When Anan Lololi decided to start a bulk-buying food service for immigrants in 1995, he had no idea the impact it would have on tackling food insecurity.
Lololi recognized residents in the African and Black communities had a difficult time accessing foods that were staples in their culture because of the high import fees.
They decided to pool their resources and purchase foods in bulk from the food terminal and local farmers which significantly decreased the cost.
This was the birth of the Afri-Can FoodBasket (AFB).
Since then, the program has expanded far beyond the original purpose and continues to serve the African and Black communities in various ways.
One of the biggest changes the AFB has made to its programming is the introduction of urban agricultural programs in the form of the Ujamaa Farm, Backyard Gardens and the Cultivating Youth Leadership initiatives.
The Ujamaa Farm program is a program that encourages sustainable farming in Ontario. The AFB was able to secure one acre of land at Jane and Steeles, which later aided in the development of the Black Creek Community Farm.
The Cultivating Youth Leadership program aims to get young adults involved in growing safe, organic and culturally-sensitive food. Participants are able to plan the layout of the farm, plant the seeds and harvest the crops at the end of the season.
Son of Lololi, Zakiya Tafari, says the program has not only helped many participants develop a deeper appreciation for fresh foods, but it’s also helped to address the stigma around farming.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of co-relation between slavery and farming so we work to take away those stigmas and show them the importance of sustainable agriculture and cutting down on environmental waste by growing locally,” said Tafari.
Tafari also says the program is able to provide youth with summer employment through funds from the Canada Summer Jobs program.
The Afri-Can FoodBasket has also partnered with Toronto Public Health and Toronto Community Housing (TCH) to help establish over 100 backyard gardens across the city.
The gardens are primarily in communities that have TCH buildings and the homes of seniors who have extra space in their yards.
Like many organizations, AFB has altered their programs to fit the needs of its users during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tafari says before the pandemic, over 24 percent of Black households in Toronto were experiencing food insecurity.
That number has increased exponentially since last March.
As a result, AFB launched a new program called Black Food Toronto.
The program takes the original food basket concept and provides a culturally sensitive food box to Black families impacted by the pandemic, delivered to their door, free of cost.
Many of the produce used in the baskets are from the Ujamaa Farm.
Tafari, who also manages the Black Food Toronto Program, says the importance of providing culturally sensitive foods is often overlooked by many food banks.
He says many immigrants using the services are not used to eating the non-perishable food provided by the banks, which can affect their health.
“Sometimes you’ll go to a restaurant and you order something that’s from a different culture because you want to try something unique. But for a lot of people, what you’re trying is a staple to them and they would like to enjoy that on a regular basis and maintain that cultural diet which keeps them healthy over time.”
Tafari also says the pandemic has both magnified and amplified the issue of food insecurity across the country.
“We’ve been doing this for 25 years and unfortunately not a lot has changed,” he said. “Food insecurity in the African, Caribbean and Black community is not a new thing, but there aren’t a lot of organizations trying to address the issue and that means we have to stretch the funding to get it done.”
The organization currently has a waitlist of over 3,000 people.
If you would like to support the Afri-Can FoodBasket, you can make a donation on the Black Food Toronto Website via PayPal or via e-transfer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And for more ways to get involved you can visit their website.