Food Fighters: How a new advocacy group plans to change your diet
Darcy Higgins has only lived in Toronto for four years, but he's already spearheaded an innovative organization that wants, over the next few years, to change the kind of food you eat—on a street corner, in a hospital or even at your own kitchen table.
Raised in Sarnia, Higgins pursued environmental studies at the University of Waterloo, which, he says, "kind of brought me into learning about sustainable agriculture and the possibilities around food." Before long he got involved in small-scale environmental projects, like starting a farmer's market on the university campus—a rarity back in 2006. ("I think it might have been the first or second in Canada.")
After moving to Toronto, and inspired by the people and projects he was seeing around municipal and environmental issues, he started an advocacy group called Food Forward
in 2010 to unite people around food-related issues. Why not
channel the collective efforts of everyone involved in school and hospital nutrition programs, farmers' markets, community gardens and so on into one great force for change? He especially wanted it to address ways that City Hall can simplify the bureaucratic requirements that currently strangle many small innovative food businesses.
"Bringing folks together is a key issue at the City," Higgins says. When issues arise at City Hall, "not everybody is paying attention because they're doing the work, but we can be there and—say the City wants to charge more for farmers to be at farmers' markets—then, hopefully, people who are working in community gardens and community kitchens can come in and have a say that this is important to them, too."
Along with community organizing at the ward level and advocacy work at City Hall, Food Forward runs an informal monthly networking event series called Foodie Drinks. "It's an opportunity for people to come out and connect with different innovations that are happening throughout the city," he says. "We usually have a nonprofit as well as a small business speaker."
A recent edition featured councillor Josh Colle of the Toronto Food Policy Council and the not-for-profit groups Growing for Green
, which spearheaded the Ben Nobleman Community Orchard in a public park, and Wo-Built
, which produces compact living units bursting with green features. Food Forward also organizes public forums on key issues like improving hospital food, and supports its constituent organizations through everything from social media to work with national and provincial partners.
Food Forward's first event was a brown bag "eat-in" on the green roof at City Hall, where people chatted about food issues during the last election. Of all the topics discussed, what struck Higgins was just how many issues there are.
"One of the things we need to do as a city is make our food projects a priority and realize the importance of working on these issues," Higgins says. As he tells people who approach him, "we have a stronger voice together, and once you put your foot in to get involved, you're probably going to enjoy it and get more involved."
Food Forward is concerned with basic food security, but also with causes like showcasing local produce and the cuisine of Toronto's many cultures. For instance, the group has partnered with Suresh Doss, founder of Food Truck Eats
, and Hassel Aviles of the Toronto Underground Market
(TUM) to create the Toronto Street Food Project
"The idea is to create a sort of critical mass where we can get people to write to their councillor and the mayor to demand street food," says Doss, whose Food Truck Eats, like TUM, is trying to help break down existing bureaucratic barriers that hold back new food businesses. "Entrepreneurs and small business owners that are trying to do different things with food, chefs who are trying to bring restaurant-quality food to the streets; these guys have a creative energy that they're trying to bring to the scene," he says.
"A lot of the start-up food projects and businesses right now are very creative and unique, so they don't fit into the food policies," Higgins says. "As a business person, if I want to start something, it can be very confusing and costly and difficult. We need to streamline our policies."
For example, there's a Mobile Vending Pilot Project that wants to sell fresh fruits and vegetables in areas that don't have access.
"For the City of Toronto, it's just a nightmare because of the permits, zoning and regulation. That's an area where Food Forward would step in and help bring that voice to the table," says Michelle German, co-chair of the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council and a board member of Food Forward. "There's so much momentum and so many different organizations and so many young people who want to be engaged. Darcy went in and filled a huge gap."
"There are such innovative projects and businesses in Toronto. Everybody is testing out new ideas and models; it's just very inspiring," says Higgins. "Against all these negative trends, so many people are trying to make the city better."
Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book is We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.
Photos 3 to 6 courtesy of Food Forward. Photo 3: Foodie Drinks at Eglinton-Lawrence May 2012 with councillor Josh Colle speaking, by Orla Hegarty. Photo 4: September 2011 workshop on Carrot Green Roof. Photo 5: Food Forward in the 2011 Pride Parade 2011, by Seonguk Back. Photo 6: Foodie Drinks in Scarborough Feb 2012, by Joe Le.