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How Toronto Found Its Food Groove

The Toronto food movement is one of the tastiest broths in the world, a mixture concocted from one part Toronto, one part food and one part movement. I’ve helped stir this dish for almost 20 years, both as chair of the Coalition for a Green Economy during the 1990s and as manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council since 2000, and am still amazed at how the recipe links the pleasures of good food and a happy table with environmental protection, public health, social justice, good jobs and all-round people power.

Today’s food movement grew up alongside the anti-globalization movements of the past 20 years, so thinking and acting locally are crucial to it. Food issues have helped many people rediscover their sense of place, and rethink how crucial place is – not just for the foods we eat, but for the people we become. So let me begin with the terroir that nourished the local food movement.

The Toronto food movement was not born with a gourmet spoon in its mouth. Nothing about me or the city would have led someone to predict either of us would ever succeed in food. Like many World War Two veterans, my parents seized the opportunity of a Veteran’s Land Grant to buy half an acre of land on the outskirts of the city for $200 – the idea was that vets would have enough land to grow their own food and put a roof over their heads when the expected post-war depression descended. I grew up in this warm, friendly, humble and hopeful neighbourhood of vets. Like everyone else on the block, I ate bacon and eggs with white toast and milk for breakfast, ham and sliced cheese on white bread with Campbell’s Soup for lunch, and one of seven dinners served on the same day of each week – from roast beef on Sunday to beans and wieners on Tuesday and macaroni and cheese on Thursday, all usually served with a side salad of iceberg lettuce and tomato and a dessert of canned fruit that was sometimes in Jell-O.

I don’t recall ever eating without lots of yakking and goofing around. I knew lots about mealtime, but little about food. I didn’t taste garlic until I went to university, never tried yogurt or a bagel until I moved downtown for grad school, never ate fish without batter and chips until my thirties, rarely had wine with dinner until my fifties. It’s the social warmth around food that I still most enjoy to this day. I’ll do practically anything to avoid eating alone, and never pick a restaurant where relishing the food might take precedence over having a hoot. I’m in the foodie contingent that sees food as primarily a social, rather than a gourmet or nutritional, experience. To the extent that my upbringing was typical of that of other Torontonians of my generation, it’s safe to say the Toronto Food movement did not arise, as it has in so many areas of the world, as a battle to save a rich and pre-existing food culture from Americanized mediocrity. No one has ever thought that ‘Toronto the Good’ referred to good food in restaurants. For many, many years, Toronto had no restaurant or café culture. Going out to eat was a social, not a dining, experience. Restaurant hangouts in my neighbourhood, usually referred to as slop shops, were places friends goofed around in while nursing pop and fries – just enough to cover the table charge. Cans of Campbell’s Soup and boxes of Kellogg’s cereals were on show behind the counter where short-order cooks worked. There was only one place, Little Bo Peep, where a high school student would take a date for a burger (hold the onion) and fries, or a family would go out for a roast beef sandwich smothered with mashed potatoes, canned peas and gravy.

Family restaurants were rare because a typical family had a stay-at-home wife who saved more money for the family by doing the cooking and cleaning than she would earn working outside the home. To gain perspective on the total absence of resistance to the meteoric rise of fast-food chains during the 1970s, we must concede that in Toronto, as in many North American locations, junk-food joints actually raised the bar on food, as well as washroom quality. It’s humbling to acknowledge that the crux of the modern case against fast food chains is based on the link to chronic disease; few think of kicking junk food because of repulsive cooking, taste, atmosphere, ethics, isolation from public life of the street, or any rationale that might grow out of a pre-existing and public food culture.

Notwithstanding the absence of vibrant food traditions, Toronto has always had a lot going for it. First, the city won the geographical sweepstakes. Toronto is surrounded on one side by an inland sea that once supported an important freshwater fishery that could’ve been the envy of the world if we hadn’t been so nonchalant about polluting it with agricultural and industrial runoff – a process that happened without much discussion of the consequent loss of wild foods and lean protein. Toronto is surrounded on its other sides by the largest stretch of Class 1 farmland in the country. Rain, sun and moderate temperatures are as plentiful as fertile land. The remaining area of good land is so big that the remnants of it saved from urban sprawl in 2005 – with belated legislation adopted mainly to protect endangered ecosystems, not precious foodlands – are still enough to qualify as the largest protected greenbelt in the world.

Toronto also has location. It’s closer to more US cities than any US city, except perhaps Pittsburgh. As a result, many US corporations have placed their auto and food branch plants in the area; food and beverage processing in the Greater Toronto Area is second in size in North America only to Chicago. Plentiful jobs, especially entry-level positions, were a magnet for many immigrants who came to Toronto after the 1960s.Thanks to them, Toronto is now the most varied multicultural city in the world, with a range of Chinatowns and Little Italies, a flourishing Little India and Greektown, and countless centres of emerging excellence in Caribbean, Tibetan, Ethiopian, Brazilian and other cuisines. California has its Silicon Valley, and Ontario has a Culinary Valley.

Toronto is also blessed with valleys carved out by creeks flowing into Lake Ontario. It’s been said that these valleys define the city as much as canals define Venice. Valleys hardwired the city to avoid the worst fate of North American cities: the segregated inner city, surrounded by rings of suburbs to which any group with options escaped. Thanks to valleys, which prevented sprawl based on concentric circles, Toronto is rich in mixed neighbourhoods. Most low-income residents live along a U that stretches the length and width of the city; as a result, lower-income neighbourhoods are often cheek by jowl with a variety of prosperous areas, as is the case with Regent Park and Cabbagetown, for example, or St. James Town and Rosedale. As a result, embittered politics that pit haves against have-nots don’t root themselves in city wards, because no politician can win an election on the basis of one social grouping. Nor are Toronto food deserts – vast areas with only convenience or liquor stores but no decent food stores – anywhere as common as they are in the US.

Thanks to mixed neighbourhoods, where people bump into different kinds of people on an everyday basis, much as if they were in a small town, the poor are less likely to be marginalized, excluded or vilified as ‘the other’. Toronto has long enjoyed a consensus, which transcends left and right, that the city that works must be proactive to avoid the fate of US cities, which have rotted at their core, polarized by racism and grinding impoverishment. Shortly after food banks came to Toronto during the early 1980s, Liberal mayor Art Eggleton gave start-up funding to FoodShare, now the largest city-based food security organization in North America, in a bid to prevent dependence on food charity from becoming embedded in the city. With the same goal, the public health department initiated the Toronto Food Policy Council in 1991, now the most influential food council in the world. When that didn’t end hunger, the newly amalgamated Toronto unanimously adopted a Food and Hunger Action Plan and Toronto Food Charter in 2001 that inspires urban food activists around the world. Not that Toronto couldn’t do better, but few cities – Havana in Cuba and Belo Horizonte in Brazil are probably the best known – do.

Torontonians have also been open to ways of thinking about food that find no space in other cities. Ironically, that openness may descend from its ‘Toronto the Good’ past. The allegedly uptight city, which imposed severe limits on booze in restaurants until the 1970s and a non-commercial Sunday until the 1990s, was fuelled by a long-standing alliance that brought together trade-union radicals –who valued a common day off for all workers on Sunday, and a clear class-conscious brain not befuddled by alcohol for the rest of the week – with Red Tories (conservatives with a strong social conscience) and social Liberals, a base broad and cohesive enough to sustain the Toronto Daily Star, long Canada’s leading daily and a consistent voice for progressive views. Most of Toronto’s standout progressive policies – city-run non-profit childcare centres and homes for the aged, well-funded public transit, publicly owned electrical and water utilities, city-managed farmers’ markets, free and low-cost recreation centres, for example – express this tradition, which goes well beyond the typical city agenda of parks, potholes and police.

After the 1970s – when the city became a centre of self-consciously Canadian intellectual and cultural life, and the city’s civic activities were increasingly propelled by an astonishing multiplicity of citizen groups and non-government organizations – the old progressive consensus was enriched by a wide range of public intellectuals and writers from alternative publications like NOW and EyeWeekly, music and book publishers surviving in coach houses and other noncommercial spaces and a lively public culture on view at a long list of street festivals, parades, restaurant and club districts. Toronto, in short, has a huge number of progressive citizens, voters and activists.

Part of the robustness of this working relationship among progressives came from a showdown against Modernist planning and architecture during the 1970s. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Toronto’s skyline came under the domination of Modernists who thought steel, cement and glass high-rises expressed the unlimited potential of high-tech homo sapiens; indeed, Toronto has one of the highest proportions of highrises, particularly in the suburbs, of any North American city. During the 1970s, a grassroots rebellion, led by such giants as Jane Jacobs, John Sewell and David Crombie, beat back the notion of cities dominated by towers and expressways, and created a permanent safe space for a cross-cutting set of ideas around respect for human scale, appropriate technology, decent treatment of marginalized people and government accountability to ordinary people – as it turns out, the common ground beneath sustainable agriculture and community food security.

Food movements are almost by definition profoundly cross-cutting. They attract people who are into science and people who aren’t, people on the left, right and centre, people linked to formal religion and highly personal spirituality, vegetarians and carnivores, health-food nuts and slow-fooders, peakniks who think we’re running out of oil and people who’ve never heard that cheap food was based on cheap oil, recent immigrants and fourth-generation Canadians. By and large, they all take issue with Modernism and Brutalism, most sharply expressed during the last 20 years by genetic engineering, factory-farm livestock methods and globalized trade in bulk food commodities – the bêtes noires of the food movement. Today’s foodies got a major leg up when they inherited a successful public culture pitted against Modernists and Brutalists that’s been the hallmark of public discourse since the 1970s.

This brings us to the second ingredient in Toronto’s food movement: food. I have a special affection for the style and content of food advocacy because I came to food politics as I was coming out of my middle-age crisis – my tame alternative to a Harley-Davidson? – after some 30 years of intense activism around student, labour, peace, anti-nuclear and socialist issues. The earthy realities of food have an impact on politics that’s different from the politics that flows from age, gender and class discrimination, for example – politics that flow from human constructs, not biological needs or environmental imperatives. Food brings its own unique taste to the Toronto food-movement broth, a taste that would be entirely different if it were a Toronto student, labour or anti-nuclear broth.

I think the special taste of a food movement comes from empowerment. The direct and unmediated connection between humans and food means food is more amenable to direct action by individuals or groups than any sector of the economy. At any given time, people can choose to give up sugar in their coffee, go for soymilk instead of cream, skip meat for one day a week, pay a little more for fair-trade chocolate and so on. The directness of food breeds what horizontal fair trader Michael Sacco of Toronto’s ChocoSol calls ‘actionism,’ autonomous and self-directed activity in support of a concrete choice that is distinct from the activism of demanding action from another entity – i.e., government. The tendency in the food sector is to join demonstration projects as often as demonstration protests.

Empowerment is also expressed in the desire of most food enthusiasts for ‘authentic’ food experiences, which engage the eater as a participant, not just as a passive consumer. Being a health-minded eater also empowers people to become producers of their own health, rather than consumers of medical cures. In general, food calls on people to become ‘pro-sumers,’ to use the term Alvin Toffler coined in his 1970 book, Future Shock. Many decades after the book was written, lines between producers and consumers are being blurred, most flamboyantly in new media, but also in food, where backyard and container gardeners, foragers and serious cooks are doing to food production what blogs have done to news and comment. By inviting people to work in the body politic with the power they have rather than focus their politics on power someone else has, food inspirations tend to generate calm, good cheer and roll-up-your sleeves actionism, qualities often considered rare in the left.

So, what does this mean for the future of Toronto’s food movement? By sheer accident, I tripped onto one aspect of the answer in the fall of 2008, while I was wandering around the annual fall harvest celebration at the Brick Works, the fabulous new farmers’ market organized by the non-profit Evergreen Foundation. An old friend, solar-greenhouse veggie-grower David Cohlmeyer, waved excitedly for me to come over and pointed to an elderly man with unruly grey hair who, Cohlmeyer told me in a hushed voice, had a family link to the owners of Scaramouche, one of Toronto’s most respected restaurants, and was a strong supporter of local and artisanal food producers. ‘Run after him and ask him to tell you what he just told me,’ Cohlmeyer said. I did as directed, introducing myself to Moie Wasserman and asking him to repeat what he’d just told Cohlmeyer. Well, he said, he’d lived in California for many years, and long enjoyed the annual Berkeley event Alice Waters puts on at Chez Panisse (one of California’s most revered food havens). She brings in the best local farmers and food producers, and they take over the street with their displays. ‘But they can never do anything like this,’ he said, pointing to all the people feasting on samples while talking to organizers behind various displays at the Brick Works. ‘To have farmers, producers, slow-food people, all these people, as well as government agencies and non-profits, all working together, you only have that here in Toronto.’

That’s one, very positive side of the movement: the ability of people in some 100 configurations in the mobile food web, spanning the passions and obsessions of academics, gourmets, anti-poverty activists, gardeners, composters, seed collectors, vegetarians, restaurant critics, raw foodists, localistas, greens, economic developers, fair traders, creatives, you name it, to work easily and causally with each other in a loose solidarity (or should I say soilidarity?). University of Toronto sociologist Harriet Friedmann wrote most insightfully about this aspect of the Toronto ‘community of food practice’, as well as about its pragmatism and continued openness to new ways of doing and thinking about things, in ‘Scaling up: Bringing Public Institutions and Food Corporations into the Project for a Local, Sustainable Food System in Ontario.’[1]

But there are two sides to that free-flowing dialectic. As is true with so many aspects of food, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Easy and porous relations are one thing; centrifugal force is another. The Toronto food movement can keep it together despite distinctions that might prove to be antagonisms elsewhere – this can be seen in the co-operative relationship between foodies who love fine and authentic food and social activists who mainly worry about hunger, to give just one positive example. Nevertheless, the Toronto food movement lacks a centre that holds, an organization with the moral authority to say, ‘We all need to get behind this breakthrough opportunity and put our regular work on hold so we can lift the entire movement up a notch’.

It’s notable that there exist no groups with the sole objective of raising public education and alarm over certain trends, or mobilizing consumer or citizen protest against government inaction on the local and sustainable food file. Neither that kind of thinking nor that kind of leadership is on the minds of many people in the food movement. In the absence of such leadership, we allow decision-making power to veer towards government agencies and foundations that fund special projects and fail to develop leadership that responds to the needs of a broader movement.

I worry about this shortcoming as Toronto heads towards the tipping point of systemic change in the food system. We are now safely out of the margins of public discourse. Food topics are covered on a regular basis in all the media. Food organizations are growing like topsy. Farmers’ markets are popping up all over the place. Organic sales continue to climb faster than most other food segments. Local food is hot. The most conventional food producers – Unilever and Kraft, for example – are going out of their way to market to people who value local and real and fairly traded food. These are all indicators that we’ve successfully moved from the marginal avant garde to the early adopters and are now heading to a place where those inspired by the food movement can rock the food world, both in the stores and in government service (which is, at present, far behind the stores in responsiveness).
Making the most of this imminent opportunity should be at the forefront of serious movement builders’ minds – we need to find mechanisms that work centripetally, that unify diverse people and bring them together behind breakthrough causes. As I write this, I’m hopeful that a food strategy currently in early stages of development under the leadership of Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. David McKeown – a project I’m privileged to be working on, and that will see food experts from many walks of life coming together in a working group that will advise on a comprehensive food strategy for the 21st-century city – may serve to crystallize that function.[2] If that does not come to pass, another similar force must be invented. Toronto has so much to offer; I hope we can offer a model for getting to the tipping point, too.

[1] Agriculture and Human Values, 2007, 24: pp. 389–98.
[2] Toronto Public Health (2008). ‘Proposal for Development of a Toronto Food Strategy.’ Staff report to the Toronto Board of Health. June 2, 2008. The working group will meet during the winter and spring of 2010, and a draft report from the group will invite citizen engagement and comment towards shaping a final report, which is expected to be tabled with City Council in late 2010 or early 2011.

Taken from The Edible City: Toronto’s Food from Farm to Fork. Edited by Christina Palassio and Alana Wilcox. ISBN 978 1 55245 219 6
Wayne is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

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