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Food Justice Project Launches in Mount Pleasant

Mobilizing food bank users and allies to link social and economic issues to food

by Erin Innes

Photo courtesy Pierre Mallien CC 2.0
Photo courtesy Pierre Mallien CC 2.0

Also posted by Erin Innes:

On Saturday May 7, over 40 people gathered at the Organizing Centre on Broadway to share a bannock and stew dinner put on by FACTS, the Food Action Collective for Transformation and Sustainability. Coming in from the rain to a warm, steamy, and yummy-smelling room, I got to sit down with other folks from the community, eat a great meal prepared by volunteers, and hear many different versions of the same story: people are worried about our food system, and worried that so much of the dialogue that happens around changing it leaves the social justice part out of the picture. FACTS is working to change that.

This month the collective launches a new organizing project with users of the Mount Pleasant Food Bank, the Mount Pleasant Food Justice Project. The project works to share stories and grow a better understanding of the issues that food bank users face, to mobilize a voice for low-income people on food security issues. While the work focusses on food issues, the project is grounded in a larger analysis about how social and economic factors are at play, especially looking at the ways that social assistance often traps people in poverty rather than relieving it.

“Social Assistance rates are so low that they don't let people live a steady enough existence to lift themselves out of poverty” says Peter Driftmier, one of the project's organizers. He cites many examples of the marginalization that food bank users face in the larger context of their lives that effects their ability to access food. “People don't have enough money to pay for the bus, so they get fined and can't afford food because they have to pay a fine, so then they get food from the food bank and can't get on the bus to get it home,” he offers as an example.

Fellow project organizer Jen Efting points out that the food bank system, as a charity that can only give out the food that they get donated, is not equipped to be meeting peoples' everyday food needs, in quality, quantity, or dignity. “The food bank is not intended as a permanent solution to poverty,” she says, and points out that the fact that so many people are dependent on food banks to meet their day to day food needs shows how broken our social safety net has become. “Everyone has the right to choice about what they eat,” she says.

One of the factors driving FACTS to engage with food bank users and provide support for folks to share their stories and organize themselves in response is that the food bank, as a private charity, is not accountable to the public and yet is responsible for providing an important public service. “It's hard for us to say for sure,” says Driftmier, “but it's starting to seem like the food bank has almost as many people dependent on it as the welfare system does, but there's no public accountability and no oversight.”

The Food Justice Project gets food bank users together to share their stories and organize on food issues in a way that is by and for them. The organizers believe that it's important for poor and working peoples' voices to be developed on these issues in a space that isn't dominated by middle-class peoples' voices and concerns.

“A lot of people are not brave enough to stand up for themselves,” says organizer Sue Ann Yeo. “We need to get together to see that it's not just one person against the world.” She highlights that there are concerns both about how folks access food in the larger context, and about the food bank itself and how it's organized. “We need better resources,” she says, “especially for people who have special diets. People also want to get more meat, stuff that really fills you up.”

She points out that many people who rely on the food bank are reliant too much on starchy and processed foods and don't get proper nutrition, a serious problem since so many food bank users are also chronically ill or injured and use the food bank because their disability assistance doesn't provide enough to let them buy the food they need.

It's also about sharing stories and building solidarity. At organizing meetings, the group starts with cooking together. “We get to know each other that way,” says Sue Ann, and peoples' skills for cooking for themselves increase. “Nobody knew how to make bannock,” she laughs, “and when I made it they liked it so much I had to teach everyone and they said we had to make it for {the fundraising dinner} tonight.” Community building and skill sharing are an important component of the work.

Joselyn, another organizer with FACTS, agrees that it's first and foremost about making space for people to share their experiences and build on that knowledge to understand the structural factors that influence their food and health. “It's about making the links between social justice and health,” says Joselyn, “and helping people understand that these things are dependent on social and economic structures. There's a lot of self-blame, people are not turning their energy to thinking of the other causes. They don't see the big picture."

Connecting personal stories to that bigger picture is a lot of what FACTS does. “I came to Canada 3 years ago, and it never occurred to me that [food insecurity] would be happening in Canada,” says Joselyn. She asserts that it's about “embracing the reality” of food insecurity and moving to understand the social and economic factors creating it in order to work to change them.

For more information on the Mount Pleasant Food Justice Project or any of the work of the Food Action Collective, check out their blog.

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Commentaires

great story Rin!

Loving your work girl!

However, fightng for social justice is also about critically looking at our oppressive ways of organizing, and basically living.

Way to much patriarchy involved with the Centre for Social Justice. As well as homo/transphobia/heterosexism.

Here's to growing and moving forward from our oppressive past.

Blessings

Tami Starlight

criticism should be constructive

Tami, I have to say that I think it is pretty irresponsible to level criticisms of a group that has been  doing grassroots anti-racist, anti-sexist and class struggle organizing in this community for more than a decade in this way.

If we are going to make a criticism, especially in a public forum, I think it should be constructive and based in some kind of concrete assessment.  As far as I know you have never been involved with any of the groups at the Organizing Centre, so I'm not sure where this assessment of patriarchy and and homo/transphobia/heterosexism comes from.

Aiyanas

Awesome!

Thanks for writing and sharing this - great article & inspiring project!

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