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Promoting cultural diversity through food in “multicultural” Toronto

published in feburary 2011
By Marilena Liguori

The City of Toronto prides itself on being “one of the most multicultural cities in the world”. From a demographic perspective, this seems to be the case given that half of its population is born outside of Canada and over 140 languages and dialects are spoken there[1]. But does the presence of immigrants alone make a city “multicultural” ? And what does it mean for Toronto to define itself as “multicultural” ?

Cultural diversity has become a central component in the way in which Toronto defines itself and constitutes its image. This “celebration of difference” has been used to promote Toronto as a global city to foster economic development and growth by conveying a favourable climate to attract tourists and investment. This is often achieved by marketing “ethnic” neighbourhoods (Chinatown, Little Italy, Greektown, Little India, etc.), festivals (Caribana, Taste of Danforth, etc.), and restaurants.

 The marketing and commodification of ethno-cultural diversity in Toronto is exemplified by various branding strategies that present multiculturalism as a product for spectacle and consumption. One such initiative is ‘Toronto a la Cart’, a three-year pilot program to bring “ethnic” food to the streets of Toronto that was launched in May 2009. The program’s motto is “think globally, eat locally” and has four main goals : 1) Promoting healthier fast food choices ; 2) Providing convenient opportunities to try new, ethno cultural food items and promoting local cuisine ; 3) Strengthening Toronto’s image by branding the City as a place where residents and visitors can enjoy a vast array of diverse cuisine ; 4) Contributing to the recognition of Toronto as a desirable destination within the growing culinary tourism industry.

The ‘Toronto a la Cart’ program is not only an entrepreneurial strategy for the city, but it was also conceived as a way to provide immigrants with a business investment alternative. However, participants received no assistance from the City and were expected to come up with $30,000 to $40,000 in order to cover associated costs including purchase of the food cart, location fees and various municipal permits and licences that need to be renewed each year. Not only did these stringent requirements exclude a large number of possible participants, those vendors who were selected for the program have seen their investment turn into a financial burden. After the first year of the program, the majority of the eight vendors who were selected for the program (after passing a difficult selection process) have accumulated a significant amount of debt mainly because of disappointing sales and the tight regulations that were imposed upon them, including location, rents, and health and safety inspections.

As the second season of the program began in the spring 2010, only five vendors could be found throughout the city since the others decided that it was simply not worth it to continue the business. I was in Toronto during this time carrying out fieldwork for my doctoral research and had the opportunity to visit the carts on many occasions. I sat near the carts and observed the comings and goings of customers, chatted with the vendors and, of course, tasted the food, which consisted of Korean, Thai, Middle Eastern, Carribean Fusion, and Indian dishes. The vendors were eager to tell their stories and express their dissatisfaction with the program in the hopes that some change would occur and that somehow they could recuperate from the financial blow.

The ‘Toronto a la Cart’ program can be considered as part of one of the components in the consolidation of the competitive city, namely the city of difference (Boudreau et al., 2009). As Kipfer and Keil (2002 : 236) note, “the city of difference denotes those municipal policies and discourses that support the integration of “culture” and an aesthetic of diversity into urban development and strategies of economic competitiveness”. In addition, such branding exercises tend to reify notions of difference given that they are based on a superficial conception of ethno-cultural diversity, which is used as a marketing tool to promote what Goonewardena and Kipfer (2005 : 672) call a “‘food-and-festivals’ brand of aestheticized difference - premised largely on the exotic pleasures of ‘visible’ and ‘edible’ ethnicity”. In the case of ‘Toronto a la Cart’, this is exemplified by the fact that participants cannot change their menu and must stick to serving food that was approved by city officials and a panel of “food experts”. Further, the vendors are required to prepare their food in a kitchen that has been inspected by Toronto Public Health and cannot cook at the cart itself. Not only did this create logistical problems in terms of transporting food (as well as the cart itself), but it also conflicted with the some of the participants’ notion of street food vending who would prefer to cook right on the cart and have seating space available for customers.

 

The ‘Toronto a la Cart’ program also illustrates some practices that are characteristic of neoliberal urbanism, such as the regulated access to public space and the creation of standardized spaces. This relates to what Parazelli (2009) refers to as the “eco-sanitary imaginary”. This term is used to describe a mode of governance or management of streets in the context of processes of globalization. The City of Toronto selected what they considered prime locations with high visibility and high traffic. However, the chosen locations are found mainly in areas with concentrations of office towers, so mainly geared towards the lunch-time business crowd. It is also interesting to note the numerous locations that are missing, such as those near tourist attractions and busy downtown shopping neighbourhoods. Further, as mentioned earlier, not only did municipal bureaucrats choose which food was to be sold, but the food matched with each location did not reflect the composition of the neighbourhood, which some vendors believe would have sparked more interest and ultimately improve sales

Next year, the ‘Toronto a la Cart’ program will be in its last year and the future of these vendors remains to be seen, particularly since the City has sought to distance itself from the program and the new mayor Rob Ford has pledged to streamline municipal government through budget cuts. 

 References

Boudreau, J.A., R. Keil and D. Young. 2009. Changing Toronto : Governing Urban Neoliberalism. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 190 p.

Goonewardena, K. and S, Kipfer. 2005. Spaces of Difference : Reflections from Toronto on

Multiculturalism, Bourgeois Urbanism and the Possibility of Radical Urban Politics. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 29 (3) : 670-8.

Kipfer, S. and R. Keil. 2002. Toronto.Inc ? Planning the Competitive City in the New Toronto. Antipode, 34 (2) : 227-64.

Parazelli, M. 2009. « Existe-t-il une « morale globale » de la régulation de la rue ? Réflexions autour de l’hypothèse d’un imaginaire écosanitaire ». Géographie et Cultures, 71 : 91-111.

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