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Rosie Mensah knows what food injustice looks like from growing up in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood, and the 28-year-old is doing something about it.

Born and raised in the racialized and immigrant-rich neighbourhood by parents who came from Ghana, Mensah said a lack of good-quality, affordable, culturally appropriate and nutritious food in the area helped get her invested in the intersection of food and health early.

“I've experienced food insecurity and I saw what not having access to food looked like first-hand,” said the registered dietitian with a master's in public health.

While the COVID-19 pandemic focused attention on food security, or the ability to consistently access quality food, Mensah explains that food justice goes beyond such short-term needs to investigate the systemic issues that create it in the first place, including poverty, racism, a lack of affordable housing and underfunded schools.

“It's not that there’s not enough of it,” she said. “It's that people can't access it — whether they don't have enough money, or they are in communities where they don't have grocery stores or where the food is spoiled, or where there are only fast-food outlets and they don’t even have the option to buy food that they want.”

Mensah, who sits on the board of FoodShare Toronto (and recently co-founded a Dietitians for Food Justice group), says the larger policy moves required to work towards this goal include raising the minimum wage and considering a guaranteed basic income.

“Especially in places like Toronto, the minimum wage is not a living wage, people cannot live off of that,” she said. “So if people don't have enough money to even pay their rent, how can they buy food?”

She now educates other dietitians on how to engage with marginalized clients and patients while accounting for social determinants of health and integrating anti-oppression and anti-racism practices.

“In my education and schooling, I wasn't getting the information that I thought I needed to support people,” she said, adding that while the CEDAR (Culture, Equity, Diversity and Race in Dietetics) course she created is currently used by individuals, she’d like to get the training incorporated into post-secondary food education programs.

“Especially in places like Toronto, the minimum wage is not a living wage, people cannot live off of that,” she said. “So if people don't have enough money to even pay their rent, how can they buy food?”

The course sprung out of Mensah getting active about food justice early on in the pandemic, which exposed and exacerbated existing health inequities and dovetailed with Black Lives Matter protests.

Initially posting on social media and later putting on online workshops and other training on nutrition, Mensah ended up speaking at and moderating panel discussions and found an audience of other dietitians interested in her approach.

Prior to all this, she was a core member of the Black Creek Food Justice Network, an all-volunteer effort in her neighbourhood.

It’s the time of a grassroots effort to address these issues that Mensah believes should be seeing more of the available food-related funding.

“People are doing it as volunteers and I think there needs to be more of a structure in place where people can have resources in place in their own communities,” she said.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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Maybe we should have a system of public grocery stores, not to replace existing ones, but have a ministry identify "food desert" areas where it's hard to get decent food, and establish low-cost grocery stores with nutritious food in those places. Hire locals both as workers and managers, give them some latitude to bring in food wanted by the community.

Sure, businessy types would squall about how it should be left to the private sector, but the private sector aren't doing it, are they?