Helping People and the Planet: How a Toronto Urban Farm Supports Local Growers, Producers, and Consumers During the COVID-19 Pandemic By Angela Gong

Masks, hand sanitizer, face shields. Stickers placed six feet apart, lining the floor and facilitating physical distancing. Clear, plastic windows at the checkout counter. These are familiar images in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought widespread disruption to the ways people obtain food. Some have turned towards growing produce to reduce the frequency of grocery store visits. Others have opted to stay away from stores altogether, utilizing online delivery services to have groceries brought right to their doors. And more people than ever are looking to local growers, within the city itself, for a sustainable source of food and transparency in how their groceries move through the supply chain. But how many of these changes are here to stay? Will urban growing be important to a building a resilient food system? And what is the long-term importance of sustainable, ethical, and transparent sourcing for consumers?

Fresh City Farms, a Toronto-based small-scale food distributor, is an important case study in examining how the pandemic has shifted consumer behaviours and informed the future of a resilient food system. Fresh City’s CEO and Founder, Ran Goel, describes the business as a “values-driven company” which aims to source locally and organically whenever possible, operate sustainably with minimal environmental impact, and maintain high labour standards at all points in their supply chain. A portion of their produce is grown right in the city, from their two growing locations at Downsview Park and Baka Mobile. The remainder of their produce and products are sourced from Southern Ontario and abroad, with an average of 70% of these groceries produced locally. Customers can order groceries online for delivery, or visit one of their eight locations across Toronto, including Fresh City stores as well as Mabel’s Bakery and Specialty Foods, and The Healthy Butcher, which were both acquired by the company in late 2018 and early 2019.

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Ran Goel, CEO and Founder (left), and Julianne Keech, Farm Manager (right).
(Photos: Fresh City Farms)

During the pandemic, Fresh City has experienced an unprecedented increase in online orders, which in turn increased pressures on the company-operated farms to meet demand. “We usually have a projected harvest that plays out over the whole summer,” says Fresh City’s Farm Manager Julianne Keech. But in early June, when the first spring crops were ready, the farmers were asked to send as much as possible, as quickly as possible, to distribute to customers throughout Toronto. The farm also saw increased demand from foot traffic in Downsview Park, and installed a self-serve kiosk for visitors to purchase fresh produce on-site. 

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The self-serve station at Fresh City’s Downsview Park location. (Photos: Angela Gong)

Parallel to increasing interest in buying local, organic produce from Fresh City in-person at Downsview Park, more and more visitors have come looking for growing space. Fresh City Farms currently runs their Member Farmer Program, which provides land to individuals who want to grow and sell produce, run educational workshops, or grow for self-sufficiency. However, both Keech and Goel highlight a lack of diversity in the Member Farmer group, and a tendency for the program and company itself to attract farmers and consumers from privileged backgrounds. Moving forward from the pandemic, and through an upcoming expansion at Downsview Park, Keech hopes that they can develop the program to better “meet the needs of the community right around [the park], whether that means providing growing space, affordable produce, or just a nice place to be and [to learn] about the farm.” 

Fresh City Farms has also committed to partnerships to better serve vulnerable communities in the larger Toronto population. Prior to the pandemic, Fresh City started a connection with Native Child and Family Services to provide them with a plot and begin delivering programming for the organization. During the pandemic, the company has helped Black Creek Community Farm sell their products, and through a donation from shareholders, Fresh City gave $10,000 of food to frontline healthcare workers. Further, through a partnership with FoodShare Toronto, Fresh City has raised approximately $40,000 to help deliver FoodShare’s Emergency Good Food Box to vulnerable communities and individuals in Toronto. While the initiative has certainly yielded monetary benefits for food security, Goel views the partnership, and the role of the company more broadly, as “consciousness-raising,” particularly through sharing the political nature of food and the impacts of the current food system. “We’re relying on non-profits to do the work that governments should be doing, and to address food security at the margins, rather than really tackling it in a decisive way. We’re not going to be able to solve the problem unless governments step up.”

Fresh City also aims to improve the food system by supporting like-minded local small businesses, and being the “first customer”, so as to provide honest feedback and help new producers enter the food system. “The benefit they get is [our] customer base that’s very passionate and interested in these products,” Goel states. “Working with us gives them some extra credibility in the marketplace.” And during the pandemic, Fresh City has sourced produce from larger local farms who relied heavily on food service sales, such as The New Farm and Slegers Living Organic Greens, thus helping support their business through the pandemic and contributing to resilience of the Ontario food system. 

These numerous roles that Fresh City plays in the food system—supporting Toronto growers and communities, raising awareness about food system impacts, and partnering with local food producers—ultimately serve to promote sustainable, ethical, and resilient food systems in Toronto and beyond. But for Goel, there is still work to be done, and the bottom line is the price of food. He calls for improved standards across the board, from labour, to meat sourcing, to environmental regulations banning harmful chemicals. “There are various things that need to be done environmentally and socially, and we will spend more on food, but ultimately I think we will be healthier for it.” But how can we motivate the political will to set these standards? And how do we maintain and expand the customer base that values responsible sourcing enough to pay the increased cost? 

Keech suggests that education is a key component in driving food system reform. “When I first learned about the impacts of agriculture on the environment, I was shocked. I decided I wanted to become a farmer, because [sustainable agriculture] is such an important way to combat climate change.” Informing the public and policy-makers about the negative impacts of our current food system may help to increase the value that people place in sustainability, and push the boundaries of what consumers expect from food distributors. According to Goel, this is precisely what Fresh City ultimately aims to accomplish. “Our values are such that it’s always a pursuit. The role I see for us is shifting the standard higher and higher, redefining what is possible, and giving customers and competitors a sense of what is possible.” Government interventions, through economic and environmental approaches, can help to create more businesses such as Fresh City Farms, which source ethically and sustainably, while expanding the customer base that can afford to live a sustainable lifestyle. And ultimately, our society can work towards a resilient and economically equal food future.

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Downsview Park (left) and Baka Mobile (right), the two Fresh City-operated farms.
(Photos: Fresh City Farms, Julianne Keech)

Fresh City’s produce bags being loaded into a delivery van. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Fresh City has implemented non-contact deliveries with larger windows, allowing them to serve more customers. The company is also reducing risk to customers by using recyclable cardboard boxes rather than their reusable tote bags. (Photo: Fresh City Farms)

Bread being made at Mabel’s Bakery. Fresh City acquired Mabel’s Bakery and Healthy Butcher in 2018 and 2019 as part of an ongoing effort to provide organic baked goods, meat, and prepared foods at their stores. Mabel’s uses high-quality, organic and locally-sourced ingredients to offer homestyle baked goods, artisan breads and cheese, and prepared foods and meals. (Photo: Fresh City Farms)

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Fresh City’s newest location at Bay and Gerrard. The store opened at the start of the pandemic, and offered discounted prepared items to frontline healthcare workers at nearby hospitals. In the future, Goel hopes that the company will be able to do quick and convenient deliveries from bricks and mortar stores. (Photo: Fresh City Farms)

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Interior of Fresh City’s Ossington location. Fresh City maintains its sourcing philosophy with prepared foods, using organic and ethically-sourced ingredients for their commissary products. (Photo: Fresh City Farms)

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A farmer working in the Baka Mobile greenhouse in the winter. Protected growing allows Fresh City, along with other Ontario farmers, to supply produce in colder months. As a result, Fresh City is able to sell, on average, 70% locally-grown produce throughout the year. (Photo: Julianne Keech)

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