I invite you to take a second to do a little exercise. If someone were to ask you to describe the term community, what terms come to mind? Think about what attributes you would focus on when describing a community. you may choose to use words such as neighbourhood, group of people, dangerous or safe at night, residential or business oriented, noisy or quiet etc. During this quick exercise did you think about the food system within a neighbourhood?
What is a Food System?
A community food system, or local food system, includes all people, activities and resources needed to feed the people in a given area. This includes everything needed to grow, process, package, distribute, consume and dispose of food. A sustainable food system provides healthy food to meet current needs while at the same time, keeping the local ecosystem and environment healthy so that food can be provided to future generations. To better understand local food systems and food access, let’s review a few key terms:
Food security is when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy and active life. This concept is commonly explained through “The Five A’s of Food Security”, which are: availability, accessibility, adequacy, acceptability, and agency. In order for a community to experience food security, community members must be able to control the policies that govern the production and distribution of the food they eat. This is known as food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems. Food sovereignty is defined by seven pillars: food for people, building knowledge and skills, working with nature, valuing food providers, localizing food systems, putting control locally, and recognizing food as sacred. Both food sovereignty and food security are required components of a sustainable food system.
The term food desert can be used to define an area that has limited or no access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. In fact, a growing body of research has found that the suburbanization of food retailers in North America in recent decades has contributed to the emergence of urban food deserts, meaning food deserts within cities.
Suburbanization means the growth and spatial reorganization of a city. In this context, this term is used to describe the relocation of supermarkets from the inner city to the suburbs.
Fostering sustainable food systems is an environmental goal, because reduced access to health foods is an example of environmental injustice. To learn more about environmental justice and intersectionality, click here.
How Does This Relate to the Environment?
In order to effectively engage in intersectional environmental action, we must first understand the importance of food sovereignty in communities and work towards food security for all. As seen through the pillars of food sovereignty, reclaiming food rights and accessibility in communities has many co-benefits for the environment, including: reducing land degradation, greenhouse gas emissions from food production and travel, and food waste and supporting ethical food growing practices.
A Closer Look at Food Security in London
To better understand the importance of food sovereignty, food security, and sustainable food systems, let’s look at some case-studies of food deserts that exist in our city of London, ON. While there are many food retail and service access points in Middlesex-London, access to food remains a significant issue for many community members. A 2016 report by the Middlesex London Food Policy Council (MLFPC) noted that major barriers to accessing food include: adequate public transportation to supermarkets (especially for families with children), high food costs, and food deserts in the city core.
Case-Study #1: London Food Deserts
A study released in 2008 found that the suburbanization of grocery stores over the last four decades in London has created a distinct food desert in the central and eastern sections of the urban core. Research has shown that a healthy diet can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases. National surveys have found that many Canadians shop for food at a local supermarket, which offer the widest variety of products. But what happens when the only supermarket in a neighbourhood closes down, leaving only fast food options and convenience stores?
Who is affected? It reports that over these past several decades, the landscape of grocery retailing has changed drastically as supermarkets have left the older, inner-city neighbourhoods such as Central London and East London, and these low-income areas now have the poorest levels of supermarket access by walking.
Why is this happening? These changes in retail practices are partially driven by transformations in demographics in the city. In 1961, the majority of the population lived in central areas near downtown, while in 2005 these areas near the core lost population.
What are the negative effects? The suburbanization of supermarkets in London, ON, has made it much harder for citizens who live in Old East Village and Downtown to access healthy food options. Some of the barriers include:
- New supermarkets in suburban areas are designed for the car-borne suburban consumer, which further reduces access for those who do not have access to a private vehicle.
- The massive parking lots that border these suburban supermarkets make it much harder for consumers to transport groceries on foot, especially considering the distance to bus stops from grocery stores.
- The economically-distressed neighbourhood of East London had below average level of access by bus making it harder to access public transportation.
Previous work suggested that people in more economically-distressed neighbourhoods do not have as high a level of access to private automobiles as people in more affluent neighbourhoods, and are therefore more likely to walk, bike or rely on public transit. When none of these methods of transportation are available, residents may need to use a taxi for transportation, which adds a significant cost to their household budget. This study concluded that supermarket accessibility is poor throughout the city of London, and that the overall findings indicated that distinct food deserts do exist, particularly in the East London Neighbourhoods.
Old East Food Desert: Present Day
Old East Village is still trying to overcome the challenges that were documented in the 2008 study. In June of 2020, we witnessed the closing of the Old East Village Grocers (OEVG) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The grocer had incurred additional costs associated with the implementation of enhanced sanitization protocols and increased security, and these costs in conjunction with pandemic related staffing shortages, supply chain restrictions and unforeseen capital asset replacement costs made the operation financially unsustainable.
In a statement, the social enterprise by ATN Access for Persons with Disabilities executive director Andrea Topham stated, “Our goal with the grocery store was never really about generating profit. It was always about providing service to both our community, in terms of the availability of fresh and healthy food, and services to our clients to provide them with on-site job skills training. I think that’s what made it really unique as a social enterprise.”
On a more positive note, the space that was once home to OEVG is now being used for culinary pop-ups that offer learning experiences and contribute to food sovereignty in Old East Village.
Case Study #2: Old East and the London Western Fair Farmers’ Market
To further demonstrate the importance of food security and food sovereignty, let’s look at the positive impacts of the London farmers’ market in Old East Village. A study conducted in 2012 found that the introduction of a farmers’ market in food deserts can significantly decrease the economic costs of living in a neighbourhood without a supermarket. Since it’s opening in 2009, the London farmers’ market has increased the availability of healthy food and lowered the overall food costs for households in the neighbourhood. Since the introduction of the farmer’s market, residents living in Old East can save over 12% on annual grocery costs and are now only paying 5.7% more than average supermarket prices. The market also offers residents a wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Today, the London farmers’ market is now known as The Market at the Western Fair District. It is now a year round weekend market that holds two floors of 100+ vendors, each with unique product offerings. During the pandemic, the Market is still able to operate at a limited capacity. Food vendors who sell products in this market have been deemed essential and remain open during the current lockdown.
Case Study #3: Indigenous Food Sovereignty
Since the time of colonization, Indigenous communities have witnessed a drastic decline in the health and integrity of Indigenous cultures, ecosystems, social structures and knowledge systems, which are integral to their ability to respond to their needs for adequate amounts of healthy Indigenous food. Industrial farming methods, lack of respectful development, and massive and uncontrolled resource extraction has forced many land-based Indigenous peoples into cities. In urban areas deprived of traditional foods, they experience food deserts, extreme hunger, and the onset and entrenchment of preventable diseases. These challenges are even further intensified for Indigenous people living in rural communities.
In order to counterbalance urban reality with its limited food choices, a number of projects have been undertaken. For example, an Ontario-based organization called Ojibiikaan provided opportunities to engage with the land across the City of Toronto and the outer city. Their work addresses gaps in Toronto related to Indigenous food sovereignty, such as food and nutrition education, sustainable food systems and practices, and traditional ecological knowledge.
Food sovereignty links traditional Indigenous knowledge with contemporary urban realities, which results in new forms of knowledge and action. By establishing their own projects and initiatives under their own leadership, they are determining what should be grown, cooked, taught, and shared, which will work towards greater food security for Indigenous communities.
Call to Action:
As noted in the report by MLFPC, the roots of a local sustainable food system in Middlesex-London are beginning to develop, but there is room to help these roots flourish while using the many strengths and assets that can be found throughout the city. There are many things you can do to help raise awareness of the importance of food sovereignty and work towards a local sustainable food system for every community:
Learn more about the local food system that you are a part of. If you live within the London-Middlesex region, you can check out the latest Middlesex-London Community Food Assessment here. You can also find a local resources guide here. As you’re reading, consider what daily life changes you can make to support the MLFPC’s vision: ““The Middlesex London community sustains a healthy, safe, equitable and ecologically responsible local food system that nourishes all residents and is economically viable.”
It can also be helpful to look at research projects that were currently conducted, or are still active in your area. Here are some food sovereignty related research projects that are currently live in Ontario:
- Food System, Health & Economic Development - This research project analyzes the food systems in Michigan and Ontario to investigate the movement of food retailers away from urban areas and small towns, how access to nutritious foods can be increased in these neighbourhoods, and the viable strategies that exist for encouraging healthier consumption.
- Household Food Waste Survey - Check out this survey for statistics on household food waste in London, ON. You can use this study to find tips that help to reduce household food waste, and to compare your household food waste composition to average London households.
- SmartAPPetite - SmartAPPetite is a collaborative project of the Human Environments Analysis Lab that promotes smarter, healthier eating and strengthens the local food system in Ontario, Canada by using smartphone technology to share and expand local food knowledge.
- Food Retail Environment Study for Health & Economic Resiliency - The Food Retail Environment Study for Health and Economic Resiliency (FRESHER) is a pilot study of the effects of COVID-19 on food services in Ontario, across all types of communities. The evidence that is gathered from this study will be useful for policy makes to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on the sector.
- Building relational accountability with Indigenous communities - Chantelle Richmond is the newly named Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health and the Environment. Richmond’s CRC is working to build on the concept of relational accountability to examine the processes that both support and constrain relationship building in Indigenous health research.
If you are in a position to make a financial contribution, there are many local organizations dedicated to food sovereignty that you can donate to. Other ways to support these organizations are by volunteering your time and skills, sharing on your social media, or organizing a fundraiser in support of the organization:
London Food Bank - The London & Area Food Bank is a non-profit, charitable organization, governed by a community board of directors. Their mission is to help a generous community share its food resources. They help more than 25 other groups and agencies, and offer many community events throughout the year. The London Food Bank is also committed to teaching about food sovereignty and local food systems. To find more information to donate, volunteer, or access their resources, click here.
Urban Roots London - Urban roots is a non-profit organization that revitalizes underused land in the City of London for agriculture by:
- Producing high-quality, organic vegetables and herbs
- Distributing produce locally, directly to consumers and to private and social enterprises
- Developing agricultural opportunities for the neighbourhood, social enterprises, and community organizations within the City of London
- Growing a self-sustaining, urban agricultural model to germinate to new sites
To donate to this organization or for more information on volunteer opportunities , click here.
If you were unfamiliar with the term food sovereignty before today, and have no preexisting knowledge of your local food system, there is a good chance that the people around you have no idea what these terms mean either! Now that you know the importance of food sovereignty, you can do your part to help by teaching your circle about food sovereignty and the importance of sustainable food systems in communities.
Stay up to date on what is going on with your local food system and share this information with the people around you. Here is an article that talks about how First Nations and groups supporting their members across Southwestern Ontario are using new federal funding in numerous ways to help get people through the COVID-19 pandemic. An area that they are focusing on is food security.
There are many documentaries that talk about food sovereignty in different contexts. GATHER is a documentary that presents the story of the rebuilding of Native food systems. This feature film is an intimate portrait tracing the intentional destruction of Native American foodways and their renaissance and resilience, their inherent right, to reclaim it. Here is the trailer for this documentary.
Look into local initiatives that emphasize food sovereignty and work towards food security. Reflect on how you can contribute to the success of these initiatives. Here are some initiatives that are currently operating in the London Areas:
- London Good Food Box - The London Good Food Box is a program of London’s Child and Youth network, which distributes low cost boxes of vegetables and fruits in neighbourhoods across London. Most of the vegetable and fruit are grown in Ontario, which emphasizes the pillar of food sovereignty of localizing food systems. You can support this organization and it’s vision by purchasing a food box.
- Growing Chefs - Growing Chefs is a registered charity based in London, ON that unites chefs, growers, educators and community members in children’s food education projects. They offer a variety of food education projects to get kids and communities excited about healthy, wholesome food. Their mission is to change the way children, youth, families and the great community learn about and develop healthy relationships with food. To access education projects, recipes and events, please click here.
- On the Move Organics - A local business that aims to deliver sustainable food rooted in community. Through their weekly food boxes, they source and deliver local, organic, and low-waste groceries to London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Sarnia, and more! Learn more about their work and how they support food security for farmers, vendors, and consumers alike here. They are also a member of Green Economy London and have implemented some awesome initiatives to support the environment in their operations!
- London Food Coop - A community owned co-operative grocery store established in 1970. The Co-op is a not-for-profit business specializing in natural food. They provide the London community with a large selection of certified organic fruit, vegetables and locally sourced foods. They support small scale certified organic farms, local producers, artisans and our global suppliers of natural and organic products.
- A Farmers Market In a Food Desert: Evaluating the impacts on the price and availability of healthy food
- An economic impact comparative analysis of farmers’ markets in Michigan and Ontario
- Building relational accountability with Indigenous communities
- Food Retail Environment Study for Health & Economic Resiliency
- Food System, Health & Economic Development
- Household Food Waste Survey
- Human Rights Impact Assessment
- Mapping the evolution of food deserts in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London ON 1961-2005
- Middlesex London Community Food Assessment
- New arts and culture space fills void left by Old East Village Grocer
- Old East Village Grocer to permanently close as of June 7
- Southwestern First Nations see new funding to address critical needs during pandemic
- The Market Western Fair District
This blog post was contributed by Maddy Hendriksen. Maddy is a Social Justice and Peace Studies Student at King's University College. For her term placement with the London Environmental Network, she is writing a series of blog posts about environmental justice topics of which this article is a part of, called Environmentalism in Action.
About the Environmentalism in Action Blog Series
Through the Environmentalism in Action blog series, the London Environmental Network aims to share information on social and environmental justice issues, highlight local case studies and local resources, and share ways individuals can continue to educate themselves and take action in their communities. The London Environmental Network acknowledges the impacts of colonization and Western environmentalism, and is committed to working in collaboration towards creating a community and city that is resilient, vibrant, and just for all.