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Vinita: From The Conversation, this is Don’t Call Me Resilient, I’m Vinita Srivastava.
Tabitha Robin Martens: Our food system has been deliberately decimated and food has been used as a means to control us for so long. And really, food was the means of the colonization of Canada.
Vinita: A lot of us think of Canada as a wealthy nation, but for many people across the country, access to healthy, affordable food is a real struggle. According to recent stats, one out of every eight households in Canada are food insecure. For racialized Canadians, that number increases to two to three times the national average. And for Black and Indigenous households, that number jumps even higher. Almost 30 per cent of Black households and 50 per cent of Indigenous households experience food insecurity. The pandemic has only made things worse. Like shelter, food is a basic necessity of life. It provides the calories and nutrients we need to survive, and food is also connected to our mental health, our culture and families and our sense of self. But our food systems are failing to feed all of us. Today, we’re going to pick apart what’s broken and talk about ways to fix it with two women who have been battling this issue for years. Tabitha Robin Martens is a mixed ancestry Swampy Cree researcher and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems. When she’s not writing and teaching about Indigenous food sovereignty, she spends her time on land, working with her people and learning traditional Cree food practices. And Melana Roberts is a food policy expert and food justice advocate and the Chair of Food Secure Canada. She recently led the charge to help create North America’s first municipal Black food sovereignty plan at the city of Toronto.
Vinita: Welcome Melana.
Melana Roberts: Thanks. Glad to be here.
Vinita: And welcome, Tabitha.
Tabitha: Hi, so happy to be here. Thank you.
Vinita: Melana, I want to start with you because I know that you just had this big victory at city hall in Toronto. As a consultant, you helped lead the way to get Canada’s first Black food sovereignty plan in place. So congratulations on making that happen, and I want to talk about the details of the plan, but I want to address first, why is such a plan necessary? What was broken? And I’m hoping that you can paint a picture of what things have been like.
Melana: Yeah, thanks for the question and the interest. Before getting into it, I feel like it’s really important to just ground where I’m coming from. And so I am based living and working in the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, as well as many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis people who have really been the stewards of much of my initial understanding around sovereignty and work on this land in this place. And I think I’m also a product and a proud ancestor of many Afro-descended people who came to Canada, including a long line of strong matriarchs who really grounded my understanding and the importance of freedom in multiple contexts and understanding liberation and of the various systems of oppression that have kind of led me to feel deeply connected to this work. So in terms of thinking about why this plan is so important and how we got here, I think in the context of Black communities, particularly in Toronto, but in Canada broadly, I think we need to look at the food insecurity situation. So the pandemic really was, you know I hate to say it, but a window of opportunity because it really shone a stark light for the average Canadian, the average person who wasn’t necessarily engaged in food work. I mean, Tabitha might agree, that a lot of this stuff was no shock to folks who do this in their day in, day out. But we’ve had the highest food insecurity rates in Canada that we’ve ever seen ever. And when we look at Black communities, these rates are a lot higher. Similarly to Indigenous communities than the average Canadian Black family saw 3.5 times the rate of food insecurity, even before the pandemic, when compared to white families, and that includes things like 36.6 per cent of children living in food insecure households that are Black. We saw high food insecurity rates that have been linked to chronic diseases, so diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, linked to depression. In poor health and education outcomes broadly for children and youth, and increasingly those things have also been shown to have more severe cases of COVID-19.
Vinita: You know, I hear you saying you have this list, right? I think people, I mean that some people think, well, food insecurity means we are hungry or people are hungry. And what you’re saying is the implications are just so far reaching.
Melana: Absolutely. I mean, even just take it back from, you know, when you think about people in the first memories that have, you know, growing up, it’s often or the deep connections they have to their grandparents, their family, it’s often linked to food, right? Food is so much more than just nutritional content. It is linked to our well-being. I mean, the other day, a Black activist, Wendie Poitras, who is based in Nova Scotia, said to me, “Food is the first fight,” and I just thought it was such a powerful way to understand why, when we start to tackle those challenges, we start to tackle so much more than food insecurity. You start to tackle how people are connecting to the land, to culture, to history, to community. And so that’s part of why Food Security Initiative and particularly a Black food sovereignty plan, was such a critical step and a win not only for myself, but for many of the Black activists and organizations who have been calling for this type of shift — long before I had the privilege of working with many of them to pull together a plan.
Vinita: And Tabitha, what are some of the things that you’ve been seeing and hearing? Like, what does that look like?
Tabitha: Thinking about what Melana said, like food is the first fight, like many people don’t realize that colonization and the desire to colonize the lands of Canada, were done so in order that early colonizers would be the indigenous peoples of this land. That was the desire, and in order to do that, they had to remove Indigenous bodies from the land. Like we had to be killed. And one of the mechanisms for doing that was starvation. And you can trace starvation over 300 years and most acutely over 150 years. And the history of that, the patterns of that starvation have never left and are still very present in Indigenous communities. And so really, food insecurity for Indigenous people is based on this colonial infrastructure. And a challenge that I have with food security is that it doesn’t address the power inherent in food. And for Indigenous people, that power has been used to control us, to manipulate us, to get rid of us. And so my work really focuses on a food sovereignty lens because food security fails to consider the power dimensions of food. And for communities of colour, that power dimension is one of the most important parts of our lives, whether we’re aware of all of the systemic ways that implicate this desire to keep us essentially unwell or under control or under-resourced.
Vinita: So to make sure I understand, the food sovereignty lens takes into account power and systems of power and access to land.
Tabitha: Yes, absolutely. And a big challenge for food security interventions is that they don’t challenge those systems of power. And so essentially, food security interventions continue to be Band-Aid solutions because we’re not addressing all the underlying issues, we’re not addressing that infrastructure.
Vinita: You know, the two pandemics that we’re talking about — the pandemic and the racial reckoning that we experienced last summer and how that has exposed and also exacerbated many of the inequities in our society. I’m wondering, how have you seen it affect access to nutritious food in your communities? And I mean, Tabitha, could you talk a little bit about that?
Tabitha: So there are myriad challenges, and I won’t be able to quite do it justice. This is so complex, right? We’re really looking almost at a spiderweb and if you tug at each strand, it’s it reverberates and is interconnected throughout. But I can talk about a few challenges. So one of those challenges for Indigenous communities, specifically reserve-based Indigenous communities, occurred around lockdowns. So what that has, of course, looked like is that when communities are in lockdown, special circumstances have to take place in terms of how food is transferred to remote First Nations communities, for example. So that poses a challenge. The third intersecting crises, or I think climate change is more of an epidemic, that has been layered on to this time. So for an Indigenous food system, we’re not really talking about just the physical components of food, right? We’re not just talking about the carrots or the moose. We’re talking about the systems and practices and processes that are embedded within our culture that give us direction in terms of how we eat and why we eat and how we celebrate food. And so we’re seeing fissures and breakdowns in family structures, in abilities to share food, in access to food. And then, of course, the underlying piece is this shaky ground, this instability that comes from poverty. So there are so many parts and pieces here that affect the ways that Indigenous peoples eat, and those, of course, were heightened during the pandemic.
Vinita: Melana, how about the communities that you work with? How did things get worse during COVID?
Melana: Yeah, I think that’s a really important question, and I really appreciate you hearing this idea of networks and the importance of that. So in the context of Black residents, Black communities in the city of Toronto and across Canada, even the statistics showed that some of that, particularly in the first kind of wave of the pandemic, a lot of the job losses that were seen were of Black women. They saw some of the highest job losses. And often, you know, statistics have shown that women are really the number of single households that are particularly impacted by food insecurity and more vulnerable to that who saw their income just completely fall away. And that’s a critical piece in determining whether someone has the agency, the ability to buy food. And so we saw this huge demand of folks who weren’t able to access food often lived in areas that Karen Washington terms food apartheid. So areas that are not food deserts, which are a natural phenomenon, the idea of connecting it to deserts with this idea of policy and decisions that have made it an area where there’s not a lot of grocery stores in that area.
Vinita: And so, the idea of a food apartheid is like, this is a purposeful division.
Melana: Yeah, purposeful division and planning decisions that negatively often impact low income communities, racialized communities in urban centres with less access to infrastructure and resources that would make food access easier. And so when you compound those challenges, we saw that there was a huge demand of the Black population to access food. And I think we have a number of organizations in the city of Toronto who provide culturally appropriate food specifically focussed on the Black community. And they were overwhelmed. The African Food Basket is an example of one of those strong longtime leaders here and just overwhelmed with the demand and couldn’t keep up. So we saw a number of grassroots organizations pop up, and when we saw funds being deployed to support these communities with resources to be able to deliver fresh produce and culturally appropriate food in those neighbourhoods, often those small, grassroots, community-based initiatives that were providing the support and addressing that need weren’t able to even access grants because they weren’t a charity or they weren’t at the designation of a non-profit. And so we saw the overworking, the burnout of those workers within the system, who themselves are often being vulnerable to being food secure, have increased susceptibility of contracting COVID because they’re out there in the frontline supporting community and not being able to meet that high demand of residents who were really struggling in this moment. So the importance of networks and relying on the community gardens, they were often closed during the pandemic, not even being able to have those additional backup resources that connect people, give them the power to be able to address shortfall in these moments.
Vinita: What were some of the ways that people came together to figure things out at this time? Like you said, some community gardens were shut down. Are they back up and running, for example? Or are you seeing things that are working?
Melana: So I think a number of different interventions. I think in this moment, we really did see people rally together. And one of the things that really struck me is the number of grassroots organizations that provide other types of services, so supporting women against gender-based violence. So, for example, with FoodShare Toronto, who was able to act as kind of an anchor, being able to distribute funds and food to these organizations to deliver them in different areas targeting populations who saw serious food insecurity during the pandemic. And so I think that that was some of the innovation leveraging those networks to be able to provide those supports. I think we also saw a lot of advocacy. So a lot of people recognizing the importance of farmers markets as key areas to be able to access fresh food and the closure of them creating a lot of challenges, not only for once again residents, but also for those farmers and particularly for Black farmers. It’s hard enough to be successful in farming and to be able to have those inputs as a racialized person, let alone Black farmers who are underrepresented within the agricultural space. And so not being able to sell their food and with the very niche market of providing cultural foods, the pandemic can be really challenging. So different approaches to help people transition, to be selling food online as a touchpoint to be able to connect with more folks was also an innovation we saw. And through some advocacy, we also saw farmers markets open up mid-pandemic, being recognized as a key space for people.
Vinita: Tabitha, how about you? Did you see similar kinds of innovations or community work on the ground?
Tabitha: Yes. One of the most exciting parts of my job is the way that folks are rolling up their sleeves and they’re getting onto the land and taking the responsibility to feed each other again. So various initiatives, like community freezer programs. In some communities, hunters were asked to go out onto the land and stock freezers within the community or stock elders’ freezers. There was a strong mobilization of Indigenous peoples that were really working to make sure that the elders were protected because the loss of the elders, and many died through the pandemic, but that’s a significant loss to an Indigenous food system because the elders really have the roadmaps for what our food systems can look like again. And so other initiatives, like medicine picking, where communities were sending people out into the bush or individuals were taking their own initiative to go out into the bush and pick lots of Labrador tea, for example, which is an important medicine during the pandemic. It’s often used for colds and flus, and we’re sending those to communities that were in lockdown, for example. So all of those initiatives in which we start to take care of each other again. I mean, that’s the work that makes my heart swell, and that’s the work that I think will fundamentally change our food system so that we can go back to a system where we feed each other again, where we both feed ourselves, but feed each other. But there are a lot of political pieces to what happened in the pandemic as well. I was part of a group that when the government announced the $100 million for food banks … Indigenous, there were activists and knowledge holders and elders and doctors. We got together to say, can some of that money be directly funded towards Indigenous communities? So like direct funding, rather than the funding come through other avenues that eventually trickle their way to our communities. Can we direct fund communities? So if a community says we want to create a freezer program where we’re stocking up freezers full of wild meats and wild fish, can we fund those directly? But unfortunately, the government felt that we were not in the position to be able to effectively distribute those funds and that we didn’t have a track record. And so the money ended up going to breakfast clubs and to food banks. And the challenge with that, of course, is that we continue systems in which outside parties are feeding Indigenous people, and that’s what got us in this mess in the first place. Our food system has been deliberately decimated and food has been used as a means to control us for so long. And really, food was the means of the colonization of Canada. And we see that further exemplified through residential schools in which children were punished for speaking their language, in which children were also experiencing malnutrition and starvation. So these patterns sort of occur over and over again, and what we wanted to see in the pandemic was Indigenous peoples responding to ourselves, you know, being able to come together in a community capacity to meet each other’s needs and so to support and work with each other. But we weren’t successful with that. And so there’s a lot of challenging pieces to this, but ultimately what we’re after is our ancestral and traditional food systems that allowed us to take care of one another. The elders say feasting is one of the highest ceremonies in our culture, and part of feasting is the gift of food. And one of the best ways that we can take care of each other is to feed each other at such a foundational principle. Certainly in my own Cree culture, but I know from working with other Indigenous communities that it’s similar, that we really wanted to get back to that. But we’ve always been innovative, I will say, and resistors and have found ways to kind of step outside of those systems and go back to how we can feed each other again. But there’s a lot there’s still a lot of colonial infrastructure that’s in place that prevents us from doing that.
Vinita: You both mentioned food banks, and I think when people think about, you know, solutions to hunger, we think food banks as somewhere near the top of the list and you mentioned the Canadian government putting a lot of money towards that. What is the role of food banks? Melana?
Melana: Yeah, the best food banks say that they are working to put themselves out of business. This is not, food banks are not a long-term solution. And so at the same time, I say it’s complicated because in this moment, because of the vast and dire nature of food insecurity, we’re talking about people’s lives, people having the sustenance to get from day to day, and people are truly dependent on that system. And so I think they are meeting an immediate need. But I think what we really need to think about is how do we start to put the solutions in place through bringing and providing the adequate resources and spaces, whether it be for Indigenous nations, whether it be for Black communities, other racialized communities, other communities that are experiencing challenges, bringing an understanding of how a sovereignty lens can support them to be able to address these needs themselves and start to address those barriers. So, yeah, I’d that I’d love to hear how Tabitha would explain that. But yeah, it’s a complicated issue with food banks.
Tabitha: It’s very complicated, and I don’t want to deny the value of food banks and keeping people fed and alive. But at what cost? You know, we know that food banks as a charity model are considered dumping grounds for less desirable food, and we also know that many of those less desirable foods are linked to the high prevalence of diseases such as diabetes. And so it’s also about like the right food that we’re eating. And for Indigenous people, it’s really about this reclamation of our ancestral food system that includes hunting and fishing and trapping. Food banks, of course, can’t meet those needs. And for most First Nations communities, food banks are not an option because they’re too remote and they are not food banks located on each and every reserve. So that leaves out on-reserve populations entirely. And this notion of dependence that Melana talked about, I mean, that’s part of the architecture of colonialism was this desire to make Indigenous peoples in particular dependent on food. That was the means for the colonization of Canada, and it’s how many Indigenous chiefs signed treaties so that they could alleviate the hunger in their communities. So in many ways, we’re perpetuating the same ideas of the past. We think we’ve come a lot farther away from those, but they just look different now. But it’s certainly more insidious. So I understand and I respect the role that food banks play because we want people to live. But I also want us to get to a point where we stop treating food security with Band-Aid solutions because we aren’t moving the dial at all in that approach.
Vinita: So let’s spend a little time then, because we want to talk about what needs to be done. You want to move the dial and we want to move forward. So we talked a little bit about what food justice looks like, but what does it look like? I know both of you are working, Tabitha, your focus is more the western part of the country. Are you seeing changes happening, local government or provincial policy in their approaches towards food sovereignty for Indigenous people?
Tabitha: This is so interesting. Last year, someone asked me this question if I could talk about the changes. I’ve been doing this work for 11 years and they said, “I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the positive changes that you’ve seen as regards to government supporting this,” and I couldn’t think of a single thing. The most positive change that I am seeing is Indigenous communities taking this work on themselves and saying, we know this system is broken. We know we’re not going to be fed in the ways that we need to, and so we need to circumnavigate the system and do it ourselves. I think that one of the biggest challenges for our market-based food system in Canada is that we have done a really successful job of separating food from the land. And that is problematic because if we don’t at a household level, at a societal level understand that food comes from the land, then the government can get away with resource extraction at the levels that they are. And we don’t we haven’t yet made those those causal links to say, hang on. And I think many Indigenous communities in Western Canada are doing that with resistance against pipelines or with resistance against hydro development. You can’t alter and poison our lands. How will we live? I really wish that all of Canada would activate around this notion that food comes from the land for all of us and that the rate at which we are seeing climate change and that the rate at which resource extraction is taking place and the ways that we have valued capitalism over almost everything else is so deeply problematic and shortsighted that we are leaving our future generations with quite a mess.
Vinita: So in some ways, what I’m hearing you say is that local and provincial governments need to get out of the way. You know, the circumnavigating that you’re seeing that’s happening, that governments need to make room for that and maybe fund it so that people don’t experience the kind of vulnerability and burnout you mentioned?
Tabitha: Yeah, I mean, that’s a whole other piece to this that has not even necessarily been factored in. And that is problematic, especially with food security interventions, is that we expect people, you know, through the introduction of community gardens on reserves or other food programming, we expect all of that work to be done for free on top of everyone’s day-to-day job. We just don’t value food work in the way that we should, and that’s something that COVID has certainly shined a light on is the fact that we just don’t value our food workers, even our grocery store workers, in the ways that we should be.
Vinita: Melana, as we mentioned in the beginning, you’ve actually had real success in doing some groundbreaking policy work in helping to pass the first Black food sovereignty plan for the city of Toronto, the first of its kind, I think in North America.
Melana: And this plan is really trying to do a lot more than just address food insecurity, but to really draw on the structural levers and the role that I think the city of Toronto has been able to play in championing Black food leadership, which is really you have to see this plan as a community-led plan that’s facilitated by the city. Starting off with this idea of ensuring that Black-led, Black-serving organizations that are really at the forefront of this work are adequately resourced to be able to respond to this day to day food insecurity, crises and challenges to be able to do this work in a way that doesn’t lead to burnout. In addition to that, also ensuring, you know, in an urban context that the city is providing access to green and growing space in neighbourhoods with high Black populations. So, you know, before the pandemic and before the plan, it was very clear that in neighbourhoods with the highest Black populations, we saw the lowest access to green space and the city tree canopy cover. And you know, there’s been lots of links to that with mental health challenges and challenges during the pandemic as well. So ensuring that there is growing space that people can access and thrive in regards to urban agriculture as a key kind of tool to support food and security interventions. Thinking about our health system. So when we’re thinking about health, often times it’s just adequate nutritional intake of foods. We’re really understanding the importance of culturally appropriate food and of the long legacies of trauma and intergenerational racism and poverty that actually impact our health just as much as having the right foods to eat and the role of anti-Black racism in perpetuating poor health outcomes. And how we can bring those lenses into food programs, health programs to be able to to serve Black residents more adequately and increase access to infrastructure. So we have community kitchens across the city, different programs and initiatives just for businesses and Black businesses are often have challenges and access. Black youth in those neighbourhoods have challenges to access the spaces, so opening them up. And we’ve been able to partner even with museum sites that have land working with local Indigenous groups who’ve been addressing food security challenges among those populations to be able to increase their access to museum spaces with kitchen space and growing space to develop traditional gardens, responding with medicinal plants and other interventions supporting those communities. And in addition to that, of course, having increased food spaces so Black food hubs, food markets and other cultural spaces that improve access to food directly in those communities. So those are some of the types of pillars and interventions that have laid the roadmap to create a more sustainable Black food ecosystem in the city of Toronto that has really been identified directly by Black communities and built to develop and deliver a plan.
Vinita: I understand Tabitha, as you said, it’s a spider web and there’s so much that we could cover. Guys, thank you. You couldn’t see me and I also try and keep myself quiet because what you’re saying is so amazing, but I was nodding a lot. Thank you so much for such a rich conversation.
Tabitha: Thanks for asking important questions about it.
Melana: I want to thank you. I think, you know the space to have this conversation. Being able to learn and be in conversation with Tabitha is a real honour and always something that I learn from.
Tabitha: And I feel the same way Melana and I really love seeing the ways that we are pushing back against this notions that have divided marginalized groups historically in which we’ve been told that we can’t come together because we’re in competition with one another and that we should be so happy with the scraps that we receive. So I’d love to see the ways that you’re pushing back against that and that we’re working with each other.
Vinita: That’s it for this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient, and that’s actually it for our season. Thank you so much for listening. I learnt so much today from Melana and Tabitha about how to talk about food sovereignty. And I’d love to hear what you’re thinking after that conversation. I’m on Twitter @writevinita. And don’t forget to tag our producers @conversationca. You can use the hashtag #DontCallMeResilient. And if you’d like to read more about food sovereignty, you can go to www.theconversation.com. We have all kinds of info in our show notes with links to stories and further research. And if you haven’t already listened, there are 11 other episodes in our feed. Please go and have a look around. There are so many amazing voices on this pod. Finally, if you like what you heard today, please tell a friend about us. And believe it or not, those positive reviews motivate us to keep going. So please leave us a review on whatever podcast app you’re using.
Don’t Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. It was made possible by a grant for journalism innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. Our producer is Susana Ferreira. Our associate producer is Ibrahim Daair. Reza Dahya is our incredibly patient sound producer and our fabulous consulting producer is Jennifer Moroz. Lisa Varano leads audience development for The Conversation Canada and Scott White is our CEO. And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called “Something in the Water.” Thanks for listening, everyone, and hope you join us again. Until then, I’m Vinita. And please, don’t call me resilient.