These photos show interactions with the food system that citizens are experiencing everyday. It is a collection that is expanding as the crisis unfolds showing the changing nature of our current food system.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.