In the basement of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Church, a dozen food-curious people have gathered for a group lesson in making strawberry jam. Canning masters James Partanen and Heather Kilner walk them through the process of boiling the strawberries, adding balsamic vinegar and black pepper, and finally testing it by pouring the mixture on a chilled plate and seeing if it sets.
The seminar is a core feature of the cannery wing of the West End Food Co-operative, a non-profit organization comprised of farmers, workers, community members and service organizations. They run events in different venues across Parkdale, including the Sorauren Farmers' Market, but soon will have their own community grocery store, complete with a kitchen and café.
The west-end neighbourhood is a natural place for this sort of operation, says Victor Willis, executive director of PARC, a local drop-in centre. The area is home to a large low-income population, particularly concentrated in south Parkdale. Some residents have problems affording food and face dwindling options for healthy food within their price range, especially at restaurants in the area, Mr. Willis said. But Parkdale also has an increasing high-income population that is interested in working to improve the community.
"The seeds have been germinated for collaborative initiatives that are intentionally trying to bridge the solitudes that exist between people who don't have access to things and people who do have access," Mr. Willis said. "I think that the West End Food Co-op is absolutely something that is a part [of addressing food security]- it's one of the spokes on the wheel."
For the past three years, the WEFC has received government grants and has been raising money from members of the co-operative and organizations to open a community-owned grocery store and kitchen. The co-op is entering the last stretch of its fundraising drive, attempting to raise enough to open the store before the end of the year.
They have already raised more than $100,000 of their $180,000 goal. About 60 per cent of that money is from community contributions - members who have bought a membership or invested through a bond purchase program. Once the goal is met, the store, featuring a natural plaster exterior, will be set up in the Parkdale Community Health Centre, complete with an environmentally retrofitted community kitchen that will recycle heat byproduct from the walk-in freezers.
The food co-operative will also run like a regular grocery store, shelves stocked with local produce sourced from farmers whom the WEFC staff have brought into the fold. The store is still in the planning stage. A lifetime membership is available for $5, but will not necessarily be required to shop there.
"We recognize that people from day to day, people living in poverty, are not necessarily going to be able to access everything in the store," said Sally Miller, co-ordinator of WEFC, adding that through consultation, they've discovered a need to expand their community kitchen offerings. The co-op will have some employees, but will also offer food-for-service, or 'sweat equity' as it's sometimes called. Members can volunteer with the co-op, either in the kitchen or storefront, in exchange for food vouchers.
The membership comes with the added benefit of having a vote in the operations of the co-op. Like Mountain Equipment Co-op, the popular outdoor gear store, WEFC is run by its members. The membership of WEFC incorporates workers, customers, farmers and community organizations as stakeholders. While the stated purpose is to provide healthy, locally sourced food, the co-op has taken a big interest in food concerns in Parkdale.
"We started off with the idea of starting a grocery store, and that's still of course our main raison d'être, but we're really kind of a tent around local food, and food issues and healthy eating," said John Richmond, director of WEFC. Mr. Richmond has been working in the co-op industry for nearly 20 years, beginning with food co-operatives in British Columbia.
The kitchen is a component of the business and will also provide employment for low-income community members. The kitchen will be used to cook complete meals sold for between $3 and $4. Members can get canning lessons there, like the one being delivered by Mr. Partanen, and generate income for the co-op by canning fruit. By partnering with community organizations like PARC, the co-op will be able to offer training and positions to marginalized populations.
Lauren Baker, co-ordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council, says that while Parkdale is not a food desert - an area where there is nowhere to buy fresh healthy food - it faces "unique inner-city challenges."
"Rents are increasing, pushing out smaller grocers, and we're seeing kind of a shrinking of food options across the neighbourhood. Of course, that's compounded by issues of poverty and hunger," said Ms. Baker.
That farmers are members of the co-op, she said, can help bridge the divide between urban and rural, making farmers feel closer to the marketplace. She highlighted the role the co-operative provides in giving people a closer personal connection with their food, providing a space to shop local, learn about food and cook.
"It's been called the 'intimate commodity'… so the agency is really important," she said.
WHAT IS A CO-OP?
A co-operative is a business owned by its users. The majority of co-operatives in Ontario are housing co-ops, where the tenants pay a co-op fee and serve on various boards responsible for activities from landscaping to web design.
Co-operatives all feature a one-member, one-vote system. Day-to-day operations are often handled by an elected executive.
One of the most visible retail co-ops in Canada is Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), an outdoors supply shop. Members pay a $5 fee and receive a lifetime membership allowing them to shop in the store and participate in operational decisions, including elections to the board of directors.
The Exhibition Place wind turbine is another example of the co-operative system. Built by the WindShare co-operative, the $1.8-million community-owned turbine has been supplying 1,800 megawatts of electricity a year since its construction in 2002.