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Regent Park's forward-thinking food movement

Kids admiring fresh sprouting pea shoots.

Kids planting gardens in Regent Park.

Kids planting gardens in Regent Park.

Picking berries.

Paint Box Bistro has become emblematic of Regent Park's current status as a neighbourhood in radical transition; straddling the ambiguous and heavily contested line between gentrification and revitalization. Paint Box, the cheerful, year-old restaurant run by Chris Klugman, is nestled into a corner of the Daniels Spectrum building in the heart of Regent Park. It's lunch menu favours local ingredients, but is considered pricey.  But, says Klugman, "To call what is happening in our neighbourhood gentrification does everyone here, and particularly the proud long-term residents, a disservice."
The revitalization of Regent Park is a hot topic lately, especially when it comes to where food fits into the chronicle. Dave Kranenburg, the director of programs at the Centre for Social Innovation (which operates one of its locations out of Daniels Spectrum), is equally adamant that the revitalization is not at all an act of forced gentrification. He says that although lunch at Paint Box would not be financially accessible to many of Regent Park's residents, places such as the restaurant are essential to Regent Park's emergence as a destination for food and food programming. As a neighbourhood in an uncommonly unique position of reimagining itself, Regent Park opens up a fascinating niche for food systems to flourish.

Paint Box has plans to make the restaurant's menu more affordable, but they face unique financial difficulties as the only certified B corporation restaurant in Canada. The nonprofit B lab certifies B corps to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. These B corps focus on sustainability and fair trade. He says that due to this accreditation, Paint Box "doesn't enjoy the financial support of government or foundations as would a non-profit or a charity." Sales are generated through the restaurant and catering services to support a "mission of employment and career development to Regent Park residents and other marginalized groups," Klugman says.
Regent Park's new farmers' market is another initiative with a mission to change Regent Park's role in Toronto's food economy.
Cookie Roscoe, the manager of the farmers' market, says the process of kickstarting the market has been an opportunity to prove that "the perception that farmer's markets are for rich white people is totally false." She says that one of the first things she was told when the idea of a market in Regent Park cropped up was that "the food has to be cheap."
To make this happen, Roscoe invited urban gardening collectives such as SPIN (a DIY food production system motivated by a large group of individuals harvesting their backyard or rooftop garden crops) to sell at Regent Park's new market. She says these "small, local, urban-centre guys" are often left out of the major market circuit in the city because "these are people who can have a full-time job and do this farming thing three times a week. They can undersell farmers at markets because it doesn't cost them nearly as much to do what they're doing."
At the Regent Park market, the hyper-local urban gardeners win out every time with their affordability. Groups such as SPIN and Farm Start have teamed up with vendors from the community to create a farmers' market that is fuelled as much as possible by Regent Park's residents. "Regent Park is feeding Regent Park as much as it possibly can," Roscoe says.
The market moves to dispel the cultural myth that markets can't be an affordable and pleasant way for a community to buy their groceries. "I love the local food movement, but if I can’t make it make sense to the people I grew up with—the blue collar electricians and handymen, its not going to work. It has to compete on price and taste," Kranenburg says. "The real change happens when [local, sustainable food] is just what's there. It's the only option because that's what's competing on price."

Kranenburg has big dreams for how food systems could continue to grow in Regent Park. His goal is to make changes specifically to the middle of the food system. "The localized food movement it not just about markets," he says, "it's also the abattoirs, processing plants and tanneries that need to change. We need to totally re-imagine the middle of the food system and new ways of distribution."
Ultimately, Kranenburg would like to obtain the funding to house a new "Agents of Change" program at CSI Regent Park, where he would cultivate ten projects that are trying to achieve food goals.
For some residents of Regent Park, learning about food systems is a hands-on approach that starts at a young age. Green Thumbs Growing Kids is a non-profit based in Regent Park and St. James Town that aims to help connect children and their families to their food by giving them the tools and education to grow, harvest, and enjoy their own food using spaces in public schools and parks. 

"There is a huge sense of community in Regent Park,” Green Thumbs' Veronica Summerhill says. "There's a lot of culture that exists here and doesn't exist outside of Regent Park. There's also a chance that children aren't given the opportunity to eat organic food because they can't afford to. These gardens are completely free. It's a place where we can do the most good and reach the most people."

Summerhill has witnessed the extraordinary pride children take in their gardens, watching as they drag their parents by the hand to point out a new variety of squash they've never seen before.  She speaks to the power of gardening as a learning tool, and finds that it's something that comes naturally to children in particular and that "gardening seems to be something children can connect very easily to."
If the middle of the food system is going to change, it seems appropriate to house a trial project in Regent Park. A neighbourhood that is both fertile and vital to the food community, Regent Park has the unique potential to redefine itself as a food hub, subvert stereotypes, and create a niche in Toronto that is singularly influential. 

Charlotte Bondy is a freelance writer. Originally from Toronto, she is currently based in Dublin, where she is pursuing a master's degree in creative writing.
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