City to Country Virtual Tour #8: Food and Health

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Author: Carolyn

Posted: August 9, 2012

Categories: City to Country / GoodFoodBites / Growing Good Food Ideas / Virtual Tours

On September 22, I attended the City to County conference run by Sustain Ontario and several other Toronto food organizations. I was only informed that I was going on the “Good Health, Good Food” tour the morning of, so I did not know which places we would be visiting.  I expected to visit a dietician’s office or a hospital kitchen, so I was pleasantly surprised by the actual agenda: The Big Carrot, a natural food co-op; Real Food for Real Kids, a healthy food catering company for children; the HOPE garden, a community garden in Parkdale; and the Caledon Peace Ranch, a long-term home for people with schizophrenia.  While all of the projects have a strong emphasis on the importance of healthy food, each of them uses food as a catalyst for positive change in many other aspects of health.

The Big Carrot has an enormous impact on the health of its employee-owners and customers through its worker-owned co-operative structure. Co-operatives are required to make decisions that benefit the user-members and the community, as they are owned by the community it serves.  As a result, they tend to have a vested interest in promoting the growth of a community, and prioritizing quality of life and well-being. Their primary objective need not be profit, and co-operatives tend to offer many non-monetary services to the community, including access, services and development of human capital.  The Big Carrot provides many such services to the community, including in-store tours with nutritionists, lectures on health and environmental issues and cooking classes for people with special dietary needs.  They also run a non-profit called the Carrot Cache, which invests a third of the Big Carrot’s profits in community food initiatives.


Real Food For Real Kids (RFRK) is another profitable business that generates a positive impact on the social health of the community. Economic thinker E.F. Schumaucher hypothesized that if work was designed to be useful and fulfilling, and if business models placed more emphasis on people than goods, it would lead to a rapid decline in illness and nourish the soul.  The owners of RFRK seem to share Schumaucher’s philosophy, as they base their business model on the values of education, sharing, community and sustainability.  They hire skilled and knowledgeable workers who believe in the company and their values and purchase from local and ethical suppliers and farmers in order to strengthen their community and empower people.  They also make efforts to not only feed their customers healthy food, but also to educate children about the importance of eating healthily so that they can grow up to make good food decisions.


The HOPE Garden in Parkdale promotes social and mental health through the community garden model, which has been shown to generate positive change in communities.  Research has found that after the founding of community gardens, neighbourhoods tend to exhibit an increase in social cohesion and capital. In surveyed neighbourhoods, residents have reported increases in local politics and other community activities participation, an increased sense of local pride, improved support networks, and the formation of new organizations such as community babysitting and neighbourhood associations.  Like many food-based initiatives such as community kitchens and farmers markets, community gardens create physical spaces in neighbourhoods for people to meet, socialize and communicate with each other.  Support networks and community vitality are listed as social determinants of health: more social contacts and higher levels of group membership are both linked with lower mortality rates. Gardening can increase overall well-being, according to Wilson’s theory of biophilia which states that humans have evolved to have an innate love of nature, and that being around non-human living things has a positive impact on mental health.  Residents of the HOPE Garden have reported less isolation and more contact with their very diverse neighbours.

A sign in one of the gardens of the Caledon Peace Ranch reads, “You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt,” which can be interpreted as praise for their methods of horticultural therapy to treat their schizophrenic patients.  Patients have the opportunity to develop skills and pride in their work, which is important as patients who have experienced a great deal of hospitalization tend to be de-skilled and this can nurture their sense of self-esteem and self-worth.  Horticultural therapy also strengthens the bond of community, as residents of the community and patients engage with each other, breaking down stigma and forming friendships.  Since the Peace Ranch is located in the countryside it provides a non-distracting and tranquil environment for their patients, an important quality for people who often have had many stressful and disrespectful experiences when seeking treatment.

Food has long been an incredibly valuable commodity, and permeates many aspects of our lives. However,  food has importance in social relations, in the formation of cultural identities, as a source of employment and as a pleasurable activity.  Thus, the ways that food is produced, distributed and consumed has enormous effects on the overall well-being of communities, minds and the environment

by Ashley Quann, Sustain Ontario volunteer