Harvest of Hope: The Parkdale Co-op Cred Program

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It was only recently that I heard about a marvellous community project in my old neighbourhood of Parkdale, and I was so impressed by the progressive thinking behind its workings that I felt moved to cover it for Good Food Revolution.

We sat down with volunteer Diana McNally to explore the innovative structure of the Parkdale Co-op Cred program.


Good Food Revolution: So Diana, how would you explain the Parkdale Co-op Cred program, and how and why did you come to be part of it?

Diana McNally: An instructor of mine in the Community Worker program at George Brown College, Robin Buyers, introduced me to the Co-op Cred program at the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC). It is an incredible example of a progressive food initiative in the city – one that builds the capacity of people to become truly food secure, instead of locking them into a perpetual cycle of ‘looking for the next meal’.

For context, most community food initiatives do the latter; that is, they only address the immediate hunger needs of participants. Beyond forcing folks to spend incredible amounts of time going from location to location just to have enough to eat, there are also no guarantees about the quantity, quality, nutritional value, dietary or cultural appropriateness of the food given. Food banks and drop-in meal centres are the most obvious examples of this type of food initiative, and unfortunately they exist only to provide emergency relief for hunger. That is, the systemic and systematic reasons as to why so many people are hungry are left unaddressed or acted upon – only the base need to not be hungry ‘in the moment’ is serviced.

In 2014, there were over a million visits to food banks in the GTA, with nearly 400,000 of those visitations occurring in downtown Toronto. We live in one of the richest countries in the world, so how can we have so many individuals and families struggling to find their next meal? To me, this points to a crisis in the ability of Canadians to access and afford food, and to deeper issues of economic marginalisation and the problematic notion of food as a commodity – not a necessity for life. Looking at those numbers, it’s apparent that emergency food initiatives are crucial, but that they are not a solution in-themselves – more so because the use of food banks in Canada is actually growing. More people are using them, and for longer periods of time. We need to rethink our food programs, our food systems, and our economic relations to food as a whole. I believe that it should be everyone’s fundamental right to never experience chronic hunger.

What drew me to Co-op Cred was it really goes beyond merely addressing hunger to look directly at some of the root causes of food insecurity in Parkdale.  In downtown Toronto, visitors to food banks primarily live alone, and most have a disability. There are lots of reasons why people may be disabled, including mental health barriers, addiction and recovery, chronic physical health conditions, having been injured on the job – the list goes on. I mean, if you live long enough, you will eventually have a disability, as will everyone.

In a neighbourhood like Parkdale, you’ll find that many economically marginalized and food insecure folks are older and disabled. They have a difficult time finding decent work, often because of stigma and the unwillingness or inability of employers to accommodate them. Because of this, lots of people have to go on social assistance – especially the Ontario Disability Support Program, or ODSP. Most of Co-op Cred’s participants are on ODSP. The issue with this is that the maximum monthly allowance for anyone in ODSP is only $1,098 a month, which is intended to cover rent, utilities, and basic living costs, like medication and food. It’s not surprising that lots of people may have trouble consistently affording healthy meals. The thing is, if you are on ODSP, and you go out and for wages just to have enough to live on, the provincial government only allows you to earn a maximum of $200 a month before they start taking your excess earnings away – 50 cents on every dollar you earn, to be exact. This is called “clawback,” and it is a huge barrier for people with disabilities in becoming truly income secure. However, individuals on ODSP can access other supporting benefits, and this is key within the Co-op Cred model.

How Co-op Cred works is that participants receive food credit at the West End Food Co-op, a community partner of PARC, as a benefit through their own voluntary labour – no currency is exchanged. Co-op Cred participants can then use this credit to shop for their choice of healthy, fresh, organic food and produce either at the Co-op, or at the Sorauren Farmers’ Market. As for volunteer labour, participants grow produce in the neighbourhood’s community gardens, which are managed by our other partner, Greenest City, or participate in retail services and kitchen preparation at the West End Food Co-op. The produce grown in the gardens is organically farmed and redistributed to the local food bank, whereas the pies, jams, condiments, and other goodies produced in the West End Food Co-op’s kitchen are resold to the public in its grocery store. We also have people who facilitate diabetes education programming at the Parkdale Community Health Centre. So, our people are actually contributing to the neighbourhood’s economy and social welfare in a very tangible and meaningful way, and for their efforts they receive the benefit of a living wage in food credit. I should also mention that everyone who joins the Co-op Cred program is invited from among PARC’s own membership, and in particular from our community leadership initiative, the PARC Ambassadors. Co-op Cred’s program model is so intelligent, dignified, and well-designed that I schemed with Robin, my professor, in order to develop it even further, primarily through PARC as well as in conjunction with our community partners.

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GFR: So in essence the participants learn skills, like how to grow their own food, but at the same time through their volunteer work earn food credits that they can then spend on food at the Sorauren Farmers’ Market or the West End Food Co-op? And with no money being exchanged, the participants are not going to be subject to any government clawback on their Social Assistance payments. Are you aware of any other programs that follow this particular model?

DM: That’s a much more succinct description of the program! Still, I think it’s important to know the context of food insecurity in Toronto as well as the limitations of social assistance in order to understand the progressive structure of Co-op Cred. Food banks are pretty limited as an answer to these issues.

As for other progressive food security initiatives in the city, the Stop Community Food Centre certainly tackles a lot of issues surrounding food equity and access, particularly with its Do the Math campaign a few years ago, which asked people to compare their monthly budget to that of someone on social assistance. Organizations like FoodShare also have amazing programs, such as the Cross-Cultural Food Access Innovation Hub, which includes the Black Farmers and Growers Collective. This collective tends to the Black Creek Community Farm in Jamestown, and their organic produce and prepared foods are distributed among food insecure groups in the area.

In terms of programs that use our specific work-learn model and alternative currency – I’m not aware of any others, although there certainly could be similar programs. With some tweaking, I do think that Co-op Cred has incredible potential to be replicated in other neighbourhoods. Obviously, the community partners and scope of the placements would be tailored to suit the needs of the residents.

GFR: Yes, it was the specifics of this particular model I was most impressed with.

It has been stated that in 2011 one in eight Canadian household were worried about having enough food… do you have any figures with how that relates specifically to the priority neighbourhood of Parkdale today?

DM: In 2010, PARC released a report on food insecurity in Parkdale called Beyond Bread and Butter. This document detailed that 45% of the residents in South Parkdale, i.e. the area south of Queen Street, live below the low-income cut-off line with a median income less than half of the rest of the GTA. The 2011 National Housing Survey pointed to an incredible 47% of South Parkdale residents spending 30% or more of their monthly income on rent, which is generally considered to be the limit of affordability.

Food insecurity is inextricably linked to income insecurity, and furthermore both have significant impacts on the overall health of individuals with poor nutrition. This can mean more diseases, chronic conditions, slower healing, and their associated health care costs. In this sense, food insecurity is everyone’s problem because of the burden it unnecessarily places on our health care system.

With that in mind, Parkdale isn’t a food desert exactly – there is, in a sense, food everywhere. Certainly the number of businesses offering food in the area has grown significantly over the last decade – anyone familiar with the gentrification of Queen Street West can attest to the growth in nightlife and restaurant establishments. That said, these businesses are not to the advantage of Parkdale’s low-income residents, and more to the benefit of out-of-neighbourhood visitors with cash to spend. Unfortunately that influx of money into Parkdale doesn’t flow easily into resources for the folks that need them most.

We do have Co-op Cred to provide a model for economic inclusion and food security, as well as other resources of varying effectiveness in the area: the Parkdale Community Food Bank, various small and ethnic grocers, drop-in meal programs. Still, we need more opportunities for equity and food access to prevent further marginalisation.

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GFR: Yes, I certainly agree with you here… despite the gentrification it can certainly be a food desert for those on a low income.

So where are these community gardens located, and how large are they?

DM: The gardens that Co-op Cred participants farm are located in the Dunn Parkette Learning Centre, which is on Close Avenue just south of Queen Street. The gardening space isn’t the size of a farm, to be sure, but it is productive: in 2014, we managed to harvest 300 lbs. of organic produce, including tomatoes, lettuces, kale, and other vegetables, which we then donated to the Parkdale Community Food Bank. Again, we do believe that food security isn’t about getting the next meal, but about eating and living well, and supporting other community members to do the same. Our people are proud to cultivate healthy, organic produce for other residents experiencing food insecurity.

GFR: How has the community embraced this project? What kind of numbers are we talking about in terms of participants?

DM: Co-op Cred was piloted in 2013 with just seven participants, so the scope of it was quite small in the beginning. Our only community partner at that time was the West End Food Co-op. With that in mind, the personal growth of the participants as well as the overall success of the program in building neighbourhood relationships was so fruitful that we expanded to 26 Co-op Cred placements. We also formed bonds with two additional community partners: Greenest City, who manage the gardens, and the Parkdale Community Health Centre.

We are hoping to expand the number of placements even further and collaborate with more community organizations and programs in the area. For example, I am in the process of co-writing a grant to expand our Co-op Cred placements to include a baking apprenticeship at the West End Food Co-op. I’m also looking into ways to develop a communications placement, which would include program outreach through the development of multimedia skills, as well as build more opportunities for workshops and other participatory learning sessions.

We are aiming large, but we are also following the paths that Co-op Cred participants themselves wish to take, and there has been a lot of interest in having further opportunities for popular education and skills development.

I think the general population of Parkdale is just beginning to learn about the Co-op Cred program, but the word is slowly getting out there. Within PARC’s membership and through the membership of the West End Food Co-op, a lot of people are aware of Co-op Cred and the opportunities it provides for both its participants as well as in the community. That said, don’t be shy about spreading the word, or about engaging with us directly here at PARC!

GFR: Are there challenges switching people over from the processed and canned food that they would previously have received from food banks to the fresh fruits and vegetables that come with Co-op Cred? I’m guessing that an education in food literacy is key here? How does that happen?

DM: Food literacy is an issue, and it certainly is a contributing factor for many folks who experience food insecurity. Co-op Cred participants do find that the program makes them much more literate about what they eat. They learn the processes behind how we get our food, how to understand ingredients and eat nutritiously, as well as how to cook. They are also able to adjust their diets to treat their own health conditions, such as diabetes. A lot of this education comes into play as a by-product of their placements, as well as through discussion groups and participatory learning sessions. Recently, 18 of our participants completed a Food Handler’s Certification course with the support of Toronto Public Health, which is fantastic. To celebrate their achievement, we are holding a big feast of Tibetan momos here at PARC.

GFR: How is the program funded? Do you receive any funding municipally, provincially, or federally?

DM: Our program receives funding from the Metcalf Foundation as well as the Echo Foundation. We are also funded largely by a dedicated charity cycling event called Ride4RealFood. Finally, members of the West End Food Co-op are able to donate at the cash of the Co-op’s grocery store. I’m excited about the fact that we recently received a grant from the Catherine Donnelly Foundation to expand the educational and skills development component of Co-op Cred.

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GFR: Now please excuse my ignorance here, but how does the program operate throughout our unforgivingly severe winters?

DM: Well, in terms of the gardens, it doesn’t – we have to follow the climate’s lead! If we had the funding and the space, it would be incredible to establish a greenhouse to expand our urban farming Co-op Cred placements. That said, we still maintain our placements at the West End Food Co-op as well as at the Parkdale Community Health Centre. The more we grow our partnerships with other organizations, the more we can provide year-round placement support.

GFR: If any of our readers would like to know more or make some kind of contribution, where should I be sending them?

DM: Get to know the neighbourhood and the residents. Go ahead and scope out the West End Food Co-op and the Dunn Parkette Community Garden. Become a member of the West End Food Co-op and donate to us at the register. If you are interested in becoming a community partner, come on down to PARC.

If you want to learn more about the local food system and would like to support the program, join Ride4RealFood – you can either participate in the charity bicycle ride yourself, which ends in a fantastic picnic at McVean Farm in Brampton, or else sponsor one of our amazing cyclists. You can also donate directly through the Ride4RealFood website. The money raised through Ride4RealFood goes entirely into the Co-op Cred program, and every $600 pledged will support one full-year placement for a low-income Parkdale resident.

Just as a side note – because clearly I haven’t spent enough time talking – I would also ask people to consider food not just as something that staves off hunger, or as a pleasurable combination of flavour, scent, and texture, or as something that only benefits your own health and nutrition. Food always has an environmental, economic, and political dimension that impacts the world around us. Because of this, give consideration to what and how you eat. Think about what’s important to you – maybe it’s animal rights, or the effects of overfishing, or the unsustainability of industrial farming, or the ethics of migrant labour – and apply those when you shop for food or go to a restaurant.  You can never conquer every issue related to the leviathan that is the global food system, but you still have the power to make choices that support what you value through how you eat.

GFR: Thank you so much for your time Diana. Your thoughtful and inforative answers have given us a valuable insight into one of the most forward thinking community food projects I have ever seen.

I’m really looking forward to interviewing some of the participants over the coming weeks.


Jamie Drummond

Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And if he can convince the family you’ll be seeing him at the Ride4RealFood

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