Panel discusses how school food programs can be anti-racist

Rachelle Stein-Wotten

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter Gabriola Sounder

Wednesday, January 6 2021

A panel discussion presented by The Coalition of Healthy School Food explored how food programs provided through schools and community organizations should embed anti-racist principles so that kids from marginalized backgrounds are treated equitably. The coalition, which in general advocates for more investment in school food programs, brought together six presenters working in public and post-secondary education as well as the non-profit sector in Canada. 

Anti-racism identifies and eliminates racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices, explained moderator Colin Dring, a University of British Columbia PhD candidate focused on food systems planning, food justice and food sovereignty.

“We’re seeing now in the time of COVID all of a sudden an interest and recognition that Black and Indigenous communities are the most impacted, and we’re not just seeing that in Canada but around the world,” said Utcha Sawyers, the executive director of the East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club. “It’s a systemic issue that’s been in place for hundreds of years.”

The club runs an edible classroom with a focus on being culturally relevant to the predominantly Black and Indigenous youth it serves. She and other presenters emphasized that anti-racism efforts must go beyond tokenism. 

“Honestly, I do not want to see my premier, my prime minister, my mayor stand there wishing me a happy Diwali,” said Suman Roy, executive director of Meal Exchange, which works on improving food choices on post-secondary campuses. “I really want to see it through policy and through work actually addressing what it means to be a Hindu, what it means to be a Muslim or a person of another culture.”

At Oakwood Public School in Ontario, Shiba Anjum became involved with the elementary school’s volunteer-run salad bar to ensure there were Halal options available and culturally relevant food choices like samosas.

“The staff said good luck getting the students to eat them, but it turns out the students were really happy to see the similar food they were used to eating at home,” she said.

Students decide what they want on their plate and the program also brings in special dishes to acknowledge cultural celebrations such as Chinese New Year.

Ekow Stone leads a farming program through FoodShare Toronto, which employs youth to grow food on school board property, which is then sold to the public. 

Stone also runs classroom workshops that teach about marginalization and discriminatory systems that prevent people from accessing culturally relevant food. Fully embedding anti-racist principles would result in a transformational effect on schools as a whole, he said.

“Fundamentally what we’re trying to address here is white supremacy culture” that centres whiteness, which includes making moral claims on what is good and bad food, Dring said. 

“It’s deeply entangled within the institutions of education. 

“So we have to think beyond the provision of food here and think about school district policy and communications, the pedagogy and educational practice.”