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Feeding The City: Pandemic & Beyond

Would the food system be able to feed a large city like Toronto if it were to experience large-scale system shock? Once a hypothetical question of food system scholars, the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the foundations of urban provisioning. This project tracks how food growers and buyers, community food providers, and civil society organizations in Toronto are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways they are responding to maintain food access and alleviate food insecurity. Scholars at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University are partnering to collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data from vulnerable sections of food consumers, food workers, producers, providers, agri-food networks, and social enterprises. Our goal is to understand how local communities are meeting the challenges of this pandemic and to learn how they can best be supported.

Food access is one of the most immediate logistical issues with which individuals, businesses and government bodies are preoccupied during COVID-19. Our research is tracking how the circulation of food, as well as food insecurity, is affected by the pandemic, and how different food actors and local suppliers are responding to the situation. We approach this question from five perspectives.

Urban Growing

Our ongoing research among marginalized and racialized newcomers has shown how such sites for growing food are some of the few spaces for vulnerable groups to access affordable, healthy, culturally meaningful fresh food (Elton, 2019). Community-engaged research in marginal city neighbourhoods (Sharma & UTSC Students, 2017) demonstrates how newcomers actively initiate and participate in informal exchanges of seeds, gardening, and culinary knowledge. Our team is working with Toronto Urban Growers to implement health protocols and plans for successful urban growing during the pandemic.

Produce Supply chains

Since its establishment in the 1950s, the Ontario Food Terminal (OFT) located in South Etobicke has overseen the wholesaling of fresh produce in Toronto, throughout Ontario, and the Maritimes. The users of the OFT include farmers, independent retail grocers, restaurants and public institutions. We are conducting a longitudinal study of the purchasing by companies operating out of the terminal as well as those who buy from it, monitering how the pandemic is affecting the price, quality, variety, and availability of local and global foods. Our research builds on the recommendations of U of T planning students for how the OFT can better serve the city’s food system.

Local agriculture and farm-consumer connections 

Ontario farmers are responding to the threats and opportunities presented by the pandemic, but face unprecedented challenges in doing so. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the National Farmers Union has highlighted issues of safety for migrant farm workers involved in seasonal labour, and for the health of participants in farmers’ markets. Farms engaged in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) have shown the ability to adapt to strict public health guidelines, but more support is needed to sustain these operations and help them transition to online marketing. Cooperative initiatives such as food hubs and community kitchens might also enhance the safe and sanitary local processing of food items and prepared meals, and minimize food waste. We are investigating how small-scale farmers can be integrated into the existing food supply chains to relieve pressure on them in the short term and strengthen Toronto’s food provisioning system in the long term, beyond the pandemic.

Healthy food to children and youth

Since COVID-19 and the closure of schools, innovative programs have developed to distribute healthy food to children, youth and their families who were previously accessing school meal programs. In this unprecedented time, community organizations are partnering with schools to distribute meals, gift cards and boxes of healthy foods.  Our research group will assist these school food practitioners in gathering data, summarizing best practices that maintain the supply of health food for children and lessons learned that can inform the future development of a universal school food program for Canada.

Priority Neighbourhood Food Security

Before the pandemic, rates of food insecurity in Canada were higher than ever before, with 4.4 million people, including 1.2 million children under 18, unable to access enough food to eat (PROOF, 2020). Research on Canadian income assistance programs prior to COVID-19 found them to be generally insufficient, with more than two-thirds of recipients experiencing food insecurity. Frontline community organizations are now reporting that despite emergency federal assistance, the measures required for containing COVID-19 are intensifying food insecurity. Food sharing programs in priority neighbourhoods such as Malvern and Scarborough Southwest lack supplies and have been suspended, with programs in other neighbourhoods similarly vulnerable. Our research team will help identify these neighbourhoods where food, funds, and volunteers are urgently required, including by developing a food security survey for health-care providers to use with their patients.