Eliminating anti-Black racism—and food insecurity—starts at work

Individuals don’t experience food insecurity because they lack cooking skills, live too far from a grocery store, or that there isn’t enough food to go around. It’s because we’ve allowed food to become a commodity.

A nearly empty refrigerator rack with a lone can of food.
Photo by Enrico Mantegazza on Unsplash.

During my time as Executive Director at FoodShare, and in leadership positions in previous organizations, I’ve come to learn the importance of creating a work structure that not only dismantles systems of oppression, but also works to reduce wide-scale inequality. 

That’s why when people ask me to describe my work at FoodShare, they’re often surprised by my response. Indeed, our mission is to centre food justice in our operations and work towards addressing the primary drivers of food insecurity, such as income, race and geographical location. However, in addition to unpacking the systemic drivers that contribute to one of Canada’s fastest growing problems, particularly for Black and Indigneous communities — I more often than not, begin by talking about how we do our work. 

For instance, I might explain how we work to remove the barriers to employment facing people who’ve experienced poverty and food insecurity, who are essential when crafting solutions for improving our food system and the way we work together. The organization works to achieve this by de-prioritizing the need for paid credentials; conducting an anonymized resume review process, and providing full benefits to all staff on day one. Additionally, we created the Black caucus, a space created specifically for Black staff to connect and build community within our organization. For myself, this space has been especially helpful as I tried to process the brutal killing of George Floyd and the seemingly nonstop replaying of his murder. It was a space to share raw emotion, raise questions and seek/provide support. 

Finally, I might explain how we’ve implemented a fixed wage ratio of 1:3.7 between our lowest paid and highest paid worker. It means that as FoodShare’s Executive Director, my compensation is directly linked to the compensation of my lowest paid colleague. Our work to challenge runaway income inequality is something that we prioritize internally, as well as externally.  

Once I’ve finished my speech, I’ll usually hear some variation of “That’s wonderful, and don’t you also do the produce boxes?”

Yes, we do sell Good Food Boxes, which are boxes packed with beautiful fresh produce that we sell and deliver, to support our programs and initiatives. During Toronto’s growing season, we offer our Dismantling White Supremacy Good Food Box, which is loaded with local, organic produce grown by farms that are led or owned by folks that are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC).

We also help develop community-led farms in communities that have been chronically underinvested in, launch Good Food Markets in areas that have been denied access to fresh, culturally appropriate produce, and work with educators to run food justice programming in schools and community settings. But as an organization that seeks to address the root causes of poverty and food insecurity, it’s imperative that we reflect on our own foundations. Whose labour is powering our efforts? How can we best support them? And which communities aren’t yet represented in our staff, leadership, and programs?

This work is complex and nonlinear, and it requires us to be honest and accountable when we don’t achieve our desired results. Internally, far too often this work is done off the side of someone’s desk, using metrics and timelines that constantly shift, if any at all, and only prioritized when facing a PR crisis. This approach has the unfortunate impact of compounding internal inequity, and often causing lasting damage.

Externally, charitable food organizations often quantify their impact in the number of meals they serve, or the stacks of donated cans that their volunteers have sorted. However, I believe that the way we treat the people that we work with—both inside and outside our doors—is a far greater indicator of the impact we can have. 

Pushing back on commonly circulated notions about why people struggle to access food is imperative if we are to upend the insufficient charity model. Individuals don’t experience food insecurity because they lack cooking skills, live too far from a grocery store, or that there isn’t enough food to go around. It’s because we’ve allowed food to become a commodity, and now our access to fresh fruits and vegetables is dependent on our income. Of course, our ability to earn income is informed by a variety of additional factors—including systemic racism, patriarchy, colonialism, and ableism—and so it is fundamentally impossible to improve food security without addressing these factors. 

Food charity in its current form won’t eradicate anti-Black racism and food insecurity. Social solidarity certainly could. FoodShare’s model is rooted in building this solidarity, and in challenging the oppressive systems that cause food access inequities in our organizations, in our city, and beyond.

We can imagine a radically different world, and nonprofit organizations and charities can lead the way. Let’s start by looking inward.

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