SUPPORTING NEWCOMER-OWNED FOOD BUSINESSES
Nowhere is Toronto’s motto of “Diversity: Our Strength” better reflected than in our cuisine. Food is often an accessible gateway to introduce people to new experiences and cultures. Few cities in the world can offer our appetites the kind of diverse culinary wanderlust that our taste buds can indulge in. Many of us are probably able to name a favorite spot for patties (Bathurst Station or Warden Station?), baklava or Pho. It’s undeniable that newcomers and migrants are driving food culture in Toronto, even with cuisines you may not typically associate with newcomers. One only needs to talk to someone in the restaurant industry to know that in Toronto, Tamils and/or Bengalis are often cooking your food.
This brings me to the people making our food. I have spoken to a number of migrant-owned food establishments in Toronto. Many of them got into the food industry because they had no other option. What some may romanticize as a medium in which newcomers are happily providing for a cultural exchange, is in reality just one of the few ways they can make ends meet. It is only years later that many come to appreciate how the food they make can also bring community together.
With that in mind, I want to suggest a few things that we can do to help make these people’s lives easier.
Diversify your food supply chain and support migrant-owned restaurants
With Toronto being a hub for events and conferences, there is no excuse for a catered lunch letdown that feeds people with sadness sandwiches and wilted wraps. If you are in a position to make purchasing decisions on food suppliers, make an effort to diversify your food suppliers.
There are often rules or agreements in place, depending on venues or an organization, that define who is approved to supply food. This is an opportunity for organizations, especially anchor institutions, to think about how they can use their purchasing dollars to diversify their food suppliers and support newcomers.
Lastly, on an individual-level, whatever you do, just please give them your money. Do not try and get a free meal from them in exchange for whatever influence you think you have.
Skills in the food industry for newcomers
Anyone who has worked in the food industry knows how physically demanding the work is. There are programs to support our newcomers by offering them opportunities to gain skills in the food industry. Take the Community Food Works for Newcomer Settlement program for example. It’s an award-winning program that builds on the original Community Food Works program that helped low-income residents obtain meaningful employment in the food industry and a pathway to obtain food handler certification. This is a success story that Toronto Public Health tells, one that meaningfully improved the lives of newcomers in the food industry.
Perhaps more lucratively though, we can also offer a pathway to residency and potentially citizenship. The agricultural industry is in need of skilled workers in the agri-foods sector. The federal government recognized this by announcing the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot where foreign seasonal workers who participate are given a pathway to residency. Many of these seasonal workers have countries of origin in Central America and this could profoundly impact our culinary landscape.
Of course these programs I cite are offered by different levels of government, which goes to show that the nature of supporting newcomer food businesses is going to be tied to immigration policy.
Organizing for immigration policy
Which brings us to the inescapable thing: immigration policy. Supporting newcomer-owned businesses is moot without them here in the first place. If you like your hand-pulled noodles or falafels and the people behind them, then perhaps now is the time to think about how Toronto can be even more inclusive for newcomer communities. The culinary landscape of Toronto is going to be a function of our national immigration policy, which is driven by who is let into the country and who is not.
I will take two refugee communities: the Syrian community and the Yemeni community. Both are refugee communities undergoing tragic humanitarian crises in the Middle East. With the former community, we can tell ourselves a great story of being welcoming to Syrian refugees with catering collectives like the Newcomer Kitchen.
Contrast this with Yemeni refugees. Canada is not accepting them in the numbers that they are Syrian refugees. As a result, you would be hard-pressed to find a Yemeni food scene. Perhaps this is because it would mean accepting our responsibility for being complicit in contributing to the humanitarian crises in selling over $248 million of arms to Saudi Arabia.
This is an opportunity for us living in cities. If we want to continue claiming to be magnets for newcomers, let’s also be the magnets to organize on their behalf.
While we may love our hummus and tacos, let’s not forget about the people behind the food that are just trying to get by. Food is the gateway into one’s culture but do not let it be the last step.