Urban Minds
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Urban Minds

Making Inclusive and Equitable Food Systems through Community Initiatives: Reflecting on the 2022 1UP Conference

By: Lindsay Parsons, RUaPlanner team member & guest contributor

1UP Toronto Conference 2022 banner: an image of a boardwalk in nature with the 1UP, Urban Minds, and RUaPlanner logos

Another year, another exciting and inspiring conference! The sixth annual 1UP Conference was held on March 13th for high school students aspiring to make a change in their communities and become future city builders. For the second year in a row, the conference was moved to a virtual platform due to the uncertainties around the COVID-19 pandemic. The team worked hard to ensure an engaging and thought-provoking afternoon with amazing guest speakers, games, and beautiful live music (May, you’re a rockstar!).

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to reshape and rethink many aspects of our lives, as demonstrated by last year’s conference theme, Rebuilding Post-Pandemic Cities. While a major issue before the pandemic, food insecurity — particularly for some of the most vulnerable and marginalized — was exacerbated after March 2020. As a response to this pressing challenge, the theme for this year’s conference was Nourish, focusing on sustainable community food systems and the intersection between food systems and social justice. How can we use this opportunity to redevelop a food system that is more inclusive, equitable and culturally appropriate for all? This year’s conference explored how we can build a stronger relationship with food and land to shape a more sustainable and just society. What became most apparent through the discussions at the conference was the idea that food is not just about sustaining our bodies; it nourishes our souls, builds community, promotes, preserves and celebrates cultures, and is a central piece to climate resiliency.

A screenshot of a Zoom conference with a presentation slide showing an illustration of an urban garden
Angela ElzingaCheng from Greenest City speaking about the Milky Way Garden in Parkdale.

Creating change starts at the local level, and this was highlighted by many of the speakers. Angela ElzingaCheng, the Executive Director of Greenest City, discussed the Milky Way Garden in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto, highlighting that its formation was from community determination, innovation and need. The Milky Way Garden started as an abandoned 7000 square feet plot of land in a laneway, but because of the community initiative, it transformed into a sustainable garden that grows a grocery bag’s worth of food a week! Central to the Milky Way Garden’s approach is a connection to culture. There are 30 growers, many of whom are from Tibet, who have been growers for generations. Here, they can grow culturally appropriate food, share and learn from one another, and build a strong community network. Also fostered was an understanding and promotion of Indigenous land stewardship that centres caring for the earth and all its beings in a sustainable and thoughtful way.

These ideas from the Milky Way Garden were also wonderfully illustrated in the 1UP Design Competition presentations where student teams pitched their creative solutions to redesign the St. James Town Co-op’s Community Garden. The designs focused on fostering a sense of community through place, promoted inclusivity of diverse cultures, highlighted Indigenous knowledge, and designed for accessibility through languages used and spatial design. The designs ranged from building a sensory garden, to including QR codes for people to share recipes, to being designed around a Totoro cartoon — the creativity was endless! A hearty well-done to all those who participated, and congratulations to our winners! The future looks bright with this new generation of city-builders.

A screenshot of a Zoom conference with a presentation slide showing a painting of the Feed Change Market
Vanessa Ong from Littlefoot Community Project speaking about the Feed Change Market.

Vanessa Ong, another guest speaker, spoke about her work at the Littlefoot Community Project where she and her partner operate a small scale farm and market in Maryville, Ontario. Vanessa highlighted the connection between food and culture, as she spoke about growing bitter melons and future goals to write a cookbook with her mother to preserve generational knowledge. Vanessa’s previous academic work and her experiences as a farmer illustrate the barriers that racialized people face in accessing culturally appropriate food. We need to push for culturally specific food policies, and need to listen and learn from the experiences of racialized communities to create a more just food system that nourishes people and the land.

A screenshot of a Zoom conference with four panelists and a moderator
Panel discussion on food systems, moderated by Alex Walton

A central theme that emerged from the conference was the need to reimagine what the food system can look like through alternative spaces, such as community gardens and locally run markets. Alex Walton, an X University Urban Planning graduate student, chatted with four panelists who work within the food system to explore how we can build a better food system and what that might entail. The panelists, Gurbeen Basin, Rossen Lee, Gwenyth McCarthy, and Josh To, shared their experiences, knowledge and hopes with us, highlighting the multiple layers of food insecurity and innovative ideas to improve people’s food access. The panelists highlighted how we can look elsewhere, like Denmark or Cleveland, to build a better food system here in Toronto. Reimagine Cleveland, for example, is a community-pushed initiative that uses vacant city-owned lots as community gardens and has had a great deal of success. It provides people with space to grow the food that they want and gives them agency in their food sovereignty. In Toronto, however, communities often face outdated zoning by-laws that prevent innovative uses of land and hinder the development of community gardens. Nonetheless, building a more equitable food system is not impossible and we have a myriad of examples that promote a more sustainable, inclusive and equitable system.

A screenshot of a Zoom group photo
All smiles for our virtual group photo!

So what are some of the main takeaways from the conference? Get involved! Whether it be through lobbying the government for better policies, volunteering with local organizations already doing great work, or participating in design competitions that spark creativity and foster local pride in place. There are so many opportunities to get involved and make a difference. Change begins at the local level, and your voice matters.

Second, accessing culturally appropriate food is an issue in Ontario, and has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Providing alternative spaces to grow and share food offers communities an opportunity to grow the food that is important to them and holds their cultural stories. Like we saw in the Milky Way Garden, it doesn’t take much space to make great things happen. It was great to see the thoughtful interventions in the St. James Town Community Garden incorporating culturally appropriate food and recipes, as well as community building through the garden’s design.

Third, it’s important to recognize that those experiencing food insecurity are often racialized and low-income communities. If we are to work towards a more equitable and inclusive food system, we need to ensure the voices of those being most impacted are at the table so their needs can be better understood.

Lastly, don’t forget to cook and eat together a lot. Magic can happen when growing and sharing food together.

Thank you to the 1UP, Urban Minds and RUaPlanner team members that spent countless hours working towards creating such an engaging conference, to the guest speakers who agreed to participate and share their thoughts with us, and to our sponsors who generously supported us. Without your dedication and support, organizing such an event could not be possible. To the participants who joined us for the conference, we thank you for your interest and look forward to seeing you at future events.

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​We are creating meaningful ways for youth to shape equitable and sustainable cities.

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