Introduction

It is a simple truth that the COVID-19 pandemic has been hugely disruptive to food systems. It is essential to recognize, however, that certain social groups are disproportionately experiencing heightened levels of food insecurity, and societal and livelihood challenges.1 Other groups have faced relatively minor inconveniences, primarily from disrupted food supply chains. In Toronto, Canada, with a population of approximately 3 million, disparities in food system changes are playing out along overlapping racial and class-based lines, despite the fact that the city is often celebrated for being multicultural and diverse. Due to its size and international connections, Toronto has been one of the most negatively affected areas of Canada, in terms of numbers of COVID-19 infections as well as socioeconomic consequences. It is important to analyze, however, why and how the pandemic serves to exacerbate and make visible long-standing problems and inequalities in the food system to a far greater extent than it generates entirely new issues. It is also imperative to explore how this shock might create opportunities for ethical-, ecological-, and justice-oriented aspects of our food systems (i.e., those often termed as “alternative”) to come to the forefront. In this research brief, we discuss these themes in relation to a COVID-19-related project under way in Toronto. The project is entitled “Feeding the City, Pandemic and Beyond: Documenting Food System Experiences, Community Challenges and Local Resilience, and Actions toward Sustainable Food Solutions.” We relate the research questions motivating the project, the methodologies employed by our research team, and reflect on initial findings from its first months.

Guiding this project are four key cross-cutting research questions that presently focus on the Greater Toronto Area2 and explore its place within the global food system:

  • How are food supply chains and food insecurity rates being affected within this pandemic context?

  • How are different actors—from newcomer urban gardeners and those involved with farmers’ markets to BIPOC3 groups—responding to food system–related constraints and opportunities during this time?

  • What experiences from other jurisdictions (nationally and globally) are to be considered in informing local food system strategies?

  • What policy outcomes, and community and civil society responses, are needed to address identified challenges in both the near term and the longer term?

We are beginning to answer all four of these research questions. When we discuss our preliminary findings below, however, we focus on responses to the first two of these questions, due to the analysis we have undertaken to date.

Drawing on COVID-19-related research support from the University of Toronto and other Ontario educational institutions, ours is an extensive, collaborative, and public-facing undertaking. In addition to the authors (Jo Sharma, the principal investigator and project lead, and Bryan Dale, a postdoctoral fellow and project manager), the project brings together scholars and student researchers from different universities, with representatives of community organizations and policy bodies. Together, we broadly examine five main areas: (1) school food programs, and their closures’ impact on nutritional and community food insecurity; (2) the importance of urban growing for food security and community resilience; (3) agricultural issues, farmer-consumer connections, and farm labor concerns; (4) food supply chains and local distribution networks, including public markets; and (5) food security and provisioning networks, particularly for traditionally underserved neighborhoods, newcomer/immigrant, and other vulnerable groups.

Broadly, our theoretical approach involves adopting an intersectional and transdisciplinary lens, in our attempt to capture the relational nature of the various themes and topics in our view. As food studies scholars who engage in a variety of disciplines (including anthropology, diasporic studies, environmental studies, gender studies, geography, history, public health, and sociology), we are informed by diverse bodies of literature. However, we are broadly inspired by a model of socio-technical transitions. Such a model documents near-term reforms and policy outcomes that help to improve an existing food system, and distinguishes them from the medium- to longer-term innovations and structural changes that help to build sustainable and equitable food systems, as well as resilient food infrastructure for the future. Socio-technical transitions are complex social, technical, economic, and political processes that lead to the replacement of old technological systems, and the social systems connected to them, with new ones (Geels 2010). Urban political ecology frameworks are also particularly relevant, given the fact that Toronto’s food system is enabled by a far-reaching urban metabolism that affects laboring bodies, institutional processes, and economic relations around the world (Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006). This literature also speaks to the essential question of who is (and is not) able to access resources—including food itself—as a result of the power dynamics inherent in a food system dominated by racial-capitalist political-economic tendencies and extractive industrial processes (Holt-Giménez and Wang 2011).

Methods

To answer these research questions, our team relies on a multifaceted methodological approach that includes media analysis, ethnographic engagements, semi-structured interviews, and topical surveys. Given the broad scope of the project and the many researchers involved, we communicate regularly through software that supports encrypted file sharing, messaging, and video conferencing. We periodically meet as a group to share research updates, discuss developing methodological strategies, and facilitate analysis that cuts across the topic areas and questions we explore.

The media analysis involves conducting keyword searches within databases and using media tools that are targeted toward mainstream local and nationally focused media outlets, as well as social media. Results are captured and organized by theme, date, media outlet, and article title, and organized for later analysis. Separate searches capture relevant food-system developments at international and national levels with the primary objectives being (1) to compare and contrast experiences in the context of Toronto and its neighborhoods, with those taking place in cities around the world, and (2) to document geographically diverse policy-related and community interventions that can inform socio-technical transitions from the near to long term.

To complement this analytical approach, we deem it crucial to capture developments that the mainstream media tends to overlook. This includes a documentation of food-related pandemic responses within different cultural and racialized4 communities that are underrepresented in traditional, especially English-language, media reporting. Thus far, we have focused on grassroots interpretations of food system issues, “vernacular” responses to such issues, online food provisioning practices, and community food assistance initiatives. Much of this occurs through secondary research captured through ethnically specific media outlets and social media channels, but also through primary research, by way of ethnographic engagements with targeted communities and neighborhoods. The latter is in fact part of a broader process of observation, wherein researchers seek to document auto-ethnographic accounts of food provisioning practices throughout the pandemic. Drawing on the cultural diversity of our team members, this is intended to capture food-system experiences as they have changed as a result of COVID-19, particularly from a consumer perspective, but also as a means to take note of observations as articulated by shopkeepers, farmers, food retail workers, urban growers, restaurant workers, and other actors with whom we are, varyingly, in contact.

Data collection and ethnographic engagements lay the foundation for some of the initial semi-structured interviews that team members are conducting. We are developing specific interview questions geared toward each respondent’s role in the food system, within the context of our key research questions. Recent and upcoming interviewees include produce dealers, wholesale importers, and farmer sellers connected to the Ontario Food Terminal, “ethnic” grocery store owners, urban agriculture specialists, small-scale ecological farmers, farmers’ market managers, staff at a sustainable-food retail operation, and a sampling of community members, including BIPOC groups in targeted neighborhoods. Interviews are being recorded and transcribed for future coding. Together with collaborators, we also seek to capture qualitative and quantitative data through the implementation of surveys geared toward specific groups, including managers of farmers’ and other public markets, and stakeholders in the running of school food programs and associated community programs. Team members are gathering data to map Toronto’s food-related infrastructure. They are doing so figuratively, by relying on existing databases, media, and surveys, and literally, through the use of GIS mapping software. Through these different strategies, we will obtain a nuanced “socio-technical transitions” view of how grocery stores, restaurants, food banks, urban gardens and farms, markets, and other less formal elements of the city’s culinary infrastructure (Pilcher 2016) have supported food provisioning in light of COVID-19, as well as the pandemic’s overall impact on them. Finally, we deem it imperative to reach out to stakeholders in different Global South locations (starting with India and Sri Lanka) to compare such findings, especially in light of the globalized social location of several people in our research team, whose personal and professional ties are inextricably linked to places beyond North America.

Initial Findings

We are committed to public scholarship including community-focused outcomes, in addition to our scholarly research. In the short term, our team is preparing weekly blogs available through our project website (www.feedingcity.org/blog), largely conceived and run by our student researchers, who are active on the project’s behalf across related social media platforms. We are also organizing public-facing webinars.5 Through these efforts, we have been highlighting, and will continue to highlight, important food-related advocacy taking place in the context of Toronto and its metabolic food geographies. Below are brief summaries of initial findings informed by the research that team members have undertaken so far. We draw primarily here on our early interviews, ethnographic engagements, and media analysis, while more in-depth analyses and findings will come from additional work using these methods, as well as from survey data and the results of our team’s mapping exercises. To reiterate, the findings described here relate primarily to our research questions concerning (1) how food supply chains and food insecurity rates are being affected due to the pandemic, and (2) how different actors are responding to relevant constraints and opportunities, although there is an emphasis on the first of these two points.

Food Insecurity

Early evidence makes it clear that food insecurity rates are rising in Toronto, which is consistent with national survey data that indicates rates have increased from 10.5 percent to at least 14.6 percent (Statistics Canada 2020). An urgent concern is the fact that these rates are likely to increase, perhaps to 20 percent by the end of 2020 by some estimates. Black and other racialized populations are disproportionately affected by both food insecurity and COVID-19 itself. The federal government’s supports, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a financial aid for people who have experienced job loss as a result of the pandemic, evidently do not provide a sufficient social safety net for those who are the worst affected. In contrast, community-based groups and nonprofit organizations have been nimble in their work to alleviate hunger in some of the city’s most disadvantaged communities, but policy changes are needed to deal with the systemic issues (see Mihevc 2020).

One example is a collaborative effort between Black Creek Community Farm (Toronto’s largest urban farm) and the nonprofit FoodShare to deliver emergency food boxes to people facing food insecurity. At the time of writing (August 2020), the initiative has resulted in nearly 6,500 food boxes being delivered to approximately 2,500 families, most of whom reside in the Jane-Finch neighborhood in which the farm is located. For its part, FoodShare has partnered with other organizations to extend the reach of this food delivery program to neighborhoods throughout the city, yet, as Executive Director Paul Taylor has noted (Yu 2020), charitable responses are neither sufficient nor long-term solutions to income inequality and systemic racism (see FoodShare n.d.). It is imperative to advocate that, at the very least, race-based COVID-19 data be consistently collected across Canada.

The work of our collaborators who focus on school food programs and urban agriculture is crucial for discussions of food insecurity and differential social impact. With the school closures that occurred across the country in March, programs that provided free or low-cost meals to children were suspended indefinitely, without significant consultation. Yet, even though such programs are proven to be successful in alleviating food insecurity and improving school performance (Muthuswamy 2012), there is no universal model for—or consistent access to—such programs in Canada. Especially with the food bank closures and restrictions that the pandemic has caused, emergency support and long-term measures are needed to compensate for the suspension and dislocation of what were already partial and inadequate school food programs in Canada. In the long term, a universal healthy school food program is essential. Similarly, in its initial response to COVID-19, the municipal government prohibited access to urban agricultural plots on city-owned allotment and community gardens. While the ban was subsequently lifted, and thus urban growing was delayed rather than suspended altogether, there is urgent need for institutional supports and policies that recognize that urban agriculture is important to food security, and not just a niche hobby or luxury.

Food Distribution and Agricultural Issues

Our analysis of food production and distribution highlights the differing ways that the pandemic is affecting the food system. On the one hand, mainstream food distribution channels have been relatively unaffected; for example, the overall maintenance of food transportation from national and US-based food production regions has ensured that produce chains continue to supply the Ontario Food Terminal. Exceptions to this seem to be largely restricted to disruptions to air-freighted produce that is affecting imports of mangos from Brazil, mint from Morocco, and other goods. Grocery retailers, of which three corporations (Loblaw, Metro, and Sobeys) dominate the vast majority of Canada’s foodscape, have continued to have their stores supplied, despite some disruptions. Although there were instances of panic buying in the initial weeks of the pandemic, and despite the fact that outbreaks at industrial-scale meat processing plants created bottlenecks in livestock-meat supply chains, retailers have generally been able to keep outlets stocked.

Grocery chains needed to respond quickly to be able to implement physical distancing measures in order for their stores to operate despite COVID-19, but reports have indicated that overall their profits have soared, with the corporations dominating the sector each recently reporting increases to quarterly sales in the range of $100–$200 million. At the same time, cashiers and other frontline food retail workers saw the pay premiums that they initially received halted in early June, with their employers suggesting that safe operations and a “new normal” had been established (Gilmore 2020). The Canadian government is embarking on an inquiry into this matter. The supermarket retailers’ assertion is particularly questionable in the context of Toronto, where COVID-19 infection rates are only slowly subsiding, and the threat of a “second wave” is looming. At the same time, grocery workers have raised doubts about the veracity of employers’ claims that supermarket pandemic profits have gone toward providing them with sufficient personal protective equipment.

Outside of such large-scale distribution channels, government restrictions compelled farmers’ markets to close when the pandemic hit, with Toronto’s markets being late to reopen in comparison to other jurisdictions. As our project collaborators have noted, the prioritizing of privatized, corporate spaces for food selling demonstrated little regard for the socioeconomic well-being of farmers and other vendors who operate at public markets, as well as the local residents who rely on them, especially for neighborhood food provisioning. Some markets have opened with modifications in place for physical distancing, while others have shifted some or all of their sales online. Many “good food” markets that serve largely racialized and vulnerable communities in priority neighborhoods have not been able to resume operations. Our researchers who are assessing the functioning of public markets in other cities internationally are gathering data that is demonstrating how integral effectively planned markets can be to resilient urban food systems, including by incorporating food security initiatives that vastly improve upon the punitive and often relatively unhealthy offerings from food banks.

On a related point, our research is also capturing the experiences of small-scale ecological farmers in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. This is being done primarily through semi-structured interviews but also through secondary research including media analysis. Thus far, it is clear that these farmers have received little help from federal government supports, including through long-standing business risk management programs coordinated by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Farms involved in direct sales have largely had to independently pivot to online sales and/or to new markets altogether, and face challenges in doing so. There has been a marked increase in subscriptions to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, yet most farmers continue to navigate a precarious business. This precariousness includes perennial weather-related challenges and competition from corporate retail, but also new labor and marketing conditions that must account for physical distancing. A connected issue, which has primarily affected larger farms in southwest Ontario, but also some smaller, ecologically oriented farms, is the matter of migrant farm labor. On several larger farms, the failure of employers to take proper sanitary precautions has led to outbreaks that have caused three COVID-19-related migrant worker deaths, while many others have contracted the virus. For the ecological farmers with whom we have connected directly, it is clear that despite the measures they have taken to safeguard the health of the migrant workers they employ, there has been a significant labor shortage due to delays in workers arriving for the growing season.

Conclusion

Overall, our preliminary results show that Toronto’s food system is not highly resilient in the face of crisis. While the pandemic highlights this fact, this is relevant and alarming with regard to potential future disruptions. Evidence also shows that many grassroots initiatives are compensating for this lack of resiliency in impressive ways—from the coordination of food security initiatives, to modified approaches to food production and marketing. Persistent political-economic tendencies that prioritize capital accumulation and the treatment of food as a commodity are, as a result of the pandemic, exacerbating systemic racism and class-based gaps among actors in the city’s food chain (from workers to consumers). While there is a risk that the systemic shocks associated with COVID-19 may bring a further entrenchment of inequalities and ineffective responses to food system issues—such as neoliberal, charity-based approaches to food insecurity—this project will be geared toward countering this possibility.

In addition to highlighting much needed short-term responses to problems evident in Toronto’s food system, our team will document and develop longer-term strategies that will detail what an alternative system would entail, incorporating food sovereignty and agroecology perspectives as we do so. With these goals in mind, we will deepen and broaden our research efforts. For example, on the topic of food trade and supply chains, we seek to track specific, country-specific measures that certain governments have taken to assist their food exporters and importers who trade with Canada. We also recognize that it is imperative to further explore the issues surrounding grocery retail in light of the impact of pandemic disruptions upon vulnerable sections of society, especially as regards diminished access to fresh, nutritious, and culturally specific foods. It is also clear that inequities of social reproduction and domestic labor are deeply implicated here.

As we dig into these issues, we will extend our ethnographic engagements and interview strategies to further engage with BIPOC communities in specific neighborhoods, and especially to connect more closely with Indigenous, Black, and gendered voices. A huge challenge here is the differential class- and race-based access to time and technology, and the additional socioeconomic challenges for many of our prospective research subjects, especially with regard to the labor of culinary provisioning. One specific strategy is to analyze food system developments in three racialized Toronto neighborhoods, each selected based on socioeconomic demographic data and evidence of diverse food activism. Concerning these targeted geographic areas, we have begun with social media analysis and other secondary research before approaching contacts of Black-led and other justice-oriented organizations for interviews. The intention here is to reduce the burden of participating in research for time-strapped organizers who are focusing on the immediacy of food security efforts and other projects. Where possible, we will offer research and practical supports to such organizations and individuals as a means to generate more of a reciprocal relationship than is typically possible in standard research projects (Kohl and McCutcheon 2015; Sumner 2016). We have already taken such an approach in collaborating with other community partners, including Toronto Urban Growers, the Coalition for Healthy School Food, and the Market City research project, which is associated with the Toronto Food Policy Council.6

To ensure that our research has an impact on practice and policy in the post-COVID-19 food system, we will draw on these engagements to inform reports and policy briefs that we will be preparing. These outputs will thus be both geared toward our topic areas and developed in partnership with community-based collaborators. While our research goals are ambitious, and will come with some difficulties such as the necessity for remote work, our hope is that this project will inform a food system praxis applicable to similar cities in Canada and around the world.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the many collaborators, organizational partners, and junior researchers who have been contributing to this project (listed in full here: https://feedingcity.org/about). We also appreciate the thoughtful feedback provided by the reviewers who commented on previous versions of this article. The research discussed in this brief has been funded by the University of Toronto’s Toronto COVID-19 Action Initiative and we are grateful for the support.

Notes

1.

For example, Toronto-specific data has indicated that racialized people make up 83 percent of reported COVID-19 cases, despite only representing 52 percent of the city’s population (City of Toronto n.d.; Seucharan and Bascaramurty 2020). Racialized groups are also disproportionately experiencing food insecurity and being compelled to rely on food banks for assistance (Daily Bread Food Bank 2020).

2.

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) includes the regions surrounding Toronto, and has a population of approximately 6.4 million people.

3.

BIPOC: Black, Indigenous, and People of Color

4.

When we use the term “racialized” throughout this paper, we refer to people who may self-identify as “visible minorities” in the Canadian context, such as members of Black, Latin American, and Asian communities, while recognizing that “race” itself is an imposed socio-political and inherently racist construct.

6.

Regarding the Market City research project, see Queirolo (forthcoming).

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