In April 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we four participated in a panel discussing Canada’s paradoxical foodscapes.1 Our ideas about what constitutes food security and the populations with which it is concerned varied considerably. However, by presenting our ideas parallel to one another, we felt we were perhaps able to garner a deeper, somewhat more complex picture about what constitutes food security. We discussed how food security and justice are ideas and practices that stretch beyond “having enough food” but also entail considering how such food is produced and accessed. Each of us has slightly different orientations and commitments to food security and justice. In this article we hope to present those orientations as concerns that must be considered in conversation with each other. Underlying our thinking are questions related to who gets to eat, what is eaten, and where and how it is eaten. By presenting our respective commitments in this way, we hope to make visible some of the vulnerabilities and injustices embedded within Canadian foodscapes.
COVID-19 rendered many of the structural injustices of food security in Canada more visible; thus in this article each of us presents our own positionings to food justice through case studies that differently consider food security in relation to COVID-19. Megan Herod writes about the role of emergency food provisioning and the responsiveness of food banks to the needs of vulnerable populations, focusing particularly on her work with Neighbourhood Houses in Vancouver to address the food needs of older adults. Kiera E. B. McMaster discusses the importance of food literacy to food security by concentrating on food programming at Queen’s University, the focus of her master’s research. Kimberly Hill-Tout discusses how tensions between global and local food production shape food security and also create pockets of localized, often privileged food access by looking at Knuckle Down Farm—a community-supported agriculture venue (CSA) at which she worked in the summer of 2020. Finally, Claudia Hirtenfelder draws attention to how food security and justice take on different meanings when the hidden lives of animals within Canadian food systems are made more apparent. Our work here is emblematic of our larger interests in food security, and we believe our reflections as they relate to COVID-19 are especially important now as Canadians get a hint of a “return to normal.”
We hope that our case studies provide a glimpse into how different organizations responded to emerging food security needs made visible by the pandemic while also providing an interesting launch pad for thinking about how to mitigate issues of unequal access in the future. Our existing neoliberal, capitalist food system (re)produces inequalities that need to be countered through tangible political, economic, and cultural action; we outline some of these calls to action for building just food systems in our conclusion.
Older Adults and Responsive Food Assistance
According to a report by Feed Ontario (2020), COVID-19 heightened food insecurity across the country with a surge in first-time food bank recipients relying on emergency food aid. For example, the Mississauga Food Bank (2020) reported a 120 percent increase in the number of people accessing food banks for the first time, and the Ottawa Food Bank (2020) reported a 400 percent increase in inquiries from people looking for food support. The establishment of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a program initiated by the federal government early in the pandemic to provide unemployed or precariously unemployed Canadians with wage support, was instrumental in reducing the overall need for food support (and highlights the importance of income supports in reducing food insecurity). However, the eligibility requirements did not enable everyone access to support, and as more Canadians lost their jobs due to business closures, reliance on emergency food supports increased and food insecurity was felt by individuals across a wider socioeconomic spectrum. In response to these concerns, food banks, charitable and nonprofit organizations, and institutions pivoted to provide novel means of servicing communities in need. As such, I (Megan Herod) think that any consideration of food security and justice must necessarily consider the work of locally based organizations and the creative ways in which they address the needs of the communities they serve.
As a planner who worked in Vancouver during the first wave of the pandemic, I am interested in how community-based organizations responded to the needs of their unique communities through adaptive and flexible food programming. I worked directly with Neighbourhood House to provide support during the pandemic and in particular worked to facilitate a meal and food hamper delivery program. Since the beginning of the pandemic, older adults have been most susceptible to the virus and the most vulnerable to its impacts (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2020). This has brought unique and challenging considerations to food access. A recent study by Feed Ontario (2020) attributes “fear” as an additional barrier for older adults to achieve food security. Going out in public, taking transit, or even getting help from a friend or caregiver became a concern and potential health risk. This poses a particularly acute geographical problem for older adults, as well as individuals with mobility concerns whose transportation options limited access to grocery stores and food banks. Due to the warehousing needs of food banks, the locations can often be in industrial zones located away from residential areas and are therefore inaccessible to individuals who do not possess a means of transportation. This problem is further compounded for individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities who rely on prepared or ready-made meals, meaning that even food available through grocery deliveries or emergency food hampers could be inaccessible. Beyond the intensified financial constraints to accessing food, the complexity of accessing food thus became a contributing factor to food insecurity.
In response to the emergent food security crisis, many charitable food providers found creative ways to continue their operations. In Ontario, 81 percent of food banks developed a new program to respond to the emergent needs that COVID-19 created, such as food hamper delivery programs and curbside pick-up options (Feed Ontario 2020). Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House in Vancouver (figure 1) was one such organization that pivoted to address the emerging needs of their community. The Neighbourhood House runs programs and events with a mission to support and build community. Prior to the pandemic, they ran an adult day program that provided daily meals to frail seniors living in the Cedar Cottage neighborhood of Vancouver. COVID-19 forced the program to close, leaving a void in both food and mental health supports. Cognizant of the growing challenges facing older adults in the community, the Neighbourhood House partnered with a local transportation company, HandyDART, to provide shared-ride services often accessed by seniors in the community (pre-COVID-19) and deliver prepared meals to the seniors enrolled in the Neighbourhood House program. Two prepared meals were dropped off to local seniors twice a week, providing a sense of stability, emotional support, and nourishment. The program has now been running for over a year.2
This example demonstrates community resiliency and the strength of community service providers to respond to the seismic shifts to our food system that COVID-19 created. Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House was one of many community service providers across the country that faced program closures. Reduced social support brought the challenges of food access for older adults to the forefront of community responses. Additionally, the pandemic highlighted the importance of adaptable and responsive food systems to meet the needs of our unique communities. The pandemic has challenged and highlighted the problems inherent in our food system, such as the need to plan cities that promote decentralized food systems to ensure food is accessible in every neighborhood and the importance of creating adaptive and flexible transportation systems. Without question, there is a need to invest in the income supports that ensure financial access to food, the community programming that supports our most vulnerable community members, and the civic infrastructure that creates more just and responsive food systems. Further, while physical and geographic access to food was certainly an issue for many populations, issues of food literacy run parallel to issues of access and are embedded within these concerns of food insecurity.
University Students, Food Literacy, and Connecting Online
I (Kiera E. B. McMaster) started my campus food advocacy as an undergrad student, launching a take-what-you-need, leave-what-you-can food bank at my satellite campus. I remain a strong advocate of campus food security and became involved with the Cooking with Grandmas/Chaplains programming at Queen’s University as the focus of my master’s thesis research. I chose to highlight this case study because of its unique approach to student food security: food literacy is an often-overlooked component of campus food programming. Though it is not a silver bullet solution to food insecurity, food literacy can help young people feel more empowered with their food decisions both inside and outside the kitchen (see the section on CSAs that follows). As we see increasing pressures on the global food chain due to climate change and other economic and environmental factors, it is important for young people to have the tools to be critical about where their food comes from, as well as how they might prepare and preserve their food, and the social (and political) benefits of sharing a meal together.
Further to that idea, the Cooking with Grandmas and Cooking with Chaplains programming brings together students from across Queen’s to cook and eat a meal together. Since September 2020, Cooking with Grandmas has met once monthly and was open only to graduate and professional students. Its sister program, Cooking with Chaplains, met weekly and was open to both undergraduate and graduate students (the Cooking with Chaplains program has since ended). A small but committed group joined the program weekly, cooking meals such as Italian wedding soup, veggie burgers, and carrot cake pancakes. Through the fifteen interviews I conducted, participants emphasized the sense of community they felt with their fellow Cooking with Grandmas/Chaplains participants and leaders, as well as their increased confidence in the kitchen after attending the sessions. Recent studies on student food insecurity have found that on campuses across Canada, anywhere from 35 to 39 percent of students are moderately to severely food insecure (Entz, Slater, and Desmarais 2017; Silverthorn 2016). However, food insecurity is not always caused by a lack of money: for some students, it could be a matter of not having the knowledge they need (Entz et al. 2017). Numerous factors, including the increase in dual-income households in the 1970s (Moncrieff 2018), the removal in home economics programs from schools (Locally Driven Collaborative Project 2017), the ability to offload care duties, such as food preparation, to other people (Tronto 2013), and the proliferation of premade convenience foods (Wang et al. 2021), have contributed to an intergenerational food literacy deficit. Consequently, many postsecondary students lack the requisite food literacy to adequately shop for, store, and/or prepare food. While online sources such as YouTube and Instagram provide opportunities to learn some food skills, what is often missing is the opportunity for students to receive the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of eating with others (Dietitian Services at HealthLinkBC n.d.). To address rising concerns of food illiteracy among university students, and to connect an increasingly isolated group of people (Walsh 2021), the Office of Faith and Spiritual Life at Queen’s University migrated their Cooking with Grandmas and Cooking with Chaplains programming online (figure 2).
However, these virtual spaces pose some questions of accessibility: participants can access these cooking classes only if they have the time, internet bandwidth, and technological literacy to do so (Stewart 2020; Andrey et al. 2021). While the programming itself was free, the cost of ingredients could be prohibitive for home chefs to join. The Cooking with Grandmas/Chaplains programming was able to support students with a grocery bursary, but some participants still accessed the on-campus food bank to obtain all the ingredients they needed to participate. This points to the interconnectedness of access and literacy: having access to fresh ingredients, and knowing how to transform them into meals, are not the same thing.
Access takes many forms, and COVID-19 has highlighted the areas that require additional focus to combat food insecurity and illiteracy. Government support, designed for the unique needs of numerous populations such as older adults and students, must include levers for access: Canadians need access to financial programs, as well as food literacy programs, to become truly food secure. However, how to access food and prepare it is only part of the picture.
Thus far we have highlighted how different populations experience food (in)security and how this is shaped by both material and epistemic issues of access. At this juncture we switch from considering how COVID-19 highlighted cracks in access to food to instead thinking about the paradoxes it flagged in the production of food.
CSAs and the Hyper-Local
I (Kimberly Hill-Tout) am a food geographer and study environmental “interventions” in the food system. Over the summer of 2020, I worked at Knuckle Down Farm (figure 3), a CSA located in Stirling, Ontario. My work and research at a CSA during the summer of 2020 is important to understanding food paradoxes during the COVID-19 pandemic because it reflects the relationship between context-specific job opportunities and the democratic attempts to break from a fractured global food system. Moreover, my case work gave me firsthand insight into “alternative” food systems that are not only possible but are also being revisited. Food security work, in this case, situates the “local” as an agent for change and reveals that food security is geographically sensitive.
In fear of zoonotic diseases, and in contrast to seeking foods from emergency and charitable food providers, COVID-19 saw a shift toward consumers prioritizing local—even hyperlocal—food movements in contrast to the first few months of the pandemic when there were food shortages, food dumping, and price gauging (Tong 2020; Proctor 2020; Mull 2020). Food supply chains are currently quite globalized and complex. Seemingly simple foods like bananas (Gertten 2009), avocados (Abrahams 2007), and sugar (Mintz 1985) have immensely complicated routes and production processes, with numerous technologies and people involved in their supply. Not only did COVID-19 result in blockages of these globalized, complex food chains, but concerns about the “global” and where food comes from at the onset of COVID-19 also led to a surge in CSA subscriptions and farmers market attendance (farmers markets were allowed to continue with health restrictions).
CSAs generally work by having community members (“subscribers”) pay for a share of a farmer’s harvest each week of the harvest season (e.g., May to September), and sharing in the bounty or failed harvests alongside the farmer(s). For example, Knuckle Down Farm has a share season from June to mid-October, with “pick-ups” held every Tuesday in its season. CSAs offer a practical and tangible alternative to neoliberal industrial agriculture and are thus chosen here to highlight the diversity of food procurement systems that can co-exist and counter particular food system ills. This specific CSA was run (in 2020) by three women farmers who focused on organic vegetable crops. Other CSAs across Canada, with various farmer makeups, incorporate eggs, meats, or artisanal pantry items. CSAs ultimately promote shorter food chains, in addition to connecting consumers with farmers. In terms of access, however, only those who can financially afford these subscriptions or local food options are able to participate, and only those who have enough time and access to transportation can pick up subscriptions.
While the summer of 2020 saw an increase in the number of people buying locally, there was also a surge of people purchasing seeds (see Cotnam 2021) and starting to produce hyper-locally in their own backyards, balconies, or community gardens. Home gardening illustrates the significance of the home in securing food security: people could thus eat at home and from home. However, it is important to remember that only those who can afford gardening items, who have access to land, and who have financial, transportation, and time accessibility can participate in this movement. We think it is also important to flag that the issues and concerns faced by our respective populations are intersected by concerns pertaining to class and racial inequality. That is, who has access to food and how it is accessed is complicated and deeply embedded within colonial food systems that have been shaped by racial inequities. Food insecurity is thus felt disproportionately by Indigenous, Black, and racialized communities within Canada (Food Secure Canada 2020). This stratification among communities’ and populations’ inequitable access is bound to continue in the future and must be addressed.
CSAs might not necessarily challenge and/or actively work to highlight the problematic contours of existing supply chains (i.e., remaining issues of access due to conditions of affordability). Although CSAs are doing fantastic work, there is a need for governments to make more substantial changes to the ways in which food is made nationally and how food security becomes the concern of geographically bounded areas—measures that would ethically contend with how current systems disenfranchise racialized workers and abuse animals.3
Food Security as a Multispecies Concept
I (Claudia Hirtenfelder) am an animal geographer doing my PhD research on how cows have historically been removed from cities and made invisible in urban spaces. Unlike the other authors in this piece, I did not join the panel at the AAG with a set case study; rather, I viewed my participation on the panel (and in this article) as a subversive act that also makes animals and the ways in which they are implicated within our food systems more visible. I found the idea of discussing COVID-19 foodscapes without a consideration of animals paradoxical as so much of our food systems rely on their labor and bodies to function. Consequently, my aim on the panel and in this section of the article is to make those often obfuscated and sidelined connections more visible, as well as to describe why animals should have a prominent place in food justice and security discussions. I thus frame food security and justice as multispecies concepts that must consider not only those who eat but also the labor and lives of those that make eating possible.
The animals implicated within food systems are sentient beings whose lives and confinement within our foodscapes subjects them (as individuals with lifeworlds) to numerous injustices, including danger, abuse, and certain death (figure 4). Over 800 million land animals are killed annually for food in Canada (Animal Kill Clock CA 2021), and the consumption of these animals has devastating environmental consequences. In normal circumstances these animals are raised in factory farms, fattened in feedlots, and then slaughtered on disassembly lines on which their bodies are taken apart piece by piece. The death of these animals is part of Canada’s foodscape, which is why the Trudeau government provided emergency aid to meat producers when these industries were hit with backlogs due to COVID-19 (D’Amore 2020). It is perhaps easy to forget that the continuous supply of meat is reliant on the forced reproduction of animals, so when processing plants needed to slow down due to the pandemic, producers killed animals en masse because it was no longer considered economically viable to keep them alive (Corkery and Yaffe-Bellany 2020; Labchuk 2020a). Industry standards for mass slaughter include electrocution, blunt force trauma, or gassing—which involves pumping CO2 into rooms to suffocate them (Agri-Food Canada 2016). A multispecies lens makes this treatment of animals an ethical question and clarifies that any conversation about food security should necessarily involve a conversation about the treatment of animals.
However, having these conversations is being made increasingly more difficult because of “Ag-gag” laws. These laws are purported to increase farm security but also operate to prevent whistleblowers, journalists, or advocates from accessing farms and reporting on and exposing industry abuses. Animal Justice has done a great deal to reveal the shortcomings of existing regulations in Alberta (Labchuk 2019), Ontario (Labchuk 2020b), and Manitoba (Mitchell et al. 2021), but these laws are being rolled out throughout the country. The current laws not only make it difficult to report on how animals are treated in the industry but also invisibilize the working conditions of those tasked with killing them and taking them apart.
The functioning of Canada’s food system remains reliant on the labor of foreign (often seasonal) agricultural workers (Prouse et al. 2020) who are generally caught within “vicious circles of precarity” as they perform hazardous work that includes biological, chemical, ergonomic, mechanical, physical, and psychosocial dangers (Tucker 2006). These hazards were exacerbated during COVID-19. For example, the Cargill plant in High River became a hotspot for COVID-19 cases (Rusnell and Russell 2021), and Alberta was home to one of the largest COVID-19 outbreak sites on the continent, with 1,500 cases disproportionately affecting migrants and people of color. Workers were threatened with no pay if they did not work, and were cleared for work even when infected; their congregate living elevated their risk of infection (Chang and Corman 2021). Chang and Corman (2021) claim persuasively that COVID-19 has illuminated the entangled “multispecies disposability” of racialized workers and animals within food industries.
It is for these reasons that I think food security and justice need to be understood as multispecies concepts that must consider the production of food. More needs to be done to make visible how structural racism and speciesism are intertwined in food production that sustains insecurity. One of the first steps in that direction is the resistance of ag-gag laws, which are problematic because they deny any sustained attempt to appreciate the abuse and insecurity faced by animals and workers in Canadian foodscapes—as well as a nuanced and informed understanding of how they are shaped by profit-driven, exploitative processes that exacerbate poor working conditions, animal death, and food insecurity.
Make Visible, Make Accessible
Throughout this article we have presented our different orientations and considerations pertaining to food security by using reflections and case studies pertaining to COVID-19. For Megan, food security must necessarily entail planning for localized responsiveness in times of crisis, and there is a need to invest in and support community level organizations such as Neighborhood Houses. For Kiera, food security for university students must also include food literacy programs that address issues of cultural sensitivity, online access, and isolation. For Kimberly, the celebration of CSAs as a response to bloated supply chains must be mediated with an understanding of who has access to making such localized food choices. For Claudia, food justice is inherently a multispecies concept that must disrupt how animals and farm workers are violently included within food provisioning. Together, these reflections show how the pandemic exacerbates and (re)produces already existing fissures within Canadian foodscapes, affecting different populations (such as older adults, university students, agricultural workers, and animals) in distinct ways. Our different orientations to food security point to the intersecting issues of access and equality that limit both national and global abilities to achieve food security. Below we more explicitly highlight what these intersecting issues include before briefly listing some areas of action to make food access more equitable and secure.
Intersecting Issues of Access
Being able to materially access enough food (land, farms, grocery stores, food banks) and having the means (financially and mobility) to do so.
Literacy, ability, and know-how to prepare food (cooking skills, social skills).
Spaces to grow and cook food (homes, online, grocery stores, gardens).
Power relations and structural violence of producing food (including intersecting issues of race, class, and species).
Proposals to the Canadian Government to Effectively Achieve Food Security
Work to identify community-based solutions to issues of food security.
Invest in more adaptable transportation networks and plan for decentralized food providers and services.
Invest in culturally appropriate food literacy programming.
Provide a basic income that guarantees a minimum income to all Canadians.
De-privatize welfare programs and re-invest in social programs that sustain food access.
Designate more urban agriculture spaces so that eating local is not a provision only for the privileged.
Invest in plant-based foods and industries and divest from animal agriculture.
Remove ag-gag laws that invisibilize food production injustices.
Increase workplace security, health benefits, and visibility of populations who work within agricultural sectors.
Simplify food supply chains to reduce environmental impacts, social injustice, and food insecurity.
Many of the abovementioned issues were made more apparent because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have always been there, operating in the shadows. As we move back toward “normal,” we hope that these visibilities will garner political interventions and help to change the ways foodscapes are planned, operated, thought about, engaged with, and managed. This will require a food security lens that is flexible and adaptable to the needs of diverse populations and, for this, both the Canadian and international governments could learn a great deal from community organizations and small-scale programs that have come up with creative solutions to mitigate these challenges. At the global scale, the complex and over-bloated supply chains that define the globalized food system must be changed. To do so, we must pay attention to vulnerable populations (the elderly, youth, local farmers, foreign workers, and animals) and the different ways in which they are made insecure (insecurity of access and insecurity through production) by disrupting the harmful practices associated with over-production and industrialized agriculture such as the exploitation and injustices faced by disproportionately racialized farm workers. This might be achieved by improving the accessibility of small-scale agricultural practices and investing in more equitable and just policies that resist the current neoliberal capitalist food system. Regulations such as the ag-gag laws that silence reporting on abuses occurring within agricultural practices must be overturned. As students, researchers, and activists who are embedded and navigating the food system while seeking to change it, we believe that both Canadian and international governments must rethink their investment in food systems across the spectrum, from food security to food supply chains. In sum, while we have different orientations to food security, it is necessary that we present these challenges together so we can create a food system that is not only more transparent and flexible but that also invests in the programs and people who are already making food more just and accessible.
The research of Kimberly Hill-Tout and of Megan Herod is generously funded by SSHRC-CGS-D fellowships. The research of Kiera E. B. McMaster is generously funded by a SSHRC-CGS-M scholarship.
We participated in a panel titled “Paradoxical Foodscapes and COVID-19” at the 2021 American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) Annual General Meeting along with a fifth panelist, Kasmine Forbes.
This program was a collaboration between the City of Vancouver, HandyDART, Coast Mountain Bus Company, Translink, and Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House. HandyDART also worked with other Neighbourhood Houses and community organizations to deliver food to individuals in need during the pandemic.
We recognize that in using “humans” and “animals” in our writing, we may be reifying the separation of humans from animals and the related hierarchies that allow for the commodification and depoliticization of animal lives. These concepts are much more complicated than they first appear, especially when one considers the histories of how ideas of animalization have been used to depoliticize the lives of “othered humans” and racialized populations. These are important and difficult conversations but, for simplicity and due to a lack of space to adequately unpack these debates, we have chosen to use “human” and “animal” in our writing.