Register Wednesday | February 28 | 2024
Good Eating

Good Eating

There are no Taco Bells in Vancouver. But this absence is a symbol of a bigger problem.

This is what I told my therapist last winter: I can’t have FOMO if I live in a city where I only have two friends. Since moving home after graduation, I’d become prone to sudden, aching bouts of loneliness. The pain was acute, rushing through me with a fury and ruining my day. 

It wasn’t that I had no friends—this is what confused me so. It had been around six months since I’d returned to Toronto from Kingston, and I’d built solid friendships that I could rely on, creating a social stability that I’d never really experienced before.  And yet an overwhelming sadness would overcome me, clinging itself to my ever-present anxiety, tag-teaming my brain into submission. I had a couple of friends out West who were in graduate school at the University of British Columbia, and the head office of the company I work for is out there as well. I believed I needed a reset, so I recruited another friend who was working from home while living with her parents, found a summer sublet for us on Facebook Marketplace and left for Vancouver.

Things did not turn out the way that I hoped. I was promised by many—friends, coworkers, strangers—that the weather in Vancouver miraculously shifts from drearily wet to gloriously mild in early May. This did not happen. It rained uniformly from when we arrived in April and then all the way through to June. The apartment, too, was failing to change my life for the better—it had a rug that shed massive hairballs whenever you walked on it, so the apartment floor was constantly covered with wads of brown fluff. There were many, many daddy longlegs and other creepy-crawlies cohabitating with us. Behind the thin drywall, the walls were made of cinderblock, leaving the apartment with a constant chill, inescapable to the point that both my friend and I bought space heaters for our rooms. Toward the end of the summer, a pungent stench began emanating from the kitchen area, which I believed to be from a dead animal in the vent. 

Outside, things weren’t much better. I’m not a very active person. I really like to sit. It’s my favourite thing to do. My most beloved activities are best done while sitting: reading, watching Whit Stillman movies, patronizing restaurants. Vancouver, it turns out, is not a city conducive to sitting, unless that sitting is taking a pit stop on a hike or during a road bike ride. Suddenly, I was trapped in a city full of people who wanted to “hike” and “camp” and “eat healthy food.” It quickly became oppressive—I had never thought that much about what I was putting into my body. I had never thought that much about my body, period. I had no interest in exerting myself more than necessary. What I was interested in was seeking out Taco Bell, my most reliable source of affordable comfort in times of strife.

As someone with OCD, my desire for the solace of Taco Bell in my new, strange city operated at a low thrum, whirring at the back of my mind constantly. But when I first tried to indulge myself, a few weeks after moving, I was shocked. There are no Taco Bells in Vancouver. There is one in Surrey, in Port Coquitlam, and in Langley, but none in Vancouver proper. This was an affront to my gastronomic sensibilities. I needed a Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme. The meal is one of the world’s modern marvels: it marries the cheesy, crunchy goodness of a Dorito chip with the total delight of a classic taco. And I couldn’t have one. I was upset. 

My pining for Taco Bell soon turned into confusion about the lack of affordable food options in the city at large. I wanted something cheap and greasy, oozing with preservatives and inauthenticity, but the real emphasis was on “cheap.” Everything in Vancouver was—and remains, though I don’t live there anymore—wildly expensive. My portion of the rent for a dark, damp and dingy basement apartment positively rife with critters was $1,250 even with a roommate, which is absurd. The groceries that I lugged up the hill back to my apartment from No Frills in lieu of cheap tacos were not only heavy, but began burning a metaphorical hole through my pocket as the summer bore on and Canada experienced record inflation on grocery prices. 

Vancouver has more healthy food outlets and fewer fast food joints than just about any other urban area in Canada, but at a certain point, it was less the deprivation of my favourite snack food that irked me and more the total lack of affordable food at all. The more time I spent ruminating on the unforgivable unavailability of either $3 tacos or affordable produce in BC’s biggest city, the more I started to understand the situation as a kind of avatar for the Canadian food situation at large.

Food insecurity is typically characterized in terms of a food desert: a neighbourhood that lacks a grocery store within walking distance for its residents. While living in Vancouver, it wasn’t the lack of grocery stores that was a problem for me—within a 1.5 kilometre radius of my apartment there were three grocery stores. The problem was an utter absence of reasonably priced food: in other words, I was living in a food mirage. It’s a term that refers to situations in which people technically have access to healthy food, but can’t actually afford to buy it, a growing problem in Canada. For at least the last decade, Vancouver’s municipal government has focused on encouraging more environmentally friendly and healthy food options in the city, but just increasing the number of farmers’ markets isn’t enough if people can’t actually afford to shop at them. In 2022, the price of groceries in Canada increased by 11 percent from the previous year, with fresh vegetables facing the greatest increase at 13.6 percent. Taco Bell might not exactly be the healthiest food around, but you can get a hot and filling meal there for less than the price of a bag of overpriced organic avocados. Policies that focus solely on increasing geographical access to food, rather than the fiscal and social conditions that lead people to be unable to afford it, or to rely on low-cost but relatively low-nutrition alternatives, are missing the point. We need some new approaches to fighting food insecurity that look beyond just what people are eating.

Food insecurity in Canada has been studied extensively over the past three decades, but Canadian government officials still see it “solely in terms of food banks,” says Valerie Tarasuk, a lead investigator at the interdisciplinary research program PROOF, which is based out of the University of Toronto but has a national focus. The program studies food insecurity and policies that have potential to alleviate it. PROOF advocates for an approach to food insecurity that moves the focus away from pushing people to use food charities and other non-profit food organizations, and toward strategies that provide sufficient financial support for people to eat and live adequately. 

While food banks do clearly provide some temporary relief to food-insecure households, they also require people to stand in long lines at irregular times of the day, in locations that may require long commutes, and many have limits on how many times they can be accessed by the same person per week or month. They also do little to relieve food mirages, as they don’t reliably provide access to nutritious food, and can cost someone more in terms of transit fares and lost time than just relying on fast food. 

Rather than expecting food-insecure people to spend all of their time trying to seek out food banks and non-profits—a difficult task if you are also working, have health issues, childcare duties or other care responsibilities—PROOF and Tarasuk believe that the best way forward is to simply give people the money that they need. It’s a policy that has already been shown to work: PROOF’s research has found that food insecurity is generally lower for Canadians older than sixty-five than for younger demographics, largely because of the social benefits that seniors can access.

“When you turn sixty-five, you become entitled to an old age pension, so we have an income floor for people over sixty-five, and we see that they have the lowest rate of food insecurity in the country,” says Tarasuk. In her view, raising the income floor is essential for ensuring food security in Canada, and can be achieved through policies such as childcare benefits, improved social assistance and increased minimum wage, as well as universal basic income for all (which has widespread support among Liberal delegates, but has yet to be embraced by the party itself).

The impact of social safety nets on food insecurity can already be seen across different provinces. Quebec, which has some of the highest levels of social support in Canada, seems to fare significantly better with regard to food insecurity than Alberta, which notoriously has very little in the way of government benefits. Over twice as many Albertans live in a severely food insecure household than those in Quebec, which Tarasuk attributes to the latter’s stronger social policies. 

“We’ve seen over the last few years of data that to live in Quebec is to be protected from food insecurity,” she says. “[It] speaks to a broader set of social values that permeate provincial decisions around benefits and programs, which insulate lower-income people in the province from hardship.” There are many facets that contribute to Quebec’s relatively low cost of living, but a historical focus on holistically supporting whole family systems through welfare and rent control seems to be part of the answer. Quebec’s child benefits have long been hailed as the best in the country, and it is crucially one of three provincial governments (along with New Brunswick and Yukon) in which social assistance is being adjusted in line with rising expenses. Since January 1, 2021, all basic social benefits are indexed against inflation and increase in line with the cost of living. The Quebec National Assembly is also currently considering indexing certain benefits twice a year to keep up with rising inflation rates. At a time when the price of a head of lettuce has increased by 30 percent over the course of a single calendar year, it is only natural for government benefits to be adjusted as well. It makes much more sense to put money and resources toward policies that enable people to afford food as part of full flourishing lives, rather than “putting it into food banks that [just] maintain the status quo,” says Tarasuk. When attempting to tackle food access in the long-term, it is vital to address the sources of the issue, rather than just providing stopgap solutions meant to assuage immediate hunger. 

Too often, the stopgaps and status quo are all that Canada seems willing to support. Federal government officials will use PROOF’s research to lend colour and context to their policies, but won’t implement any of the suggested solutions, says Tarasuk. In November 2022, the federal government opened a consultation for a National School Food Policy (NSFP), with the primary suggestion of providing breakfast for students at schools. While it’s undeniably true that children should be fed, the NSFP has met criticism from food justice organizations like PROOF for doing nothing to address why kids are hungry in the first place. 

“It’s a real drag to see [the government] appropriating these ideas to sell a policy that will not move the numbers of children living in food insecure households,” Tarasuk says. 

In an open letter to ministers, PROOF stated that the NSFP would do little to address the “broader experience[s] of financial hardship and material deprivation” that underlie food insecurity.  “Providing meals in schools is no replacement for ensuring that families have enough money to make ends meet,” they added. (A media representative for the NSFP program did not comment on whether PROOF’s solutions were considered, but acknowledged that “school meal programs on their own [are not] a solution to financial hardship or food insecurity” and pointed to other federal programs meant to support Canadians, like the Canada Child Benefit or Employment Insurance program.)

In turning the funding and attention away from the NSFP and instead redistributing energy and resources toward bolstering social assistance policies nationwide, low-income families who face increasingly dire levels of food insecurity could afford more than just breakfast. It’s a fairly obvious conclusion, but it is one that government agencies seem unwilling to put into action.

As food prices climb higher and higher, and there seems to be little political movement to ameliorate the circumstances of those in need, grassroots organizations increasingly take on the task of feeding people themselves, in whatever way they can. In Toronto, that includes lobbying for an update to the Toronto Food Charter, a little-known document that was meant to support Toronto’s transition to a city without food insecurity. Originally adopted unanimously by city council in 2001, the Charter was an expression of Toronto’s “national commitment to food security” and promised to “champion the right of all residents to adequate amounts of safe, nutritious, culturally-acceptable food without the need to resort to emergency food providers.”  In theory, that looked like implementing policies to encourage community gardens and support urban agriculture, but how committed the city was to the Charter is unclear—it never seemed to receive adequate funding, and eventually seemed to peter out completely. 

Now, local food justice organizations are pushing for an updated charter that meaningfully delivers for its citizens, with an emphasis on the marginalized residents hit worst by food insecurity. Groups like FoodShare Toronto, which has a mandate of challenging “the systemic barriers that keep people from accessing the food they need to thrive,” are in the midst of a campaign to get Toronto City Council to adopt a charter that acknowledges the outsize impact of food insecurity on those most vulnerable to it: Black, Indigenous, and other racialized residents, people with disabilities and renters. FoodShare wants people not only to be able to adequately feed themselves, but to be able to do so with dignity and joy—something that the experience of accessing food charity doesn’t really allow for. “Everyone deserves to have food that makes them feel well and good and allows them to thrive,” says Moe Pramanick, one of FoodShare’s community organizers. “Not just the bare minimum to get by.”

The details of the new food charter are still under consultation, but FoodShare and other organizations want the city to recommit to its old goals, ensuring that people not only have a right to food, but a right to grow their own food and to know where their food is coming from. The issue is likely to be discussed with city council later this year, but Pramanick and others want real dedication from their political representatives to aiding food access in Toronto, not just lip service. The next step is to ensure that “the accountability piece is there, making sure that there’s a meaningful consultation process, and that it’s not just for show,” says Pramanick.

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, food justice groups are taking on the task of trying to create equitable food infrastructure themselves. The Farm-to-Plate Marketplace is a group that directly connects Vancouver residents with farmers so that they can access locally-sourced food and offers subsidies to those who might need them. Founder Anthony Csikos notes that the produce at typical farmers’ markets is reserved for people who are “very much passionate about local food” and are willing to pay high prices for it, which does nothing to improve access to high-quality food for people who may struggle to afford even non-organic groceries. Under the group’s model, consumers shop at a  “virtual farmers’ market” on the Farm-to-Plate website, which connects community members with local food growers. They can then either pay for their food in its entirety, utilize a subsidy to reduce their bill, or choose the pay-it-forward option, which lets customers both pay for their own food and donate a subsidy that can be used by other customers. While there is still a charity aspect at play, making sure that everyone has access to the same food options helps reduce the divide between “food for rich people” and “food for poor people.” It’s a model that Csikos hopes can promote dignity in food shopping while also encouraging camaraderie and connections within the local community—the organization calls on residents to host distribution centres at their homes.

The idea came to Csikos after working an internship related to the decentralization movement and cryptocurrency. He was moved by the concept of redistributing power to individuals, and figured that this knowledge could be applied to solving tangible, real-world problems such as food insecurity. Pre-pandemic, this impulse manifested itself in trying to bridge the gap between local farms and restaurants. But after everything shut down during the early months of Covid-19, Csikos realized that there was more potential in connecting individuals to farms directly, bringing the produce that they sought straight to their neighbourhoods. He sought out and partnered with some local organizations with strong community connections, like the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, Jewish Family Services, and Little Mountain Neighbourhood House, and Farm-to-Plate Marketplace was born.

“Being food insecure is a full-time job,” says Csikos. Food charity organizations not only require significant time and effort to access, but also constantly reinforce a dynamic in which low-income people should simply be grateful for whatever food is tossed their way, regardless of quality or preference. He says that advocating for more financial support for non-profits “is a delicate line because, obviously, you always need more funding in non-profits, and [yet] I see a lot of that funding going toward charity models, which I don’t think are effective, or long-term sustainable.” A universal system, as Csikos wants to encourage, instead offers a food shopping experience “where it’s not just for the rich, it’s not just for the poor, it’s for everybody.” He hopes to reinforce the idea that access to high-quality, locally-sourced food isn’t something that should be delineated by income, but simply available to all.

A craving for Taco Bell might not be the most traditional route into thinking about food insecurity—it can’t meaningfully compete with locally-sourced fruits and veggies if we’re looking for nutritional value. But food justice organizations like Farm-to-Plate, FoodShare and PROOF have more in common than just a desire to get people fed—they support models of food access that promote choice and freedom. Without sufficient policies in place to provide access to affordable healthy food, products like a $3.49 Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme, though rife with chemicals and covered with questionable cheese dust, become invaluable for actually keeping you full throughout the day. 

Healthy, eco-friendly food like Vancouver has in abundance is great, but if it’s not meaningfully available to hungry people, then it’s not really doing its job as food. I am young, I am educated, I have a well-paying job, I have no real expenses other than rent, I have no dependents,  and yet I still felt the economic squeeze of overinflated grocery prices while in Vancouver. Moving back to Toronto hasn’t solved the problem either—right now, food is the most expensive that it’s been in forty years. I might be able to go and grab myself a Crunchwrap Supreme when I’m feeling down, but filling my fridge on a regular basis remains a little anxiety-inducing.

Policies that promote nutritious, farm-fresh food without meaningfully making that food accessible only further amplify the inequalities that cause food insecurity in the first place. Sending wealthy people to farmers’ markets and poorer people to food banks while everyone in the middle feels squeezed is not a sustainable path forward for Canada’s food issues. Food should be affordable, nutritious and accessible—or at least, we should have all these options available to us. Some days what we want may be a home-cooked meal with the freshest and most organic produce, others it will be a Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme. The actual food of it all doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you can afford it and access it. ⁂

Alexa Margorian is a writer from Toronto. Her work has appeared in Slate, Streets of Toronto and This magazine. She is working on her debut novel. You can find her online @alexamargorian.