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Toronto plans to bring relief to suburban 'food deserts'

Katrina Weckerle outside her apartment building at Markham Road and Eglinton Avenue East, an area that is one of the city's 'food deserts'

Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail/matthew sherwood The Globe and Mail

Once a week, in a neighbourhood of high rises in North York, a van pulls up at a specified time and opens its back doors. The people who live in the towers quickly make their way to the vehicle, where they buy foods such as potatoes and coriander, bananas and carrots before whisking their groceries back to their apartments. Within minutes, the van pulls away, leaving no trace of what just happened.

It might sound like something more shady than vegetables is on offer, but it's a scene that gets repeated across our city for one simple reason: In many Toronto neighbourhoods, it's illegal to sell produce from a vehicle on the street. It's forbidden in Scarborough and, for most of the year, in Etobicoke. If you want to sell from the back of your truck in North York, you'll need $2-million in liability insurance.

Yet these are the same areas that the city's own research has identified as "food deserts" – predominantly low-income neighbourhoods in the inner suburbs where people live farther than 1,500 metres from a supermarket and typically don't own a car, and where there is below average public transit access, making lugging groceries home an arduous task. In Toronto, parts of Scarborough, North Etobicoke and North York fall under the "food desert" designation, and many residents procure more accessible produce on the street from less-than-legal purveyors.

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For Katrina Weckerle, who lives near Markham Road and Eglinton Avenue East, one of Toronto's identified food deserts, an easier way to buy fresh foods, such as a mobile vending truck, would improve her quality of life. Ms. Weckerle has osteoarthritis, doesn't own a car and can't walk or ride a bike to buy her groceries like some of her neighbours who don't have the budget to take the bus or a taxi. The local No Frills is a 20-minute scooter ride away.

However, a small office in the city's government hopes to change this. Next year, the Toronto Food Policy Council plans to launch a mobile fruit-and-vegetable-vending pilot project to make sure that no one has to break the law to sell food to people living in the food deserts. "What we need to do is create an environment where entrepreneurs can deliver food," said Lauren Baker, the council's co-ordinator. While they don't yet know what the project will look like, there are models to choose from. For example, in Chicago and other U.S. cities, old transit buses have been transformed into mobile supermarkets – though Ms. Baker says she's certain the city of Toronto won't be buying trucks to sell food. The patchwork of bylaws passed decades ago in the name of road safety that make this kind of selling illegal – concerned primarily with traffic flow and the dangers of stopping on busy roadways – also must be identified and then amended, issues that have yet to be discussed.

This is just one of the many innovative programs undertaken by the TFPC, a subcommittee of the Board of Health, that turns 20 years old this fall. For the past two decades, this municipal body has been shaping our collective relationship to food and, in the process, shaping the city. But its influence doesn't stop there. It is one of the original food policy councils in North America, and its pioneering efforts have been mirrored across the continent.

"If you are interested in food and cities, this is where you want to be," said Carolyn Steel, a British architect and author of Hungry City who was in town for a lecture organized by the TFPC last week. "They have had a huge influence."

The council was created in 1991 by mayor Art Eggleton, after the idea was put forward by Jack Layton when he was a city councillor, with help from his executive assistant, Dan Leckie. The idea was to create a municipal body to advise on food issues. The founding principle is that Toronto will be a better place if every person has access to healthy food and that good public policy can foster this. "Paying attention to food provides a public good," said Ms. Baker. "We're not just saying the government should do everything around food. We're saying it's a shared responsibility."

The work they do is broad, ranging from helping to expand the city's community gardens from 50 in 1991 to more than 120 that exist today, to promoting school nutrition, to helping to start a commercial kitchen-incubator project. In 2001, the TFPC got the city to sign a Food Charter, which obliges them to do everything in their power to facilitate access to food here.

Today there are more than 100 food councils in North America, and many, such as those in Chicago and Calgary, are following Toronto's example, though few here even know the TFPC exists. "Sometimes people are more famous outside of their city," said Debbie Field, executive director of FoodShare, an organization that collaborates frequently with the council.

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And 20 years after Toronto's local government started to factor food into city building, many other municipalities are also making food policy a priority. "Providing healthy fruit and vegetables is equal to sewage disposal and garbage collection," said Darrin Nordahl. A designer for the city of Davenport, Iowa and author of the book Public Produce, he has drawn inspiration from the work of food policy councils in Canada that were created in the likeness of Toronto's. In his city, the local government is facilitating the transformation of a downtown parking lot into a public garden. A municipal employee will oversee volunteer gardeners who will grow food that will be free for anyone to pick. While it sounds more like a project out of Cuba than the American rust belt, he says this approach is taking off across the United States. For example, a number of cities grappling with dwindling funds and landscaping budget cuts are paying staff to grow vegetables for citizens to pick freely. "The liberals see it as a social service. The conservatives see it as a way for the public to help themselves."

For Ms. Weckerle, who gets around Scarborough on scooter, "The hard stuff is getting fresh fruit and vegetables," she said. "Ten-pound bags of potatoes and onions are only $1.88 this week, but once you put that on your scooter, you are loaded down and there isn't room for anything else."

It's a situation that Ms. Baker says shouldn't exist in our city.

"Why are there communities in Toronto that don't have fruit and vegetables nearby?" she said. "If we just flip the switch, we can make things happen."

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