“When you’re Black, you’re at greater risk of everything that sucks”: FoodShare’s Paul Taylor on the links between race and food insecurity
FoodShare, a non-profit devoted to improving Torontonians’ access to nutritious food, has distributed more than 300,000 pounds of fresh produce to low-income families since the beginning of the pandemic. Toronto Life spoke to its executive director, Paul M. Taylor, about how childhood poverty affected him, why food insecurity disproportionately affects Black people, and the need for race-based public health data.
As told to Andrea Yu
“My mother immigrated to Toronto from St. Kitts in 1972. Four years later, she had my older brother, and I was born six years after that, in 1982. She raised us in a three-bedroom house near Lansdowne and Bloor, which she bought with a small amount of money she inherited from her father, plus her earnings from her job as a nursing home aide. The house was directly across the street from the bus garage—what I used to call “where the TTC buses go to sleep”—and next door to a smelly factory that processed cow, pork and fish animal parts into gelatin. At that time, that was a part of the city that wasn’t desirable for most people. When the roof of our home caved in about 10 years after we moved in, we couldn’t afford to repair it.
“When I was a small child, my mother worked at three different nursing homes. She would barely sleep and go from one job to another, working 18 to 20 hours a day to the point of exhaustion. The work took a physical and mental toll, leaving her unable to work, and our family became dependent on welfare. The first time I saw my mother cry was in 1995, when Mike Harris slashed welfare by 22 per cent. Pretty soon, our electricity, heat and hot water were cut.
“They remained off for large chunks of my childhood. We had to do our homework before sundown or by candlelight in the winter. The candles also helped keep us warm. To bathe, we would boil water in the backyard on a broken charcoal barbecue, mix it with cold water in a big bucket, then pour the bucket over ourselves in the tub. I would wake up early to get the charcoal going. To stay warm in the winter, we would fill bottles with hot water and wrap them in towels and pillow cases. I wore as many clothes as I could, pulling my socks over several layers of pants. After grocery shopping, my mother would say, ‘Go easy on the food because I don’t know when I’m going to have money to buy more.’
“I went to Lord Lansdowne Junior Public School, at Spadina and Bloor, because I had before- and after-school care nearby at a subsidized daycare run by the Scott Mission. The school was super-diverse—White folks were the minority. My best friends were Vietnamese, Iranian, Jamaican, Salvadoran and mixed-race, but in my classes, I was usually one of just a few Black kids. We all had lunch hour in the gym together, and there were some days where I didn’t have a lunch. Or if I did, it was white bread with peanut butter and jam. Or Cheez Whiz on some white bread. I would look around and see that everyone else had much fuller meals. Those were moments when I started to recognize that my family had less. In Grade 6, when we were first able to leave the playground at lunch, many of the kids would get money from their parents to go buy food. Of course, we didn’t have much money. So I would go on long walks alone to hide the fact that I didn’t have a lunch to eat.
“I needed to wear glasses from a young age. Being a kid, I was constantly running around with friends and breaking my glasses or losing my glasses. On welfare I was only able to get a new pair of glasses every two years, and I would go for long stretches of time without being able to see the board. I wasn’t able to take in a lot of the education that my peers were getting. I remember some early interactions I had with teachers, too. I was an excellent reader, but once a teacher put me in a group for slower readers. I remember my mom challenging the teacher to put me in a better group. She was constantly trying to push back on the low expectations that people would have of Black boys.
“As a Black child, I was constantly navigating systemic racism. Growing up, I’d hear people say, ‘Oh my goodness, you speak so well!’ I’d ask my mom, ‘What is it about my voice that makes people say that?’ She explained that in Toronto, people often think that Black people are going to be poorly spoken. Meanwhile, people were constantly expecting that I would be good at basketball. If it wasn’t basketball, it was football. I’m not good at either of them.
“One thing poverty does is make people work hard. It makes people seek any opportunity they can and make the best of it. I did well in school and earned a scholarship that paid for my first few years of tuition at York University. I studied political science, public administration and governance. Then I went to teacher’s college and taught at private schools for four years. I realized that I wanted to give back to people who were like myself when I was a kid, who were materially poor. So I applied to work at a homeless youth shelter in Scarborough. I spent 10 years working with community organizations, often directly with people experiencing homelessness. Then, in 2017, I joined FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit organization that is devoted to improving Torontonians’ access to affordable, high-quality fresh food.
“We set up Good Food Markets, selling wholesale produce in communities across the city. We help create school breakfast, snack and lunch programs through a variety of partnerships with institutions like the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, the TDSB and TCDSB. We offer community garden training and schoolyard farming projects. To support our work, we sell and deliver Good Food Boxes that contain one to two weeks’ worth of fresh fruit and vegetables for as little as $16. FoodShare even developed a meal program at Lord Lansdowne, the same school I attended as a kid.
“I was drawn to FoodShare because I want to challenge the systems that create and perpetuate poverty, so people don’t have to depend on charity. The first food bank opened in Canada in 1981, and since then our governments allowed people to think that the solution to income inequality is other people’s leftovers. Now, it’s trying to convince people that the solution is carrots with two legs or misshapen potatoes. We should definitely find ways to use that stuff. But it’s not a solution to food insecurity. Food insecurity is primarily about not having enough income to buy the food that you need.
“When I first started at FoodShare, I went on tours of several school and community programs, where it appeared that most of the people who would access our programs were Black or Brown. I know there’s more diversity in this city, but I thought to myself, Why is it that the darker your skin, the more likely you have to rely on food charity?
“Some of the people I’ve met through FoodShare were travelling more than two kilometres to buy fresh produce before we set up a Good Food Market in their neighbourhood. That’s time they’re not spending with their families, not working, not cooking. These markets are community led, and we provide ongoing support from the start-up stage. At the markets, volunteers connect with their customers, who are also their neighbours, and listen to what they want at the market. So when shoppers ask, ‘Where’s the okra?’, we’ll often have okra there the following week. Good Food Markets are incredibly responsive to the needs of the community.
“It’s impossible to ignore the correlations between food insecurity and race. Last year, we struck up a partnership with PROOF, a research team from the University of Toronto that investigates household food insecurity in Canada using Canadian Community Health Survey data. We found that Black people are 3.56 times more likely to be food insecure than White people in Canada. We also found that 36 per cent of Black kids live in food-insecure households, compared to just 12 per cent of White kids. The majority of people who are food-insecure get their income from employment, but when we looked at income from social assistance, we found that White folks actually receive more money than their Black counterparts. And we thought, how could that be? It turned out those numbers included disability income, suggesting that either White people are more likely to be approved for disability or that they’re approved for more money than Black people are. All of these factors affect who has food to eat and who doesn’t. At FoodShare, we realize that our work can’t just be about making food accessible. It has to be about dismantling the systems that lead to food insecurity in the first place—things like racism and colonialism.
“As soon as Covid-19 hit, we decided to raise as much money as we could to support groups across the city, especially those that are are smaller and have limited fundraising capacities. We’re working with 80 groups, including Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, the Workers Action Centre, Black Lives Matter Toronto and the Black Liberation Collective at Ryerson. We’ve been able to distribute over 300,000 pounds of fresh produce since the pandemic started, which amounts to about 11,000 Good Food Boxes.
“The evening I heard about George Floyd’s murder, I cried. I was horrified at what happened, but also because the police keep killing us. And I was sad because his death seemed to be just another news story, and no one seemed to care that the images of his death being shared were painful for Black folks to watch. In no other situation would people be showing videos of a brutal murder. People don’t share videos of cats or dogs being killed on TV, but for Black people, for some reason, it’s a-okay to share and retweet. On so many levels, it just reminded me how little Black life and Black mental health are valued, whether by the media or on social media.
“I was still in shock and anger when I heard about the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman who died during an encounter with Toronto police. On May 30, I participated in a march in her honour. I was so fed up with how police interactions so often end in death for Black and Indigenous people. Canadians have this idea that racism doesn’t exist here, or that it’s not as bad as the U.S. We have to be critical of that narrative. Because when you think about things like Covid-19, for example, at least the U.S. is willing to track race-based data and admit that there’s an issue. If we’d collected race-based data and used it to develop a health-equity approach to the pandemic, we would have lost fewer Brown and Black lives. There is so much we could have done if we were willing to admit that when you’re Black, when you’re Indigenous, you’re at greater risk of everything that sucks.
“During the march, I was incredibly sad. But I drew strength from being around people, often Black people, who were saying ‘No, this is wrong and it can’t continue.’ Our interactions with institutions, like the police, that are meant to keep us safe shouldn’t lead to our death. One of the first people I saw when I arrived was Crystal Sinclair, an Indigenous activist, the founder of Idle No More and the chair of FoodShare’s board of directors. She was next to me throughout the march, singing and drumming with other Indigenous women. Later, I saw young Black teens chanting ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Indigenous Lives Matter.’ Kids were marching with their parents and grandparents. I saw messages of anger and disappointment written on homemade signs.
“When I went home and looked back at the photos, I found myself in tears. People were taking such incredible risks to participate, myself included. I’m asthmatic so I need to practise extra caution. But I wanted to make sure that I’m standing up for what needs to happen. I spoke to some of the folks involved with Not Another Black Life, who organized the march, and decided that FoodShare would put aside $10,000 and deliver Good Food boxes to support anyone who went to the march and was self-isolating. In just over a week, through individual donors, we raised $125,000. That translates to about 5,600 Good Food Boxes that we can deliver to protesters. We’ve also extended the fund to support Black-serving organizations like the Afri-Can FoodBasket and Black Women in Motion.
“We want to continue to elevate Black voices. We want to help people recognize that Black people have been pushing for justice for a long time. On June 30 at 2 p.m. we’re hosting a panel discussion called Black Women on Black Food Sovereignty. We’re going to host another panel after that called Leading While Black with a number of Black leaders.
“Black people have spent a long time watching others co-opt our culture and tell our stories. While I believe this moment presents opportunities for tangible, meaningful change, I also recognize that there are forces making that difficult, whether it’s the people who benefit from the existing systems or people who continue to tokenize us. I want to see resources for institutions like the police reallocated to support the issues that disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous folks. I’m hopeful, but cautiously so.”