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Hacking Food: U of T initiative tackles food security in Canada’s largest city

“working together to tackle food security, one of the biggest problems of our time" (photo by Dale Sood)

Imagine if Toronto became the first large city in the world where everyone could access healthy, delicious, affordable food within walking distance 365 days a year.

Recently, U of T students, faculty and staff, and community partners came together to make the first steps of that vision a reality through a two-day “Hacking Food” event.

“We are working together to try to tackle food security, one of the biggest problems of our time,” said Alex Jadad, director of U of T’s Institute for Global Health Equity and Innovation (IGHEI). “We’re focusing on Toronto as an incubator to create solutions for an overarching challenge for our society, because in Toronto we have a world within a city.”

Over the two days, participants generated ideas, brainstormed solutions and began to map out whether or not they could create viable business models around three key themes: eliminating hunger, erasing “food deserts” and building a resilient city in the face of a catastrophic incident.

Second-year U of T environmental science student Jiayi Chen attended the event.

“Our group was focusing on minimizing food waste and eradicating hunger,” Chen said. “It was really intense working out a solution in such a short period of time, but even though at the end of the two days we didn’t have a perfect solution to the problem, our ideas changed a lot during the discussion. It’s definitely more clear in terms of what we’re trying to solve.” 

Born and raised in Beijing, Chen has been in Canada for two years. Toronto is a change of pace. But, she says, “as I get more exposed to the startup ecosystem, I find that Toronto is definitely the ideal place for this type of initiative. There are more creative ideas here that are working towards the bigger picture.” 

Hacking Food brought participants to FoodShare and Evergreen Brick Works, two non-profit staples in Toronto’s food and sustainability community. Participants gained a practical understanding of some of the initiatives already in place in Toronto and were inspired to brainstorm ideas that could be transformed into social ventures to tackle one of the three main themes of the event.  

On the second day, three distinct groups formed to shape their ideas into projects around topics identified at the first workshop: food waste, social philanthropy and bringing food to people. 

U of T political science and economics alumna Karen Nguyen also attended the event, linking her interest in community development to her desire to help find sustainable food options in Toronto.

“I’m very interested in social entrepreneurship because instead of just trying to gain a profit, you’re making a social impact that is important for your community.”  (Learn more about social entrepreneurship)

Even though the event is over, the work is far from done. The teams will continue to develop their business models with support from U of T’s campus-linked accelerators before returning in July to pitch to a group of partners and funders from the community for a chance to obtain funding to implement their ideas.

Hacking Food is a project under the One Toronto for the World Initiative, a collabortion led by the IGHEI at U of T. Inspired by the 2015 Pan Am Games, the initiative seeks to transform the city into an incubator for solutions to the most pressing challenges of our time through public engagement and promotion of social ventures. IGHEI also houses The Agency, a unifying hub which seeks to amplify the collective efforts of departments, faculties, teaching staff, students, institutes and centres that are all focused on or contribute to social entrepreneurship at U of T.

The event was jointly sponsored by the Ontario Centres of Excellence, the Institute for Global Health Equity and Innovation, and the Health Innovation Hub at U of T, as well as community partners FoodShare Toronto and Evergreen Brick Works.

“We don’t want to duplicate efforts,” explained Jadad. “We just want to create more magic than what is happening already by connecting, linking, aligning and inviting people to create social change.”

Interested in entrepreneurship at U of T? Visit the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship