Sowing Roots for Food

By Sophonn Mao

My family was preparing for a grand dinner of hot pot - basically, you have a variety of meats and vegetables that you choose to put into a pot of beef-flavored broth to cook, you take your cooked bits onto your plate of rice noodles and dig in. Tasty stuff that requires a lot of food to be bought - leafy greens, watercress, beef, shrimp, oyster, and the likes - and a lot of prepping - making the beef-flavored broth of the hot pot, getting gas for the portable stove, and making a chili sauce for the meal - peppers, garlic, fish sauce. The entire thing would cost to around $80 or so, and all of the stuff are generally not found in one place or nearby - often times, the parents would range to Jane and Shepherd or as far as Vaughan - to a market called Nations - to get the food and other sundries - very far in other words. And of course we have this on occasion, we're not rolling in dosh here. And then topping up gas for the family SUV can get costly. If there were more nearby places for fresh food, we wouldn't have to crunch down on finances so much, so that we can actually enjoy life in Toronto and set down real roots here.

Then again, there are people in Toronto who doesn't live within a kilometers' distance to a food market. And convenience stores - with canned soups, frozen meals, instant noodles - just became that much more necessary for some people - sometimes the only place to get food on the cheap to survive.

If you ever had to worry about getting food in Toronto, if it's having enough money for it or where to get fresh food, Toronto might have a problem with good access to fresh food. Hello, my name is Sophonn Mao, and I join many others in A Place for Passion.

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In today's episode I will explore the lack of access to food in Toronto, see how it came to be and look at what's being done to dealing with it. Of course, Toronto is home to a myriad of different ethnic groups with different unique cuisines, ultimately requiring a steady source to get food.

A problem with food in Toronto? Very likely, there's not much room for a farm and such - with tall skyscrapers and roads and buildings. A report from the Martin Prosperity Institute of the Rotman School of Management in the University of Toronto points out that about 51% of Toronto's population live within 1 kilometer of any supermarket - about half of the city have to get their groceries outside of their neighborhoods. I could point out all kinds of things to no avail, only so much I can do from here. But I found someone who shares similar thoughts, but is in a position to act upon it. Her name is Lisa Kates, and she is co-founder of a Toronto group called Building Roots.

Lisa: I've had an artisan soup business, so I made soups from scratch in a place called Dépanneur and sold them across the city in different cafes...

I apologize for the quality of the recording. I don't have the best of recording gear, and it would sound even more strange had I tried to reduce the noise.

Lisa: Before that, I did a lot of catering and personal cheffing, and I lived in Ottawa for a while and had a food program called Food Matters for Street Youth. It was called Operation Come Home in the market in Ottawa - they since moved - and it was in a house, and we had a garden in front. So there was a lot of vegetables planted, and every day we go to pick what we wanted to cook with. We went into the kitchen where all the kids helped me cook a meal for themselves, and then there was healthy food left over for the drop in for the next day.

Needless to say, she is well-versed and experienced with food. And with her co-founding Building Roots, she intends to set up locations within Toronto's many neighborhoods to bring in fresh food.

Lisa: Our overreaching mandate is to that everybody should have the opportunity to grow, cook, share, and learn about food no matter where they live. That's the overreaching umbrella of Building Roots. So it actually evolved from being just about agriculture to being about a lot of things around food.

I mentioned the Martin Prosperity Institute before, but another item of interest is the map included - I'll include a link to the document in the transcript. A lot of the city map is in shades of purple and pink - those are marked as food deserts, areas quite far from food markets and groceries stores, wherever the grey areas are.

Now let's consider that term, food desert. We know what a desert is, but what it implies is desolate, inhospitable lands with little to sustain life within. It makes a powerful image in the mind - a barren land where fresh food is scarce and far. Sounds bad, doesn't it?

Lisa: A Food desert, which is an overused term and I don't usually find it useful. It's just overused and people don't really understand it. It's one of those things like sustainability, words that people throw around. It's more about food insecurity than a food desert. It's where people don't have access to fresh, affordable food. And I think affordable and fresh are two key components. So if we can make that happen, then that's what we'll do. And everybody benefits - kids benefit, seniors benefit, everybody from it.

Of course, Toronto being an urban center is not alone in the rise of food inaccessibility. In Pittsburgh, for instance, there was an effort made to understand how residents in food deserts interacted with the food area - through purchasing practices, and where they shop. They found that improving access to healthy food is what should be focused on, but the distance to the closest supermarket was not as important - if people have to get food, they will travel the distance.

Of course, there may be convenience stores or restaurants in the area that can provide food as a service at a price. There's nothing wrong about this, I too break out for takeout only when the need arises. I should point out that in my case I often need to find a reason to need to go to a restaurant. Some people in Toronto may not have that choice - in neighborhoods far from supermarkets a convenience store is often the only place around for people, but what's available for them - processed food mostly - are not entirely healthy.

So what this boils down to is location, location, location. Looking at it as food insecurity makes the issue appear much more manageable - people want fresh, affordable food, and they're willing to travel the distance for it and shop the many stores for it.

What Building Roots does is they bring the food to the people. They, in collaboration with the community at hand and city council, work to establish areas suitable for planting a garden or farm and places to sell said food in a neighborhood identified to have little to no access to fresh food.

Lisa: We operate by projects. We are a social enterprise business, so we get funding. For example, we have a trillium grant right now - C-Grant - from Moss Park, which is an area at Queen East that is highly invisible, not much of anything was ever done there. So we had a meeting with the residents of Moss Park last fall, and they identified that fresh food as being an issue for them. The fact that they couldn't access fresh food, because the closest grocery store chain closed and they only had a dollar store nearby and a corner store. So we developed from that was we have the first grocery store in a shipping container.

I actually did visit the market at Moss Park at the day of the interview. Past the road construction off of Queen station and down the way east, there is indeed a little shop in Moss Park. Beside a parking lot with the three red towering apartment buildings in the background among a plaza of green grass sits a couple of shipping containers donned in black with painted murals of different produce with real produce on display inside. With how quiet the area was, it reminded me of those farmer market stalls on the road here and there.

Sophonn: So how did you go about acquiring those shipping containers?

Lisa: It was quite a process. It's never been done before in this city, so we were pioneers with it. And in the end after months and months and months of trying to make this happen, Mitchell from the Daniels Corporation gave us $500, and Storstac who builds the containers, they actually donated them. They insulated them, put heating, hydro and air conditioning in them and the container are open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and there's a vendor there. He sells affordable fruits and vegetables.

Lisa: And our trillium grant was not for the container, so none of the money from the trillium grant went to the container, but went to its programming with the residents of Moss Park. So we had a couple of festivals, we started a homework club, and we started a cooking circle with the women every Tuesday afternoon.

Before Building Roots installed the market, the residents of Moss Park had to go far to get their groceries. Of course, distance, as I learned earlier, was not as big a concern. It is more about the presence of food. Having another place to get food at a comfortable reach helped not only people who would go far for their food, but those who couldn't - seniors, the disabled. In addition to another place to get food, there are other things that brought people to the container, almost like a meeting spot. But, wait, if this can bring fresh food to people in priority neighborhoods - areas without access to food. And Building Roots is actively seeking unused plots that could also be used to farm food as well. The portability of a container with locally-grown food in an urban environment like Toronto, I would say that we may have a realistic solution here to making food more available to people on a wider scale.

Sophonn: So with this project in Moss Park and others, what would be the end-game for you?

Lisa: The end game is to have a successful project where everybody is involved with either growing, cooking, sharing, or learning about food. So we have two other big projects in the city, one is Ashridge Estate, which is off of Queen near Leslieville, it was a family-owned estate - it was actually a farm - and they left it to the city and it's managed by Ontario Heritage. So they leased Building Roots the whole acreage - it's basically a small park in the middle of the city, and we're doing programming there. They have three gardens there this year, one was a Building Roots garden, and we had a Syrian farmer garden, and we had a cafe. We had a garden there and we grew lots of vegetables and it was wonderful. And we hada huge picnic there with Syrian newcomers and families who supported them. It was a huge success. What's happened now is that we actually have farmers there, the land is being farmed by the Black Farmers and Growers Collective of Toronto. So they went in and dug up all the gardens that we had, and they all look phenomenal - you should go see it - because they are actually dug like a farm you find in the country. And they are growing garlic, and they gonna grow hard crops like tigernuts, ground cherries and all sorts of things in the Spring. It is an actual farm, which is also a very unusual thing to have happened in the city.

Cooking, learning, sharing food. You know, after listening to that, I can't help but feel that Toronto is sounding a lot smaller than I thought. With those tall buildings that reach the clouds, the famous CN Tower in the skyline, and Building Roots have a farm set up within a landscape of grey concrete, red bricks, and many other artificial structures. The food harvested from that farm could be brought to and sold in a metal box shop tucked away in a small plot of land just like that. Kind of ruins the hustle and bustle of the urban life style. Though, as familiar with the hustle and bustle, this would be a welcome break. As Lisa says, they are pioneers in this.

When I first heard of food insecurity in Toronto, I thought that this was something we all should be looking at - like a national emergency. Throughout this experience, I felt that I was duped a bit by how the term food desert was thrown around like it is. It blows things out of proportion just from the sound of it. Getting down to the matter at hand, what of an issue that gets to people, and focusing on those particular things - starting small, starting from the details - all help towards solving the bigger issue at hand. One way to address lack of access to food is to grow that food yourself - not too demanding, you can keep a small vegetable garden - and a small container shop can cover everything else at affordable prices, and that shop can replenish from nearby community gardens and farms.

What I've scooped up here are a few layers; there's always more to it. And Toronto being the large place it is, will have people with the passion for food, as well as passion for many other things, all to make living in Toronto better. With that, I'll be signing off now. I'd like to thank Lisa Kates for her time and work and wish her and Building Roots good luck in their future endeavours. I'd also like to thank you for taking the time to listen and I wish you a good day. My name is Sophonn Mao and thank you for listening.


From Scratch Media


Works Cited

Kates, Lisa. Personal Interview. 18 Nov. 2016

Martin Prosperity Insights. (2010, June 15) "Food Deserts and Priority Neighbourhoods in Toronto". Here.

Dubowitz, T., Zenk, S. N., Ghosh-Dastidar, B., Cohen, D. A., Beckman, R., Hunter, G., . . . Collins, R. L. (2015). Healthy food access for urban food desert residents: Examination of the food environment, food purchasing practices, diet and BMI. Public Health Nutrition, 18(12), 2220-2230.


Recommended Sources

Kwan, Amanda. Globe and Mail. (2013, March 22) "Mapping Toronto's food territories". Here.

Toronto Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective, Here.

Manzocco, Natalia. (2016, June 22) "Get a load of Moss Park's new mini-market". Here.


Music Credits

All music used with permission from creator under Creative Commons license.

"Intractable" Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

"Fast Talkin" Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License