No, we are not in this together: COVID-19 and food security by Ruth Siew

In June 2020, the Growing Stronger project, run out of the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute, hosted a webinar to discuss how COVID-19 has exacerbated food insecurity in Canada and worldwide. They asked: What new issues are we facing? How did we get here in the first place? What actions are required to mitigate these problems? 

Dean of the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences, Gwen Chapman, moderated the discussion. Panelists included Leticia Deawuo, Director at Black Creek Community Farms; Elizabeth Finnis, Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology; Robert Friendship, Professor in the Department of Population Medicine; and Arvinder Pannu, Masters candidate in Capacity Development and Extension Program. 

The uncomfortable truth is that food security does not affect everyone equally. Leticia Deawuo is the director at Black Creek Community Farm a hub of urban agriculture and social change that grows and sells accessible organic produce as well as provides community programming for all ages. Deawuo highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Canada’s marginalized populations. Deawuo showed that communities where many Black and racialized people live are hotspots of infection, pointing to the data recently released by the government. Many Black and racialized people are essential service workers, exposed on the front lines of farms, grocery stores and long-term care homes. Not only are they at a greater risk of contagion, they’re also paid extremely low wages. Deawuo noted that the need has been so great that when Black Creek Farm launched an emergency food program, over 2500 people signed up seeking support. 

As Arvinder Pannu put it, “this is a serious issue. We’re not just talking about running out of millennial quarantine-baking supplies here.” Pannu described the challenges facing Indigenous and rural communities, seniors, the homeless, and at-risk youth during this pandemic. He was particularly concerned about the unique challenges for students—shrinking budgets, cultural and institutional pressures and restricted transportation. Many international students have fallen through the cracks—they pay more for tuition, have lower social capital with few friends and family to rely on, and they don’t qualify for government relief funds like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). 

Elizabeth Finnis, Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, noted how small–scale family-owned farms, already stretched thin before COVID-19, may finally succumb to economic pressures. In physically isolated locations like Parry Sound, many farms struggle to access resources like animal feed and fertilizer and now, with the flow of tourists drying up, they struggle to sell their produce. Inadequate Internet access and aging farming populations exclude them from online markets. Many farms already face mounting pressures to sell their land to encroaching development of real estate, tourism and recreation. The strain caused by the pandemic may make selling one of few viable options. In the event of significant small farm closures, local food production will shrink even further. 

The inequalities mentioned above are not new. COVID-19 has only underscored pre-existing issues systemic to the current food system. Elizabeth Finnis posited that if there is any good coming out of this global pandemic, it is the potential to get people “thinking critically about supply chains, production, processing, labour and the environmental context of our food and… what hands our food passes through.”  

So what has COVID-19 revealed to us about our food system? 

Letitia Deawuo is critical of the pyramid shape of the food system—most of the wealth and profit is concentrated at the very top, owned by a few wealthy conglomerates and families. Why, she asked, should one company or one family receive all the profit? Why is it that those who are growing, processing, packing and even selling our food are paid the least? The pyramid needs to be shifted to ensure that the wealth and profit is distributed and shared more fairly. Little has been done to protect the lives of migrant farm workers who lack adequate housing, health benefits, and fair compensation. What we now call ‘essential service workers’ were essential before the pandemic began, and they will continue to provide essential services after it ends. 

Elizabeth Finnis detailed how highly centralized infrastructure and the lack of diversity in the food system has weakened food security. For example, relying on one huge abattoir to serve many regions means that if it fails, the entire supply chain breaks down. Having more, small-scale meat-processors would allow for a diverse and sturdier supply chain that better withstands mobility restrictions and adapts faster to changing health and safety requirements. However, it is not only processing that needs to be decentralized, but farming too. Finnis reports how governments are channeling funding and support to ‘Big Agribusiness’, while ignoring the needs of small, local farmers.   

At the end of the webinar, someone asked how consumers could strive to improve food security. 

Deawuo urged that Canadians must push for systemic policy changes. She suggested that governments should be pressured to support and fund local farms, small scale growers, specialized agriculture programs for Black and Indigenous peoples, as well as urban agriculture. With 60% of our world living in urban settings, expanding urban agriculture is critical. Policies must ensure migrant workers are paid fairly and have access to health benefits and appropriate housing. With ever increasing costs of living in the city, workers need to be paid living wages. And after COVID-19, essential workers should continue to receive danger pay. 

Pannu encouraged a push for increasing food literacy in school systems. He advocated for people turning to their own homes and families— growing our own gardens and exploring the many social initiatives within our own communities. Pannu described, which employs at-risk youth and senior citizens on their farms. The produce is then sold to local communities, with items priced on a sliding scale. The produce that is not sold gets upcycled in their kitchens staffed by out-of-work youth. 

The rise of e-commerce and online marketing for food has grown rapidly since the pandemic began. Pannu reported that there has been a rise in online farmer markets, both in B.C. and here in Ontario. Elizabeth Finnis encourages local farmers to use the online platform to engage with new customers, and to expand the diversity of what they produce. 

There are so many ways forward and yet Letitia Deawuo cautions against complacency. If we fail to address existing structural inequalities, the future will look just the same as it did before COVID-19. “‘The system’, she argued, “is set up to kill people. People are dying from issues we can fix.” 

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