Forging community connections to improve food systems

Thursday, November 19, 2020


During COVID-19, researchers across Canada have been developing projects at an unprecedented pace in order to support policy makers, public health officials, and the public at large, while health risks remain and the economic and social recovery looms ahead. Many innovative projects are relying on deep community connections and networks to learn from challenges and responses at the grassroots level.   

Highlighting grassroots food initiatives 

Within the Culinaria Research Centre, a hub for food studies at the University of Toronto, Professor Jayeeta Sharma and her research team have built a wide and ever-growing network of community partners to understand the barriers to food security in Toronto during the pandemic, and to learn from pockets of food system resilience that have emerged in spite of systemic challenges.   

Mapping food insecurity and food system resilience necessitates an interdisciplinary approach. Sharma is primarily a historian whose past work has centred on cultural history and urban food systems; most recently she's examined farm-to-table food systems and "ethical business" in the agricultural and food service sector in South Asia. Bryan Dale, a postdoctoral fellow and Program Manager of the Feeding the City project is currently focused on ecological farming practices in Canada as well as of food sovereignty, agroecology, and expanded access to ecologically produced food.  

The Coalition for Healthy School Food joined the project as an early community partner, and the team continues to welcome collaborators from educational and policy organizations such as Trent University, Ryerson University, and the Toronto Food Policy Council. By formalizing a network of food system researchers across Ontario, the project aims to create an academic hub of knowledge related to food security issues.   

On the public-facing end of this project (titled Feeding the City: Beyond the Pandemic) the team hosts digital events to bring awareness to food system issues emerging from the pandemic, highlight ongoing systemic gaps in food security, and share stories of "food system resilience" arising from community-driven initiatives.   

To gather further insights into the work of community members to provide food access during the pandemic, the team is conducting a mix of social media mining, media scanning and community interviews—particularly reaching out to communities “where there is silence.” “No one is documenting those who rely on halal food,” offers Sharma as an example of the culturally-specific communities and racialized neighbourhoods that often fall outside of traditional emergency food aid networks. The project's own student researchers are also tapping into their neighbourhood networks to fill in the gaps in the story of food security in Toronto during COVID.    

What have these researchers learned so far from their sprawling network of food system actors? The tendency of COVID-19 to exacerbate existing inequities in Toronto's food system is a primary concern—where food deserts existed prior to the pandemic, challenges to accessing high-quality and affordable food have only mounted. Dale emphasizes that all of their new learnings about food insecurity during the pandemic need to be situated in relation to longer-term shortcomings and inequities within our urban food systems.   

What Sharma and Dale have also witnessed are examples of local networks stepping in to provide emergency food aid to vulnerable populations. A key intent of the project is to “document the evidence of resiliency where it happens.” One example is the work of Black Creek Community Farm that, on top of operating an eight-acre organic farm and delivering ongoing training and food literacy programming, has delivered thousands of emergency food boxes to members of the Jane and Finch community during COVID-19.   

Dale explains that their research team is seeing food insecurity during the pandemic as the extension of ongoing urban and social planning failures that have left communities vulnerable.   

Research supporting migrant farm workers  

It would be impossible to discuss challenges to Ontario's food system resilience without addressing the plight of migrant farm workers in the province. Dr. Leah Vosko, a Professor in the Department of Politics at York University and the Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Gender & Work, has written extensively on Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Her book Disrupting Deportability investigates barriers impeding migrant workers' ability to defend their labour rights.   

During the pandemic in which migrant farm workers were deemed essential, existing issues— including overcrowded and low-quality accommodations, a lack of access to transportation, and lack of safety precautions on-the-job—coincided with health risks posed by the virus to create a "perfect storm" leading to multiple outbreaks on Southern Ontario farms as well as the deaths of three migrant workers from Mexico: Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Munoz Santos, and Juan Lopez Chaparro.  

"A lot of problems that have come into stark view were pre-existing" said Vosko, explaining the need for reforms in the SAWP. “Yes, the laws need to be good, they need to improve, but they also need to be properly enforced.” When government workers shifted to working from home at the start of the pandemic, inspections of worker accommodations became entirely remote, a change that made it easier for employers to cut corners and fail to implement necessary pandemic safety precautions. This is just one instance of what Vosko and workers' advocates often speak of as "rights without remedies"—minimum standards on paper for the treatment of migrant workers, but with significant gaps in enforcement protocols.  

“Overall, we need to ensure that migrant workers have voice.” We know their concerns, but "there's a lot of fear," says Vosko of the fear of reprisals from employers when workers speak out. With their status in Canada tied directly to their employer, migrant workers live under a constant threat of being sent home, what Vosko refers to as "institutionalized deportability," which discourages them from speaking out about abuses.    

She encourages Canadians to reflect on our common humanity with migrant farm workers, and to consider how we are indebted to those who undertake crucial, yet undervalued labour to keep Canadians fed. Vosko, alongside other academics, medical experts, and clinical and social service leaders, contributes to the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group, a coalition of professionals creating evidence-based policy guidance to ensure the safety and wellbeing of migrant agricultural workers during COVID-19. This work runs in parallel with advocacy groups including the Migrant Rights Network, which is mobilizing a broad network of support for migrant justice and advocating for significant reforms to the SAWP.   

From agricultural production to urban distribution networks, Canada's food systems have long been in need of significant improvements to improve accessibility and resilience. Hopefully, through continued collaboration between communities, advocates, and academics, our food policies and systems will come out of this pandemic a little bit stronger than they went into it.  



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