A hothouse plan to help city’s hungry

Food Report

Toronto is brimming with food. People are not going hungry because there is a lack of food. They’re hungry because they’re poor.

Food banks and emergency shelters are strained to breaking points, and the homeless are proliferating, because the poverty rate in the city has more than doubled in the past ten years, and now, according to the National Council on Welfare, those who are the poorest of the poor are growing in numbers at an alarming rate.

Ignore, for the moment, that last year’s United Nations Human Development Report said despite serious flaws, Canada ranked better than any other place in the world to live. That speaks more to the lamentable state of the world. The fact is that Toronto, given its poverty and hunger, is not a sustainable community.

In hopes of dealing with this situation, the city’s Food and Hunger Action Committee has just published an action plan containing 38 recommendations. « Prevention,’’ it says, « makes better sense than disaster relief.’’ It adds that, « hunger and chronic undernourishment’’ are best addressed by advocating policies that would « ensure food security in Toronto.’’

The committee was established by city council 14 months ago. Its plan offers a two-pronged approach. It suggests a variety of ways to increase the amount of money poor families have available for food, and it has a number of suggestions for lowering the cost of food for the poor.

I find the report at its most innovative in its recommendations for lowering food costs.

For instance, it says community gardens could operate in greenhouses over the winter and reduce heating costs by composting garbage — a low-tech, low-cost approach.

Compost creates heat as it decomposes. It also gives off carbon dioxide, which can be used to speed the growth of plants. And, says FoodShare, the city agency dedicated to reducing hunger in Toronto, it diverts garbage from landfills.

« Toronto has 44 greenhouses in public and private ownership,’’ the action committee report says. « Some are used for only part of the year. Toronto could, in partnership with greenhouse managers, make greenhouse space available in which community groups could start growing food.’’

It also notes that Toronto has about 150 hectares of vacant land formerly used by industry, « where (commercial) greenhouses could go,’’ and it uses Buffalo as an example of what can be done.

In Buffalo, it says, « Village Farms, Inc. is using hydroponics to grow vegetables in a 7.3-hectare greenhouse on the site of the former Republic Steel Co…. The greenhouse operation has created 100 full-time and 35 part-time jobs. Many of the jobs have been filled by former welfare recipients who live in downtown Buffalo.’’ Heat from a nearby electricity generating station keeps the greenhouse warm.

The result is fresher produce than what could be transported from California, or Mexico, elimination of pollutants from long-distance trucking, especially greenhouse gas emissions, creation of local jobs, food prices that are competitive or lower than those for trucked-in food, and the transformation of derelict lands.

If Toronto ever gets around to building methane digesters to dispose of its organic garbage, it could do the same — use the methane as fuel to power an electricity generating station, and channel some of the heat produced into greenhouses.

Equally innovative is a suggestion for bulk buying of food to achieve volume discounts. « A random survey of 30 Toronto agencies and community groups indicated a high level of interest in being part (of bulk-buying),’’ the report says.

There even is an existing bulk-buying organization that could be used, namely the provincially-sponsored Shared Services Bureau which collectively buys for correctional institutions, the Ontario Fire College, and the Ontario Police College. According to the report, bureau staff are keenly interested in serving the city.

Innovative ideas, however, are not enough. There needs to be political will, and it needs to be exercised at all three levels of government. Surely, if the three governments can collaborate on a sporting spectacle — the Olympic bid — they can collaborate in grappling with this very good report.

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