our problems if they aren’t even consulting with us? They came up with 21 recommendations, but we’re only asking for one thing: status for all migrant workers.

Of the many dark sides of Canada, the worst by far is that this program physically separates us from our families. In Canada, we’re always fighting so many different battles. We want to fight for better conditions, but the moment you speak up, they send you back home. There is so much power in the hands of the farmers. At the same time as you’re fighting difficult conditions, you’re thinking of your family. Full immigration status would allow us to bring our families here. Even though, as migrant workers, we go through tough times, having the people you love most in your corner—is that not the point of life? To us, status means fairness. Status means accessing decent work and decent wages. It means equal treatment alongside other workers in Canada with status.

Leticia: In the Canadian context, there is a clear link between settler colonialism and its impact on people’s health and their access to food. Indigenous peoples, who are the rightful owners of this land, had a food system that was very rich and healthy. However, today they have been removed from their food systems, only to see that system replaced with the five white gifts given by the colonizers: sugar, salt, white flour, milk, and lard. This has a huge impact on health in terms of high rates of diabetes. The settler state simultaneously bans hunting and fishing and pollutes the waters, and then ships these foods to reserves instead.

With the North American slave trade, Black people were displaced and brought into this country primarily to farm to feed others, to feed whites, in this part of the world. Today, we seem to ignore this history as well as the fact that thousands of migrant workers are brought into this country to grow our food but are forced to live and work under horrendous conditions. We need a system that grants migrant workers permanent status so that they are able to access the social services that they are paying into. On top of that, we’re further exploiting them by taking their money but not providing them the services that are supposed to go with that, including healthcare. Sometimes people use “food sovereignty” in a way that calls for racialized people to just go back to growing. People of colour have been growing the food in this country, especially in Ontario, but we are not able to access the food that we grow.

Rachelle: For me, any demands must begin by recognizing that this is stolen land because no matter who you are, your presence here forms a part of Canada’s settler colonial path. The second big one for me is also status for all. Borders are colonial and racist constructs. I don’t think we can actually start the conversation from an appropriate place without situating us in the context of these two demands. To take it further, I actually believe that one of the key demands we must push for is the right for people who are experiencing food injustices to fight back. I am a strong believer in a diversity of tactics and I believe, for instance, that the Zapatistas have every right to take up arms and say, “You’re not going anywhere near our waters.” The right of communities to fight back is really a cornerstone of the difference between being a happy foodie and a food justice organizer.

I approach this work from an anti-capitalist perspective—we can’t separate food injustice from the global economic system. That’s not to say that there aren’t solutions to how we make people’s lives much better in the tangible now within the capitalist system. But ultimately, we can’t have food justice and capitalism at the same time because the entirety of capitalism is borne of the expropriation of goods for the profit of few over many. For us to move towards food justice, we have to acknowledge that colonialism, patriarchy, and racialization are not small stumbling blocks but the fundamental barriers standing in our way.

You have all made it clear that a food justice framework demands contextualization within struggles against colonialism, capitalism, borders, and racism, and is in fact central to many of those struggles. What are some of the challenges posed by the continued prominence of the mainstream food movement for people who are working towards food justice?

Gabriel: One of the myths I talk about is “buy local.” When you think of local, you think of freshness, good nutrition, and good health. But capitalists never want you to go beyond the commodity and see the production: on whose land is this local food produced? How did they acquire it? Are workers treated fairly? They want you to limit your thinking to just marketing and consumption rather than the whole food supply chain. I believe that the root of our problem is political; it’s Canadian laws and policies. Like I said, we are tied to the farm by way of a work permit, with no rights, and the farmer controls your housing. What does that mean? Isn’t this a case where even good people are still set up to exploit us? The problem is not the farmer; the problem is the system. The farmers say, “I treat my workers well,” but I pay into Employment Insurance (EI) every week and I cannot access EI. How can this be good for me?

Rachelle: The people who have been suffering the most under food injustice have the solutions. So many of the key stakeholders in this whole conversation about food justice are not even able to get to the table to have a fair say in the discussion. Regarding the mainstream food movement, it is very much driven by individualist and market-based solutions, seeing any problems resulting from our current food system as being solvable by altering some aspect of capitalism. The mainstream food movement is—perhaps in classic Western cultural style—very ego-driven, with this tendency to think about, “How do I do good for my body?” It’s also incredibly dedicated to a charity model. The mainstream food movement wants to be separated; it does not like when people interrelate food with a critique of larger, systemic issues like capitalism, colonialism, and racism.

Leticia: I think what’s happening in the mainstream food movement right now is perpetuating the same systems of racism. When we look at who is most affected by food insecurity, it’s racialized people. When we look at who is growing our food in the field, it’s racialized people. And then you look at the mainstream food movement and white people are leading it.

I remember when we started talking about the police in grocery stores or the issue of baby formula being locked up, you’d hear people say, “Oh, but it’s not good for kids anyway! Making your own organic baby food is the way to go.” And it’s like, “Ok, thank you, that’s very nice for your food movement. For us and our community, we don’t even have access to basic baby food for our kids. We have to go through a whole security process to be able to pick up baby formula, and you want to sit there and talk about organic baby food.” Of course it’s very important to not have pesticides in food, but there is so much emphasis put on the individual and not a lot on corporations and what they’re doing.

Vanessa: The mainstream seems to be so caught up in marketing its accomplishments when we know that the people working closest to food are still struggling to make a living wage. I’ve seen too many superficial and sensationalized “wins” that have done nothing to sustainably address the issues. So underlying a lot of the work that I do is fostering pride—trying to build up a new grounding of pride among new, young entrepreneurs and their communities, too.

In the context of your work, and in the food justice movement more broadly, what have been some of the greatest successes so far and what are the challenges that you face moving forward?

Leticia: It’s hard to speak of success. I think the work is ongoing; it is never done. In terms of success in the Jane and Finch community—and of course it also came with a cost—it was really standing up and fighting for what we believe: organizations cannot just parachute into the community, say that they’re doing food justice work, apply for grants on the backs of of the community, not hire people from the community, and then call that “community work.” So the community really fought back to the many different consultations and said, “No, enough is enough. If you want to do food justice work here, we need to be at the forefront.” What we were able to achieve was a voice; now the Black Creek Farm has a Resident Council and a Steering Committee. It’s a big step in a very long process. At the same time, people had to fight to get there, and it wasn’t so easy to do.

For me, one of the biggest challenges in this work is being taken seriously. As a young Black woman, people are constantly questioning me. They even question my role: “I’m looking for the Director.” “I’m here.” “No, you know—the Director.” “I’m sitting right here.” “It’s not a white lady?” Yes, I get it, there are a lot of white women in the food movement, but also a lot of racism. If I was selling organic baby food in downtown Toronto, maybe more people would listen to me than when I talk about policing in grocery stores.

Gabriel: I can touch on a number of successes. Recently, for the first time, Justicia travelled across Ontario on a tour called Harvesting Freedom. We stopped in over 20 cities and reserves highlighting the issues of migrant labour in Canada. During the caravan, we went to Six Nations of the Grand River and they were really supportive of our movement; that is a huge success for us. As well, we have two documentaries: El Contrato and Migrant Dreams. They have been screened across the country and used for discussions in schools. Our ability to challenge issues in court and take matters to the human rights tribunal has also been important. Finally, the fact that we have been able to keep volunteers, not paid people, for 15 years—to me, that is success.

Some of the key challenges include our inability to get the workers to participate in activities. We have no rights, we are vulnerable; the moment you speak up they can send you back home. We do have one farmer who’s willing to go against the system and pay more than the minimum wage, but the farmer’s association is fighting her. The majority of Canadians are in denial that these things exist in Canada; they do not want to talk about it.

Vanessa: I think that there have been a lot of successes. It was not too long ago that food justice as a formal concept did not exist (though we’d been doing the work anyways). Before, we were talking only about class, a little bit about gender, but even then it was not very intersectional. It’s always going to be hard, this struggle for justice in and around food. Even the use of the term is being co-opted so quickly.

I can share one accomplishment from last year. I was reviewing the Food Handlers Certificate, which is a very big Public Health program. The manual for the certificate explicitly says that Chinese food causes food poisoning. I called and said that this is straight up racism: if I’m a newcomer and I’m contributing to this province, don’t tell me that my food is unsafe. Don’t make me lower my self-worth when I’m working for less than minimum wage and didn’t even need the Food Handlers Certificate to begin with. It was removed from the manual and that was a tangible win. More importantly, it was a starting point for many conversations around work, borders, and health policies.

Rachelle: I identify some of the greatest successes that we are having right now in Indigenous-led projects of reinstating food sovereignty through skills, seed, and soil. Indigenous seed-saving to me is an incredibly huge project and it’s more than symbolic. There’s also an amazing project happening in Six Nations of the Grand River right now where people are building traditional food storage places—building the infrastructure of food and land-based connection. A major shift in the last few years is that people are starting to fill in the gap between production and the final product. If we’re truly going to have food security, we need to be in control from seed to plate.

Another success is the massive preponderance of people taking free or cheap cooking classes now. It sounds simplistic and antiquated, but people really do want that knowledge and a sense of confidence that they can maneuver life in the kitchen. In Peterborough, one of our new migrant Syrian families has opened a restaurant and now wants to teach free Syrian cooking lessons. Similarly, I’ve seen people’s entire lives change by putting their hands in soil for the first time and feeling an actual connection. These are not successes that look tremendous, but they are some of the pieces that I see moving in directions that are pretty inspiring.

Food is a weapon used to keep all forms of oppression in place and so it is also a great liberatory tool that we as organizers can use in all movements to empower. Food is an opportunity that really allows us to see commonality, which doesn’t erase difference, but does give us an actual basis of unity. For a lot of folks that are involved with food justice, it’s a beautiful time to feel the tradition, the ancestry, the culture, and to really honour the past while feeling very clear that we are the future.

1 Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, “World Food Summit Declaration,” Rome, Italy 1996.