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What will Toronto’s next mayor do to address food insecurity? Advocates press for solutions

From left, Toronto mayoral candidates Ana Bailão, Brad Bradford, Josh Matlow, Mitzie Hunter and Olivia Chow take part in a debate, held at the Daily Bread food bank, in Etobicoke, Ont., on May 15, 2023. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Neil Hetherington sees it in the growing lineups at the Daily Bread Food Bank. 

The organization’s CEO says Toronto’s struggle with affordability has to be on the radar of the city’s mayoral candidates. It’s the reason why Daily Bread hosted the first major debate of the byelection campaign earlier this week.

And while the event gave voters a chance to see the top polling candidates square off, Hetherington said he was hoping to hear more on how they would tackle the food insecurity problems the food bank sees play out every day.

“Where I struggle is not seeing fulsome platforms that I believe will result in a decrease in the number of people needing food banks,” he said. “But I am willing to hold out hope. I’m willing to be optimistic.”

Before the pandemic, Daily Bread Food Bank used to serve 60,000 clients per month. During the pandemic, that number doubled. And this past March it doubled again to over 270,000 client visits a month.

“(People) are seeing their co- workers having to turn to food banks because the cost of rent is so extravagant,” Hetherington said. “They’re seeing it more and more. We want to work with that new mayor and help them walk back from the limb that we collectively are on.”

Hetherington said the city’s food insecurity problem spirals out into other areas. Chief among them is the lack of affordable housing in the city and meagre Ontario social assistance rates, he said.

Both factors have contributed to the increasing use of food banks, he said.

The city’s next mayor will need to not only push to build more kinds of affordable housing in Toronto, but also push the province to change systems that are out of the city’s control, like social assistance rates, Hetherington said.

“We regularly say that food insecurity is not a food issue, it’s an income issue,” he said. “We need to make sure we have a mayor that is able to go to Queen’s Park and say how do we change the systems fundamentally.”

Community groups filling the gap: activist

Chef and activist Joshna Maharaj also would have liked to have seen a greater focus on concrete solutions during the debate. While many factors contributing to the problem are outside of municipal control, she said there are smaller changes city council could make to help people access fresh, healthy food.

“Food is not easy to get your hands on in this town,” she said.

Maharaj said the next mayor could help fund small farmers’ markets in TTC stations that would give people easy access to affordable fruit, vegetables and bread. It could also ease up on permits and restrictions that make farmers’ markets a novelty, instead of allowing them to be permanent fixtures of neighbourhoods.

“We’ve had these ideas and these initiatives but never any resources to actually float something out in a substantial way,” she said. “It would be very easy for us to get partnerships between farmers, farm distributors, as well as chefs or kitchens.”

Maharaj said many grassroots organizations like food banks have become very good at running on a shoestring budget without the help of government, to help feed people. The Daily Bread Food Bank receives no ongoing government funding.

Ken Townsend/CBC
But it shouldn’t have to be that way, she said. 

“Dare we suggest organizations are too effective?” she said. “They’ve been too good at covering and filling in the gaps, covering the spaces that the government really should be much more responsible for. And so it would be a huge lift to these organizations to just have more security.”

Hetherington said his hope is that among the many competing issues to be debated in the lead-up to the vote, food security remains one of them. If the level of interest at their event is any indication, there’s reason for hope, he said.

“This was the first debate and as the next six weeks unfolds, I think it’s an opportunity to refine and hone in on each of those platforms,” he said.

Here’s what the five candidates who participated in the debate Monday had to say about food insecurity:

Ana Bailão

Bailao’s plan includes building more housing but also support for food banks, including $2 million in funding. If elected, she says she would also create a $10-million food hamper program for seniors and ensure space in city facilities to help cut food bank operating costs.

Brad Bradford

Bradford’s plan includes a number of elements to help build affordable housing in the city. He said he will help advocate to the province for changes to social assistance rates. The city must better assist local food banks and help address the pressure they face because of increased demand, he said.

Olivia Chow

Chow touted her record in helping to create student nutrition programs in Toronto schools during her time on city council. She said the city must build more affordable housing. It must also support community gardens, community kitchens, nutrition programs and use its bulk purchasing power, she said.

Mitzie Hunter

Hunter pitched her plan to build more affordable housing and has introduced a number of policies aimed at reducing homelessness. She said she would double student nutrition programs in the city. She would also expand the number of community gardens to expand access to fresh vegetables, and update the city’s food charter to better coordinate its food security activities.

Josh Matlow

Matlow said if elected he’ll create an agency called Public Build Toronto, a public builder to help address the affordable housing crunch. He said he would also push the province to increase social assistance rates. The city should also support community gardens, rooftop gardens and programs that pick and distribute locally grown fresh fruit, he said.

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