She Grew Up On Radioactive Soil In Toronto. Now She Digs Deep For Black Canadian Health.

Jennifer Forde shares how she bridges the gaps faced by people in food deserts.
Jennifer Forde shared how growing up in the Scarborough, Ont., housing development of Malvern in the seventies inspired her current career path and involvement with Black food justice.
Jennifer Forde shared how growing up in the Scarborough, Ont., housing development of Malvern in the seventies inspired her current career path and involvement with Black food justice.

This is part of an ongoing HuffPost Canada series on food insecurity and how it’s affecting Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this edition, we talk to two Canadians who have made it their mission to provide Black locals access to fresh quality food, no matter where they live.

Jennifer Forde has fond childhood memories of munching on crisp cucumbers, tomatoes, and other fresh goodies grown in her mother’s bountiful backyard in Scarborough, Ont.’s Malvern neighbourhood. Her Barbadian parents were proud and excited to call the up-and-coming area home; Forde’s father purchased the property for merely $1,000 in 1972, thanks to winning a special lottery for civil servants.

But almost a decade after they moved into the housing development, her family and their neighbours made a horrifying discovery because of a story by journalism students Frank Giorno and Janel Glassco: Their homes were built on a radium plant’s dumping site, making the soil extremely radioactive.

“It was a very diverse, extraordinary place to grow up in,” Forde told HuffPost Canada about her childhood neighbourhood. “When the land was discovered, it really hurt the community. We had no trust in the government.”

Residents who lived on McClure Crescent, which runs through Scarborough, Ont.'s Malvern neighbourhood, discovered their homes were built on radioactive soil in 1980. A year after they were told the soil would be removed, they collected jars of soil and sent them to local politicians.
Residents who lived on McClure Crescent, which runs through Scarborough, Ont.'s Malvern neighbourhood, discovered their homes were built on radioactive soil in 1980. A year after they were told the soil would be removed, they collected jars of soil and sent them to local politicians.

Forde says her family have health complications due to living on contaminated soil. George Heighington, a fellow resident and the author of a book about the neighbourhood’s struggles, told HuffPost Canada that he’s anecdotally heard of similar ailments suffered by his neighbours over the years; he called the residence Forde lived on the “hottest spot” in the area, in terms of radioactivity.

It was that hurt over the McClure radioactive site and conversations with family members that led Forde to start a farmers’ market in her former neighbourhood; Malvern has a reputation for being both underserved and a food desert for the many Black and racialized people who live in it today.

As one of Ontario’s few Black farmers’ market managers, it’s become Forde’s mission to make sure many Toronto-area neighbourhoods, but especially those hit hardest by racial inequality, can access nutritious, culturally-appropriate food a timely call to action, given the pandemic’s destructive effect on Black Canadians.

How racial disparity, COVID-19, and nutrition intersect

As Global News reports, Black Toronto neighbourhoods have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, a trend that researchers have seen across Canada, in the U.S., and the U.K. The disparity can be fatal, as the latest data compiled by the New York Times shows that Black Americans were twice as likely to die from the virus than white Americans.

There are many theories on this pattern, including pre-existing conditions caused by inequities in health-care access and exposure due to being on the front lines. Less talked about, but just as important to examine is the potential role environmental racism and access to nutrition plays in why Black people make up significant numbers of COVID-19 cases; Black households in Canada are over three times more likely to go hungry when compared to white households.

Environmental racism is defined as the ways people of colour are marginalized by their surroundings, be that communities living in heavy pollution and toxic conditions like Forde did or through racism that contributes to a lack of affordable healthy food options in low-income areas, a.k.a., food deserts.

An analysis by CBS Chicago is one of many applying that link on a local level, with epidemiologist Dr. Mercedes Carnethon telling the outlet that distance and historical marketing of unhealthy foods has impacted how Black neighbourhoods eat, and therefore what health conditions residents may develop.

Watch: how a lack of healthy food plays a role in COVID-19 deaths in Chicago’s Black communities. Story continues below.

So if a healthy lifestyle is tied to what you eat and you’re a low-income racialized person living in a food desert, how are you supposed to thrive? Bridging the gap, Forde decided, required bringing fresh produce growers directly to people in need.

“Who is offering opportunities to help these vendors get their products to people who really appreciate or need that feeling of home, of inclusion? And how can they get it affordably? That’s my job,” she said. “You can pick it, but who’s going to be the conduit between the field and the table?”

Callaloo plant, okra can be grown locally

Forde decided to start up Malvern’s Farmers’ Market in 2018, which later evolved into the Scarborough Farmers’ Market. She now also runs the Courtyard Farmers’ Market in Toronto’s East York and Etobicoke boroughs, with five pick-up sites across the city.

Making sure her vendors’ wares are culturally-appropriate and reflect the diversity of Toronto is important for Forde, meaning customers looking to make callaloo can pick up ingredients for it. Okra, bitter melon, and scotch bonnet peppers are some of the vegetables known to appear at previous markets, thanks to vendors like those from the Toronto Black Farmers and Growers Collective.

A majority of the vendors Forde works with are women, including Nigerian farmer Buchi Onakufe who operates Akachi Farms in Woodbridge, Ont.

Onakufe comes from a microbiology background, which led to her passion for organic crop-growing. In the produce box she offers, her summer harvest includes the usual kale and beets seen in big-box supermarket chains. But as the season progresses, she plans to add ewedu, a nutrient-rich mineral plant from her homeland, and Jamaican scallions.

For people who can’t access farmers’ markets, Onakufe had previously run classes helping people turn small spaces into backyard gardens to grow food sustainably.

“You can grow kale, spinach, collard greens, peppers. You don’t need to spend money on that,” she told HuffPost Canada.

The importance of Black ownership in growing food

National data on the demographics making up Canada’s agricultural industry don’t include race, but as the non-profit Organic Alberta notes, Black farm owners and Black people in positions of power in agriculture are visibly sparse and comparable to the U.S., where just over one per cent of farmers are Black. Onakufe can attest to the hurdles people who look like her may face; in her personal experience, getting her start as an apprentice included the hurdles of child-raising and combating racism at the same time.

Intergenerational trauma related to the lack of representation isn’t lost on Onakufe, who acknowledged the traumatic role the transatlantic slave trade may have in dissuading Black involvement in the field, nor on Forde.

Both still advocate for owning the means of growing food for Black communities, for the purposes of lifting each other up and to get through hard times like these. As Environmental Health news writer Ashley Gripper puts it, “pandemics like COVID-19 emphasize why community control of food systems and land are not just important but they are quite literally our means of surviving, healing, and thriving.”

“The nature of slavery decomposed the Black family structure,” Forde said. “All we want is to be treated fairly so we can access properties with the same regard and interest [as non-Black farmers].”

Not to mention, Forde added, the joy of growing and having agency over your own food is second to none. Five years ago, her two sons played a lot of hockey and needed as many healthy meals as she could afford.

After getting over the initial trepidation related to her mother’s yard, she started a crop and flower garden to feed her kids and hasn’t looked back since, a project she’s dubbed “urban garden survivors.”

“It’s therapeutic on so many levels,” she said. “I don’t live anywhere tucked away, I live by [a major intersection]. It’s a little oasis.”

Where to support Black people in agriculture

The Black Women’s Agricultural Freedom Fund began as a response to anti-Black racism that forced two women out of jobs in a food justice organization, the campaign’s description states.

Toronto-based Sundance Harvest, founded by farmer Cheyenne Sundance, was hosting a fundraiser to buy a farm with a focus on food justice. They’ve since reached their goal, with remaining donations going to farm improvement; Sundance Harvest will also run an urban farming mentorship later in the year.

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