Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 127: The Right to Food — with Paul Taylor

Speakers: Melissa Roach, Am Johal, Paul Taylor

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Melissa Roach  0:01 
Hi, I’m Melissa Roach with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by Paul Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto. Together, they discuss Paul’s work with FoodShare, the notion of the right to food and justice over charity, and the importance of electing policymakers that can represent the needs of the community. We hope you enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  0:37 
Welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week, I am very, very happy to be talking to an old friend and colleague who I met in Vancouver because he had just moved out from Toronto. But Paul Taylor, thank you so much for joining us today. Paul, I of course, met you when you were Executive Director of the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House, you had moved out from work you'd been doing in Toronto for a long time, you worked at the Gordon Neighborhood House here as well in Vancouver before returning to Toronto to work, but wondering if you can just... We can start by you introducing yourself a little bit?

Paul Taylor  1:20 
Sure, I would say... you know, I feel like every time I hear people introduce themselves, they start with all of the letters behind their name. And I make a conscious effort not to do that. Actually, even before I do that, I want to acknowledge that I'm a little further away, and I'm joining you from the traditional territory of the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, the Anishinabek and the Mississaugas of the Credit. Also, one of the things that's really important is I orient myself and think about where I am and what my responsibilities are as a result of the land that I'm on. But yeah, so a little bit about me. Yeah, I was gonna say that, I think the most important experience that I ever had in my life was growing up poor, and growing up in a low income household. That was often, you know, we certainly interacted with food insecurity for large portions of my childhood, we were without heat, hot water, electricity. And when I talked to people about this, they're always taken aback and they say, you know, "In Canada, in Toronto, really?" And I say, yes, you know, in one of the richest countries in the world, this was my family's reality. And I'm sure the reality for many, many families across the country. But yeah, that was the most I think, pivotal experience for me, and really, really formative. And I think, as a result of our material poverty, it forced us to have to interact with charity, really traditional charity, Food Bank lines, you know, models that are really built on other people's leftovers and corporate waste with little choice. You know, I remember getting holiday gifts in a bag marked "boy 8." You know, all of those things, and those experiences for me have really shaped who I am, as a person. And I remember as a child, one of the things that my mother always taught me was that, you know, if I wanted to see something change that I have to make it happen. So I really started—as I got a little bit older, really started understanding why we were living in poverty. You know, I learned that there was a Premier that cut welfare rates by 22%, and meant, we had less food and less money. So I really was a guess, activated at that point, and wanted to find ways that I could kind of challenge that. So I ended up finding a gig at a homeless youth shelter, where I think I spent five years there dreamed of creating something better, because I was invited into, I think a multi-tiered system or two tiered system where we think, you know, if you're materially poor, if you're homeless, you are only entitled to other people's leftovers and that sort of thing. So I worked with my colleagues to kind of re envision what it would mean to, you know, make the youth shelter a welcoming space, a space that provided opportunities to celebrate food, to engage with art, to engage with sport. So we actually found dollars to hire an art teacher, hire a physical activity and recreational programmer, we built a catering company and engaged young people in growing food at the shelter and cooking food. So I had a great experience there. But really realized that I was, you know, kind of challenging existing systems within the organization that I was working in. So I was really inspired when I ended up being hired to work at the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House, where I first met you. You know, what I loved about the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House is... I'm going into all the things that you probably want to ask me about.

Am Johal  4:31 
No, no, please, please. This is great. 

Paul Taylor  4:33 
Okay. What I loved about the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House is it was in, in a community where there was a significant number of people who were materially poor, who were homeless, who were street involved, survival sex workers, and what the organization was, was centered on was a right to food. So not a right to other people's leftovers, not a right to three legged carrots or ugly potatoes—a right to food. And that really, for me, responded to that thinking that I had done as a child about if we have a right to food or certain rights, what are the systems that are available to us to ensure that we have those rights animated? So I really liked that the organization engaged in meaningful conversations around poverty, and what it would mean to eradicate poverty, and it was an activist organization. So I, you know, really enjoyed my time there. Yeah. And then.

Am Johal  5:27 
And also at the Gordon Neighborhood House, you also worked around a lot of food related issues there. You continued building on that conversation, and this notion of the right to food, food justice, is a wonderful one to think through, because I think we sort of walk into that tension between charity and justice that functions in the nonprofit sector. I can remember, in Vancouver, when this CBC Radio would be doing a drive for the food bank, you were outside protesting that. And for a lot of people it's counterintuitive, because they think of that kind of model about the food banks doing this type of work. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more about what you mean about the right to food or food justice in terms of how you articulated it over the years, both from personal experience, but also in embodied in the type of work that you've done? 

Paul Taylor  6:20 
For sure. So I guess, the first thing is around the right to food. And I think it's a really important thing to tease out a little bit, because I realized more and more, that it seems that our policymakers, and maybe some bureaucrats, don't quite understand what the right to food is and what it isn't. And the right to food sets the government as the duty bearer, it is their duty. Canadians are rights holders, so we possess this right. It's the government's duty to create the conditions that allow people to access the food that they need to feed their families with food that's acceptable—culturally appropriate, you know, filled with nutrients, that sort of thing. So, you know, clearly when we have, in a country like Canada, over 5 million people that are food insecure, we have governments at actually every level that are not advancing the right to food and their obligations under the right to food. So I think that's a really important place to start these conversations, because often, it's people feeling a moral imperative to do something about, you know, the fact that your neighbors, our neighbors may not have food to eat, and we start collecting things. And we take on that responsibility. But I think it's really, really important to recognize that we don't have the capacity to address the issue that's allowed to get to the scale that it is. We're not going to, you know, solve food insecurity through collecting peanut butter and tuna and this sort of thing. So I think those folks who have engaged or who have been convinced that the solution to poverty and food insecurity is through charity, you know, those are the folks that I'm really interested in, in activating in a different kind of way and recognizing where responsibility rests, and actually working towards justice and tackling some of the inequities that that cause food insecurity to take place. And maybe the one last thing I'll add, when I talk about these inequities, we're talking about things like inadequate labour laws, inadequate minimum wages. 65% of people in this country that are food insecure actually derive their income from employment. So it means they are working and obviously working in jobs that don't afford them what seems to become the luxury of access to food. So I think that's where we've got to begin. And we've got to make sure that we're holding our elected officials to account to holding them accountable for their obligations under the right to food.

Am Johal  8:33 
Yeah, and it seems also that some food banks, depending on where you are in the country, require forms to be filled out and other types of intake mechanisms that can be really totally problematic in their in their premise. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the work that FoodShare is doing currently, where you're Executive Director, but also wondering if you can reflect on the real challenges of the of the pandemic moment over the past year and a half. Something that came in, has had so much effect on the ground all around how you have read the present political moment in terms of how you've tried to navigate it with an organization and how, when you reflect back on the types of policy changes you you mentioned a few right there, but what are the kinds of things that we need to be thinking about to get out of this into the future, given so many systems failed us in the pandemic context?

Paul Taylor  9:27 
That's a great question. So I guess I'll start with the work of FoodShare. And FoodShare's work, I would describe primarily as working to, working alongside communities across the city of Toronto, communities that have faced generational and chronic underinvestment. So we work with these communities to build community-led, resident-owned food infrastructure. So we're setting up things like affordable produce markets—that we call good food markets—we've helped establish 50 of them across the city. We work to convert underutilized public land, whether it's a hydro corridor, or a school field, into spaces for a community to grow food to sell food, and of course, purchase excess food. So ultimately, we're really focusing on building that infrastructure. We're also advocating. To an increasing amount, we are advocating for the systems-type change that we need, and I'll come back to that one in the end, around... Yeah, advocating for the types of policies that we think will ultimately address these issues of food insecurity and poverty. When it comes to the pandemic, I think there's, you know, at the onset, I was... You know, a gamut of emotions. First and foremost, you know, really feeling for people who have been profoundly affected by this pandemic, whether it's losing a loved one, losing work, not knowing when their work was coming back online. We have, at FoodShare, we responded by, you know, developing something that we call the emergency good food box, where we have a social enterprise—or previous to, prior to the pandemic, we had operated a social enterprise—that had a selling boxes of fresh produce to families across Toronto. So what we realized is with, with food banks, as the pandemic hit, we're seeing reports that something like 40% of food banks were forced to close. So we said, we have this fleet of vehicles, we have drivers, we have access to... we buy millions of pounds of produce each year. So we actually since the pandemic started, we've distributed for free over 2 million pounds of produce. And it's the equivalent boxes that folks would have gotten had they purchased a box from us. And what we did is we partnered with 80—actually, with about 90 groups across the city of Toronto working directly with communities that we know are typically most affected by food insecurity. And said to them, "We don't have any fancy forms, we don't require any information from the folks who you are wanting us to deliver the box to, just tell us the name and address." So we were able to deliver, like I say, thus far, but 2 million pounds of products for free across the city. So, you know, that's how we've responded. But I also... we also reflect on, you know, the opportunity also that this moment presents in a number of ways. We're partnering with these organizations who are wanting to respond to this crisis. And I guess the first concern that I had is that this is not unlike the early 80s, where folks were wanting to respond to another financial crisis. And this is when we saw the advent of Canada's first Food Bank. And we've just seen charity explode. So I was actually really concerned that organizations like mine, like others, were going to continue to allow governments to ignore their responsibilities by doing what we could to plug the gap. But what I was really actually excited about the more I had conversations, and the more we partnered with a new groups is there was a different kind of analysis bubbling up. It wasn't "Let's Let's feed these hungry people, full stop." It was let's nourish our community, let's fuel the revolution. And let's keep our eyes on the prize, which is this... the systems change that we're looking for, the public policy changes that we're looking for that won't cause people to fall behind like this. So that part's been really exciting. And I think when I think about the kind of public policy leadership that we feel, and I'm going to go back to the right to food and human rights, I think one of the things we see too often is people dangling a single policy out, whether it's basic income or building, or whatever it might be. And I think, you know, dangling a policy out in a vacuum, it's not really helpful. I think we need a human rights framework. We need legislation that advances our human rights, and we need to think about how government departments and ministries can be working together to advance our human rights. So maybe it is yes, basic income, but also building affordable housing, tackling anti-Black racism, anti-Indigeneity, introducing things like PharmaCare or nationalizing Big Pharma. The types of things that, you know, that people depend on should be accessible to folks. And I think that should be the framework that our elected officials should be operating from.

Am Johal  14:37 
Yeah, that's a really great point, Paul, just around the knee jerk reaction of governments to times of crisis, economic crisis, tends to be a movement towards restraint within one or two years. And I think these are the kind of policy areas we need to be looking at really closely. Wondering if you can speak a little bit to the provincial and civic scale of engagement around policy and and how you see some things that could be happening at that level, as well.

Paul Taylor  16:03 
So, when I think about... FoodShare operates out of Toronto, so I think about what's happening in Ontario. And ultimately, I think there's a war on low income people, there's a war on poor people, it's being waged by this provincial government in a similar way that it was waged by Mike Harris and his Conservatives in the 90s. So an example of that is, you know, when this Premier Doug Ford was elected, one of the first things he did was he scrapped the basic income pilot, he scrapped the planned increase from minimum wage, it was set to go to $15. At the time, it was 14. And as I said earlier, you know, we know that most of the folks that are food insecure are actually working. So increasing the minimum wage would have had a significant impact on people's ability to get closer to accessing the type of food that they need. I think one of the things that we're thinking about differently and doing a little bit differently is, we're not just calling on governments to do things like increase minimum wage, or bring money profit in terms of the provincial government bringing money to the table to support operating supportive housing, we're actually thinking about as an organization, how do we help inspire other organizations, and ultimately policymakers, dream in color, and people? So things like we recently introduced a new minimum wage for our organization. And that minimum wage is actually pegged at the living wage in the city of Toronto, which is $22.08. So it means of my, you know, over 120 colleagues, nobody is making less than $22.08. And I think, you know, we're doing that one, because we want to support our workers, and we believe that that is what they deserve. But also because we want to inspire and help people recognize that the kind of conversations that our provincial governments are having with us about, you know, $14 or $15, are actually inadequate, and that we have the power to demand something different. And it's actually urgent because people are not able to afford to live in the cities in which they exist. When it comes to the municipal level, you know, one of the things that we've been seeing a little bit in the city of Toronto is the lack of support for underhoused neighbors. The lack of support for folks who have no resort other than to living in encampments, in parks, you know? It really sheds light on whose public policy gets defended, and whose interest some of our governments are working under. Because what we see here is a desire to... It seems to me a desire to move or to relocate, displace folks who are occupying spaces in parks where they feel a sense of community, where they feel a sense of safety. I guess, overall, I just think, I think one of the solutions to all of this kind of thing is not only specific policies, but we actually think about who we're electing to represent us, and how the folks that we have historically elected don't really represent us. We don't have enough people with lived experience of poverty or low income folks, or low wage workers, survival sex workers, Indigenous folks, other racialized people, really occupying the bulk of the positions in our solution finding spaces. And I think that's one of the things that would go a long way in having our policymakers recognize the urgency and recognizing the class bias that currently exists in policymaking.

Am Johal  18:06 
Paul, what are some organizations or projects you're inspired by when you look at other cities or conversations around the right to food happening in other cities? I'm thinking about university students who might be listening to this, researching, like, where do you find inspiration right now and the work that you do?

Paul Taylor  18:24 
Yeah, so there are a couple of places. There's—the first one I think about is Nourish Scotland that's doing really great work to animate conversations around the limitations of charity, centering a justice approach, a rights based approach. And I think in the UK, this is especially important because there is a bit of a conversation happening there right now around deepening investment in charity, doubling down in food banking. And there's a growing number of people saying, "Well, wait a minute, this is not the road, we want to go down. Look at what's happened in Canada in the US." So I think it's a really important time. And they're animating a really important conversation. There's also a group that I'm a part of called the Global Solidarity Alliance. And it's a global solidarity alliance around health and the right to food, and we are doing similar work. And it's focused on, you know, organizations in wealthy countries that are doing the same pushback on charity as a response to food insecurity and poverty. And trying to help more folks in our countries recognize these limitations and that so that they can join us in holding politicians to account. So I feel like being a part of this network has been really helpful, because I hear about where, you know, groups like WhyHunger in New York, where they're having some success and where they're seeing uptake and interest in the conversation. And who else? Yeah, those are the, maybe the first few that come to mind.

Am Johal  19:46 
Paul, it's been delightful to speak with you. I'm wondering if there's anything you'd like to like to add?

Paul Taylor  19:52 
In summary, it's been delightful to speak to you, and to reconnect. And I really appreciate this invitation. And I just encourage everybody listening, to really take a moment to think about how much of what we've been told isn't possible. Really sit in that space and think about a world of possibility, instead of a world where we've had neoliberal politicians tell us that, you know, the types of justice that many of us are looking for, whether it's Disability Justice, climate justice, gender justice, racial justice... You know, that these things are possible. We just need political leadership on many of these things. And we need people power. People coming together to say that these things are important and that we demand that our political leaders prioritize them.

Am Johal  20:45 
Paul, so wonderful to speak with you. Thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. 

Paul Taylor  20:52 
Ah, such a pleasure. Thank you. I'll be happy to come back anytime. 


Melissa Roach  20:57
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Paul Taylor. You can find out more about his work, as well as the organizations mentioned, in the show notes below. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
June 29, 2021

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