Until a few months ago, before Coronavirus had changed the face of cities around the Globe, Toronto was in the throes of another ongoing public health issue: Food insecurity. In 2019, roughly 18.5% of all Toronto households had inadequate access to nutrition. The pandemic compounded this existing problem by severely restricting services of foodbanks that vulnerable populations depend on for sustenance. One of the many foodbanks that closed following the lockdown was University of Toronto's. Deeply disturbed by the predicament of his peers, many of whom are economically vulnerable, 2020 Student Fellow and Student Academy member Adam El-Masri, with support from a groups of similarly driven U of T students, put into motion the creation of a contactless foodbank for students. UofT Emergency Foodbank allows students to register on a weekly basis to receive a Good Food box serving 2-4 students. Over 200 such boxes have already been delivered.
To understand what made him embark on this ambitious project and the motivation behind his dedication, we asked Adam a few questions about his journey so far. Here's what he had to say.
How did you get involved with the emergency food bank initiative? Can you talk a bit about the work being done with this initiative?
It started as a fact-finding mission with the poverty alleviation team at Engineers Without Border in the summer of 2019 to better understand food waste on campus and whether we could build a program to divert safe-to-consume food to communities in need. Through that, we met like-minded individuals at The Food Mission (a subsidiary of Trek for Teens), and together we created the initiative as a response to the closure of the University’s only food bank due to COVID-19. To date, we have safely fed students over 200 times and we are currently working to expand our funding, outreach, and program logistics to serve a larger segment of the student body. We’d like to publish our data so that we have a basis to demonstrate the need for a solution that is more permanent.
What have you learned working in the field about the issue of food insecurity in Toronto? Please share them with us.
According to the City of Toronto, roughly 1 in 5 households are affected by food insecurity and it’s considered a public health crisis. Every day we interact with people who are food insecure. It’s often invisible and it certainly affects people we care about in our personal and professional circles. Unfortunately, it affects our students whom we often consider our society’s ‘future leaders’. With that said, the communities in Toronto are resilient and have always come together to support each other. This initiative is one of at least 3 on-campus and it exists because of the support from various organizations including FoodShare.
What is the one thing you'd want Torontonians to observe or act on which could help enhance food security amongst vulnerable communities?
On an individual level, everyone can do their part by reducing food-waste and donating time or money to valuable skills-building programs in vulnerable communities, especially for youth. Food is often the first expense that is reduced by those affected by poverty and it negatively impacts wellbeing and access to economic opportunity. On a societal level, this is a solvable problem given that we are one of the world’s most economically affluent cities. We need to acknowledge access to nutritious food as a universal right, modernize the industrial food chain to eliminate waste, and implement food programs in our educational institutions. We must make food banks redundant in our lifetime.
Do you think the pandemic has impacted our relationship with food, and if it has, how?
I think so – people are making small but meaningful steps to develop closer relationships with their food, from maintaining sourdough starters to re-growing green onions from scraps. I think people are also acknowledging how important it is to have access to food whether it’s because the crisis has exposed serious gaps in our society or because their favorite restaurants closed.
Funding for food access programs, grassroots initiatives, and viral acts of kindness from local restaurants are a testament to how quickly people have recognized the need to support each other through food. I’ve personally used the sharing of food as a way to visit others and stay connected (at a distance).
How will your SofC fellowship help you in your goal to make a positive impact?
My fellowship project focuses on developing a non-profit, reusable coffee cup program in order to reduce single-use plastic waste in a manner that is accessible to consumers and coffee shops. Despite that, my fellowship has been valuable for this project as it’s allowed my team and I to tap into the wealth of knowledge and resources within the SoC-fostered community of academics, student peers and external organizations. This initiative, similar to the SoC, is aiming to bridge the world of academia, advocacy, grass-roots community work and private industry in order to generate positive social impact. On a personal level, the encouragement and kinds words of support from SoC faculty and staff has galvanized my team and I to push forward and work hard.
Adam is a 4th+ year Computer Science and Indigenous Studies major with over 6 years’ experience in the field of software engineering including social innovation, autonomous vehicles, cryptocurrency, finance, education and health technologies. He is a software development instructor with the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and a head teaching assistant within the department of Computer Science where he co-developed a partnership program pairing student software development teams with research groups, medical institutions and non-profits such as the Vector Institute, Harvard Medical School, StopGap and the Special Olympics . He has been actively involved in civic engagement and community building for over 4 years focusing on poverty alleviation, access to education and social impact as a volunteer and leader of numerous non-profit projects through CivicTechTO and Engineers Without Borders. He is a former Jackman Scholar-in-Residence and has received numerous awards for his leadership in community service. Above all else, Adam is a long-time and passionate Torontonian who is fixated on leveraging technology, community activism and academia for the purposes of bettering our society.