When the global Pandemic was declared on March 11, Jayeeta Sharma, an associate professor in the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies, presciently expected that the disruption would expose existing problems in the food supply: growing inequality and disruption to the supply chains. But even with these weaknesses, could there be an opportunity to make the sector more equitable and sustainable, and if so, what needed to be done?
Before COVID-19, 4.4 million Canadians experienced household food insecurity, including 1.2 million children, according to a 2020 PROOF study. The Pandemic worsened a bad situation: since March, food bank use has increased 20 percent nationally, and 53 percent at Toronto’s Daily Bread main location. Black and Indigenous households are more than twice as likely to use these services, according to a 2014 Canadian Community Health Survey.
While those who are struggling to feed themselves are more likely to be visible minorities, so too are those making the food. Migrant farm workers or those working in meat production are disproportionately staffed with non-white workers. For example, seventy percent of the employees at the Alberta Cargill meat plant recently in the news were of Filipino descent.
“The Pandemic has emphasized underlying realities: it is newcomer communities who supply the jobs in food production, and these jobs are very hard work and not very well paid,” Sharma says. “We aim to find out how we can support ethical and sustainable practices in the supply chain.”
The Feeding Our City project is multi-faceted and extensive. Comprising 28 researchers, including Sharma as the lead and Bryan Dale as project manager, it will research five areas that impact food security: urban growing, produce supply chains, farm−consumer connections, school meal programming and their cessation with COVID-19, and food security in vulnerable neighbourhoods, such as Malvern and Scarborough Southwest.
Preliminary results suggest the crisis has deepened existing inequalities, with racialized communities hit hardest by COVID-19, job losses, and food insecurity. But the disruption has also created some unforeseen benefits, encouraging people to choose local and sustainable food sources, Sharma says. For example, anecdotal evidence suggests a growing number of people are buying vegetable boxes directly from their local farmers. And some food banks are now delivering directly to those who cannot make the journey themselves.
“With the crisis, you are forced to think about scarcity and whom it affects. The Pandemic, as terrible as it is, is the point at which we are trying to seize the opportunity to inform people so they actually listen,” Sharma Says.