Not Just Food

Ausma Malik is Atkinson’s Director of Social Engagement.

Two tomatoes. Alongside onions, garlic, ginger and a handful of spices. That makes the base of most of my mom’s recipes.

This has taken on new relevance for me because, like so many of us, I have been cooking at home more than ever before in the last two months. And, like many across the globe, over the last several weeks I have been observing Ramadan — the Muslim month of fasting. No food or drink (yes, not even water) from dawn to dusk.

It is a month in which I welcome a break from ingrained habits, an increase in my consciousness about consumption, and the opportunity for a deeper connection and contribution to my communities. This remains true this year too even though the experience has been shaped by this extraordinary moment. Relying on tried and true recipes is a source of comfort and reassurance.

In the early days of this crisis, hoarding of toilet paper was a North American obsession yet there seemed to be much less concern about fresh fruits and vegetables becoming scarce. Lots of supply chain talk, but not much about the people who are the links between planting and eating — the farm workers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, grocery workers, restaurant workers, and food couriers. 

The tomato capital of Canada is Leamington, Ontario. It runs on farm labour provided mostly by migrant workers, a recent Toronto Star article confirmed. From coast to coast, it’s a similar story: migrant workers plant, pick and pack the fruits and vegetables that all of us rely on.

While cross-border travel has been generally restricted, migrant workers are exceptions. I’m involved in a multifaith, justice-minded retreat centre that opened its doors to be a safe and welcoming site for migrant workers to fulfill the 14-day quarantine required for new arrivals headed to local farms. We’re among those  concerned about their safety once they leave the Centre. 

Dignified accommodations and work conditions are essentials for these essential workers. Without enforceable standards, the viability of the sector is in question. Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, the Migrant Rights Network and others were advocating and organizing for migrant justice — measures like healthcare, worker protections and status for all — long before this global crisis brought the value of migrant workers and their labour into sharp relief.

Toronto Star Work and Wealth Reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh followed food couriers for an app-based delivery service in their historic organizing efforts to secure fair wages, safety and the right to join a union — basic worker’s rights — for her new podcast called “Hustled”. It was launched by the Toronto Star with support from Antica Productions earlier this week.

Listening to the first episode got me thinking even more about what regard we have for the hands that feed us. I’ve heard the remark that all of these workers were practically invisible until this crisis hit. But the more they share their experiences, it seems increasingly like a case of turning a blind eye. Seeing their role in the process that brings our food from the farm to our table, or door, is just a first step. Hearing them is an even higher priority in the process of making sound public policy that values their lives and livelihoods.

Last month, seven essential undocumented and migrant workers spoke candidly about their struggles to call attention to the issue of access to income supports during this crisis for workers like them. Farm workers, domestic workers, delivery workers and more. “We’re not asking for a handout,” said Danilo Dee, a temporary foreign worker in Edmonton. “We are workers like anybody else and we don’t deserve to be left behind.”

Anelyse Weiler, Janet McLaughlin, Susana Caxaj, and Donald Cole are public health practitioners and academics who study issues facing migrant agricultural workers. They agree with Danilo and his co-workers. “We urge against using this crisis as an excuse to double down on policies that degrade food chain workers’ bargaining power, job security and working conditions, or to heighten xenophobia against migrant workers. Policies that undermine workers’ rights under the guise of crisis circumstances are hard to undo later.” 

As Ramadan comes to a close, governments are loosening stay-at-home measures even as public health officials say it’s too soon. I’m thinking ever more deeply about the principles, routines and actions we take forward into our new realities. Will this time away from old habits be a catalyst for authentic change or just a blip that was endured?

The hope that is expressed at the conclusion of every Ramadan is that the month of conscious restraint leaves us with the benefit of an expanded perspective on what makes for a better way of living, and calls on us to renew our commitment to what matters most. It is a reminder to me that the recipe for justice needs genuine, consistent and collective human effort. Here and now.