Gallery: Fresh City Farms by Angela Gong

This is a series of photos taken by Angela Gong at Fresh City Farms’ Downsview Park location. The photos highlight various components of the urban farming experience, as well as the changes that occurred with physical distancing measures and pandemic-related closures. Click here to read more about Angela’s experience farming with her family. 

April 22, 2017. A bean seedling in the Fresh City Farms greenhouse at Downsview Park. Member Farmers have access to greenhouse space for the first few months of the growing season to cultivate seedlings and prepare for outdoor transplant.  When the pandemic started, Member Farmers at Fresh City Farms were still allowed to use the greenhouse, with limitations on the number of people working inside at the same time. 


July 16, 2017. Several flowers blooming on a sunflower stalk. In the background, the busy Keele and Sheppard intersection bustles. We often hear cars honking and people chatting as the soundtrack for our farming experience. 


May 16, 2018. Sunset at Downsview Park after an evening of farming. Crops are sheltered from pests by a row cover, which is anchored in place using bricks and pipes brought from home.  


August 28, 2019. Our 2019 garlic and potato yields. Of the 550 bulbs harvested that year, the largest bulbs were further separated into 750 cloves to be planted during Thanksgiving weekend. The remaining bulbs were stored for use throughout the year, or given to family and friends for planting and consumption. Our family shares many of our extra yields with other farmers, friends, and neighbours, in order to share our farming experience


April 18, 2020. In the early days of pandemic-related closures, farming provided much-needed time outside for my family. Uninterrupted land access was critical in mitigating some negative physical and mental health effects of the pandemic, demosntrating why community gardens should stay open during times such as these. 


June 14, 2020. A row of thriving swiss chard plants. While many plants, planted at the start of pandemic-related closures Urban growers who could not access land in the first few months of restrictions missed a critical time for planting seedlings, thus delaying the time to harvest and reducing their crop diversity for this season. 


June 14, 2020. A view of Fresh City Farms with the Keele and Sheppard intersection in the horizon. The large open space at the farm makes it easy for Member Farmers to adhere to physical distancing measures during the pandemic. 


June 28, 2020. In regular years, Fresh City Farms hosts weekly U-Picks where the public can come to the farm to pick and buy their own produce. While the U-Picks are not running this summer, Fresh City has installed a fridge next to the field, stocked with produce for self-serve, so the public can still visit the farm to grab some fresh vegetables. 

Article Highlight: Food Workers Have Always Been Essential—Give Them What Is Theirs By Erik Hazard and Leila Mzali

This article coming from Foodfirst.org highlights the various issues faced by both migrant food workers as well as local food workers. It highlights key points of interest such as:

Free market Food Systems and Exploited Labor.

Corporations, Worker Vulnerability, and Forced Labor Migration.

Organized labor, Solidarity, and Resilience.

All of which play an important role in the conversation around Covid-19 and the role of Food workers as essential workers.

To read more please follow the link here: https://foodfirst.org/foodworkers-have-always-been-essential-give-them-what-is-theirs/

Urban Farming in a Pandemic: Implications for Urban Food Systems By Angela Gong

This past March marked the start of my family’s fourth growing season as Member Farmers at Fresh City Farms. After planning through the winter months, it was finally time to plant our seedlings in the Downsview Park greenhouse, and prepare our 2000 square feet of land for another summer of farming. As the Government of Ontario began to close down schools, non-essential businesses, and recreational areas in March, Fresh City Farms remained open, being a critical element of the Toronto urban food system. Thus, our growing season was allowed to commence with relatively little disruption.  

In normal years, our growing season goes roughly as follows: in March and April, we plant and transplant seedlings in the greenhouse to facilitate their initial growth; in May and June, we transfer our seedlings to our outdoor space, and directly sow other crops; and from July to October, we maintain our plot and harvest produce. This year’s growing season did not deviate much from previous years—at least not as a result of COVID-19. The long cold spell in May killed some of our seedlings and delayed time to harvest for others, but we were mainly allowed to go about our duties as usual with some restrictions on greenhouse practices and social gatherings at the farm.  

While we were previously allowed to visit the greenhouse anytime to work or check on seedlings, Member Farmers are now required to sign up for time slots to work, and only three farmers are allowed in the greenhouse at a time. We can no longer host barbecues and potlucks to share produce and home-cooked dishes among Member Farmers, due to physical distancing measures. Pandemic-related closures have also affected the food distribution process for urban farmers. Many Member Farmers sell their produce, flowers, and herbs at local Farmers’ Markets or U-Picks organized by Fresh City Farms, the former of which has only recently reopened, and the latter of which will not be reopening for the foreseeable future.  

For my family, these restrictions are inconvenient but widely overshadowed by the benefits of being able to continue farming through the pandemic. Through urban agriculture, we have had a space for outdoor exposure and physical activity, we can still socialize with other Member Farmers from afar, and we are able to distribute produce to friends and family by being mindful about physical distancing. In reality, while the pandemic has not significantly impacted our activities at Fresh City Farms, the urban farming experience has in fact improved our pandemic lifestyle. By regularly engaging in physical activity, connecting to nature, and maintaining some socialization, we have been able to stay physically and mentally healthy during the wholly stressful and unusual time of COVID-19.  

My family and I have benefitted greatly from being able to maintain uninterrupted access to growing space. However, many urban growers were not so lucky. This past March, as our growing season was starting, the Government of Ontario closed community and allotment gardens, thus taking away the growing space that many urban gardeners require. After strong public advocacy, including from Sustain OntarioToronto Urban Growers, and the Toronto Food Policy Council, the Government of Ontario issued an order on April 25 allowing the use of community and allotment gardens in Ontario. The initial closure of urban gardens demonstrated a strong risk that urban community food systems could close in a pandemic situation—what would happen to urban growers and other residents if urban food systems, including businesses such as Fresh City Farms, were forced to close? 

Urban food systems are an important source of food for many growers, particularly those facing food insecurity. My family is able to grow a diverse group of vegetable produce, with yields around 2-3 times more than we need to be self-sufficient (in terms of vegetable consumption, for our family of four). For food-insecure individuals and families, even a fraction of 2000 square feet could make a large impact in encouraging healthy, vegetable-rich diets. For example, the City of Toronto offers allotment gardens with 200 square feet of growing space, which would likely be enough to support 1-2 individuals for the summer (depending on production and consumption).  

In addition to nutrition- and diet-related impacts, the health benefits of urban growing include increased physical activity, and improved mental health. Urban gardens also provide an important source of community and social interaction, even with physical distancing measures in place. And for individuals who have lost income due to the pandemic, urban growing can help to reduce food costs of a household, and even become a source of income through produce sales. If urban food systems, both public and private, were to close again due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then all these benefits—health, social, and economic—would be lost.  

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity for cities to reflect on the importance of urban agriculture. The positive impacts of community gardens, particularly during a time of social and physical isolation, highlight the ways that urban food systems can benefit people’s livelihoods in cities. Ultimately, developing strong and far-reaching community garden networks can help not only to mitigate the isolating effects of a pandemic, but also to improve the daily lives of urban residents. 

For more information on Fresh City Farms, click here

Modified July 2, 2020: The list of groups who advocated for community garden reopening was expanded to contain Toronto-based groups, and the link to the health benefits of urban growing was modified to better summarize and reflect the main research findings in urban agriculture.  

The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series: Migrant Farm Workers’ Plight Can No Longer be Ignored

The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series  

A third migrant worker’s death in Ontario only highlights long-standing injustices in the agricultural programs that bring these workers to Canada 

Written by Stella-Luna Ha 

‘Migrant Workers’ may be a term that hardly rings a bell for many Canadians when they think about the local food system. This has changed recently though given that they are now in the spotlight as, for example, migrant workers were reported as representing 80 out of 404 new COVID-19 cases in Ontario on the first day of June alone. Approximately, 60,000 foreign workers arrive in Canada each year to work in farms or fisheries under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). As I was reaching the end of The Star article reporting on a third death of a migrant worker in Southwestern Ontario, I couldn’t help but to scroll down to the comment section. There I found two common themes with regard to the topic. One is a demonstration of the ‘whataboutism logical fallacy, as people respond to this loss of lives with a throw-their-hands-in-the-air exclamation: everybody dies, and a great many people have died as a result of COVID-19, so why should we prioritize mourning these workers? The second theme is a populist sentiment that points to the question: Why don’t we simply hire Canadians to save us these troubles in the agricultural system?  

Why Should WCare About the Lives of Migrant Workers? 

The sanctity of life is well established. To shift our focus away from the so-called ‘all lives matter’ narrative, however, is to give these powerless communities a voice and an opportunity to gain equity in the system that has been marginalizing and exploiting them for far too long. ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’ as the saying goes, and there is no point in diminishing the significance of migrant workers’ deaths by equating them with others that have occurred in the midst of the pandemic. Migrant workers have played a regular and important role in making Canada’s agricultural system work for decades now, and while they regularly face abuses at the hands of unscrupulous employers, the fact that they are now risking their lives to grow and harvest food in this country raises the significance of their struggles to an unprecedented level. 

Why Can’t WHire Canadian? 

Imagine, you’re reading a hiring ad that involves working in a remote location away from home, receiving a pitiful salary, having no access to collective bargaining, and living in fairly crude accommodations. In addition, you may have poor access to sufficient and nutritious food during the quarantine you must endure before starting work, and your employer may engage in unfair gouging of your wages for meals and other costs. You know that the already back-breaking workload will only be exacerbated since there is a labour shortage due to COVID-19, and you’re also aware that PPE may be unavailable, and that physical distancing may be impossible to practice in the workplace. In addition, if you make any complaints about your working conditions, you may well be fired.  

Would you take this job? Most Canadians would, and do, respond to this with a clear ‘No’. Although some Canadians have taken up farm work during the pandemic, due to other jobs being unavailable, many farm owners would probably not hire you for two reasons: (1) Your citizenship and rights make you less ripe for exploitation, and (2) You are inefficient and expensive. It is a myth that any person who is physically fit can take up farm work. The migrants who come to toil in Canada’s agricultural landscapes are skilled workers, typically having years of relevant experience, as well as technical know-how that allows them to repair farm machinery when needed, work effectively and efficiently with plants and livestock, and solve problems as they arise. In addition, this labour is coming to us at an incredible bargain. Would consumers likely be willing or able to pay double or triple the price of a head of romaine lettuce, and all of the other locally produced food, as a result of a ‘Hire Canadians Only’ approach? 

A few words of pity or gratitude for migrant workers won’t solve this systemic problem. We need to push for legislative changesBonifacio Eugenio-Romero may have been one of the first migrant workers to lose his life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, generating increased coverage of the plight of these agricultural workers, but how many other unnamed Bonifacios might we have missed over the years? 

——– 

The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series is a collection of brief reflections on food system developments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gallery: Ontario Farms by Bryan Dale

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Spring seedlings sprout up in greenhouse on a small-scale ecological vegetable farm in Prince Edward County. This farm typically sells its produce in Toronto, including through farmers markets, which were delayed in opening due to COVID-19 restrictions

A barn at a small-scale livestock farm near London, Ontario houses cows, pigs, and chickens. Mixed farms like this one are involved in both direct sales to customers, as well as the sale of commodity crops that may be transported further afield, including overseas.

A tractor sits idle at a small-scale organic vegetable farm near Kitchener. Farms like this one focus on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, many of which saw a notable increase in membership subscriptions at the outset of the pandemic.

The silhouette of a steer (beef cow) stands out against the setting sun. With the closing of some large-scale meat processing plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks, many livestock farmers have been struggling to find places to have their animals slaughtered. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many smaller-scale, local abattoirs have closed down in recent years.

A summer breeze sweeps across a grain field at an organic vegetable farm near Gananoque, in eastern Ontario. Many farms had to rapidly reconfigure their business plans at the outset of the pandemic, particularly if they relied on sales to restaurants.

The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series: Why are they calling us ‘Heroes’? by Stella-Luna Ha

From being labelled ‘heroes’ and ‘essential workers’ to losing pay premiums in the midst of a crisis: What happens to frontline food workers when the pandemic is over? 

I recently came across an article published in The Atlantic which has been on my mind. It voices the frustration of a frontline grocery store worker who is tired of being called a ‘hero’. The article’s title, Calling Me a Hero Only Makes You Feel Better, strongly suggests that frontline workers, even as they are hailed as heroes, struggle with the challenge of making a living wage, and that ‘hero’ is a meaningless label in terms of that struggle. 

On June 11, Loblaw’s chairman Galen Weston announced the termination of the $2 per hour premium that had been introduced in light of the pandemic. Mr. Weston argues that since grocery store workers have now adjusted to the “new normal” in their workplaces, the $2 “hero pay” supplement is no longer necessary. This logic seems to assume that since the majority of Ontario regions have entered Stage 2 of the Province’s reopening plans, the wage increase is not needed. In other words, everyone can just return to the way things were pre-pandemic. This assumption flies in the face of the evidence that frontline workers continue to face considerable risks. It ignores the disconnect between the meagre pay of food workers and the soaring profits for such companies. It ignores that many grocery workers find it a challenge to make a living wage.  

The praise that corporate food executives have bestowed upon frontline workers rings hollow in this light. Indeed, in these challenging times, offering the title of ‘heroes’ to these grocery store and other food workers simply masks other underlying issues, including that many of them have little choice but to continue to work despite the heightened risks that such jobs continue to entail. This results in a cognitive dissonance among the public, which eagerly anticipate some sort of ‘normalcy’, while paying lip-service and contributing to the myth-making around these frontline workers as ‘heroes’. For the latter, a return to such a ‘normal’ is far from satisfactory. Clearly, if the $2 hero pay can evaporate so easily, so can the disposable title of ‘hero’ in a post-pandemic world.  

The silver lining of this pandemic may be that it exposes for us all to see how fragile our food system is in terms of supply chains, and the vulnerability of the precariat—the class of workers whose jobs entail considerable risks in a crisis situation, and who regularly face sub-normal working conditions, pay, and job insecurity during ‘normal’ times. The important contributions made by workers throughout the food system are worth considering in this regard. Every one of us has the obligation to meaningfully support grocery store workers, farmers and farm workers, and everyone else who labours in the harvesting, packing, transportation, stocking and delivery of food, in struggles for decent wages and working conditions. Not just in these crazy times, but after the pandemic is over. Just calling them ‘heroes’ is not enough. 

Written by Stella-Luna Ha 

——– 

The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series is a collection of brief reflections on food system developments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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.” 

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 respondeding 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 with schools closed

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

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.