Rosie Mensah knows what food justice looks like from growing up in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighborhood, and the 28-year-old does something about it.
Mensah was born and raised in the racist and immigrant-rich neighborhood of parents who came from Ghana and said the lack of good quality, affordable, culturally appropriate and nutritious food in the area helped her invest in the crossroads between food and health early.
“I have experienced food insecurity and I saw what not having access to food looked like first hand,” the registered dietitian with a master’s in public health said.
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 address the systemic problems it creates in the first place, including poverty, racism, lack of affordable housing and underfunded schools.
“It’s not because there is not enough of it,” she said. “It’s that people can not access it – whether they do not have enough money, or they are in communities where they do not have grocery stores, or where food is spoiled, or where there are only fast food outlets, and they do not even have the opportunity to buy food that they want. ”
Mensah, who sits on the board of FoodShare Toronto (and recently co-founded a Dietitian for Food Justice group), says the major policy steps needed to work toward that goal include raising the minimum wage and consider a guaranteed basic income.
“Especially in places like Toronto, the minimum wage is not a living wage, people can not live off that,” she said. “So if people do not have enough money to pay their rent at all, how can they buy food?”
She now educates other dietitians on how to engage with marginalized clients and patients, while taking into account social determinants of health and integrating anti-oppression and anti-racism practices.
“In my education and schooling, I did not get the information that I thought I needed to support people,” she said, adding that while the CEDAR course (Culture, Equity, Diversity and Race in Dietetics) she created in currently used by individuals, she would like to have the teaching incorporated into post-secondary food education programs.
The course stems from Mensah becoming active around food justice early in the pandemic, which exposed and exacerbated existing health inequalities and coincided with Black Lives Matter protests.
Mensah, who originally wrote on social media and later held online workshops and other nutrition training, ended up talking by and moderating panel discussions and found an audience of other dietitians interested in her approach.
Prior to that, she was a core member of the Black Creek Food Justice Network, a volunteer effort in her neighborhood.
It is time for a grassroots effort to address these issues, which Mensah believes should see more of the available food-related funding.
“People do 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.
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