Perspectives on Food Security During COVID-19

David Messer
David Messer Guelph Smart City Office • 24 August 2020
Image of Gavin Dandy and Evan Fraiser

Has COVID-19 brought about new challenges around food security or exacerbated pre-existing issues?

We brought together food thought leaders in our community:

  • Gavin Dandy is the Directing Coordinator of The Seed, a not-for-profit food project at the Guelph Community Health Centre launched in 2015 by a coalition of community organizations.
  • Evan Fraser is the Director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. He holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and is a professor of Geography at the University of Guelph.

EVAN: I’ve been having a lot of conversations on this very topic. Most people would say COVID has highlighted and brought to the surface a lot of problems that already existed in our food system. We already live in a country with unacceptably high levels of food insecurity. We already knew that the meatpacking industry is highly concentrated and probably not resilient. We already knew that we had a challenge with maintaining temporary foreign workers in the agricultural labour program. So none of these things which COVID has really brought to the surface and put into headlines are new problems.

The opportunity, if it’s not wrong to be talking about opportunities, is that we’re now openly talking about these things and there may be a window to address some of these long-standing problems.


GAVIN: Well said. I think those ideas are reflected at the local level. It's a terrible thing that's created opportunities to address some of these chronic issues like food insecurity and an opportunity to create things we may not have imagined before. 

Focusing on food insecurity, what we found locally is that there's way more of a commitment on the part of the general public, funders, partners and local businesses. A lot more commitment and desire to contribute to solutions.

It means people donating warehouses so that we can use them rent-free to do food insecurity work. That means companies donating equipment. It means more donations; private donations have gone up by about 1000% in the last year! These are all exciting things and it means people are listening to what they're hearing and they're making choices about what they're going to do with their own personal wealth.

Another example is that there are better and better systems coming into place to capture food waste. That work was already in motion prior, but COVID has really galvanized it. Operations like Second Harvest’s platform is really hitting its stride to get food where it’s needed.


EVAN: Another angle is the temporary foreign worker program for agriculture. It was created as a temporary initiative and we are now, 50 or 60 years later, structurally dependent on it. The food bank movement emerged in the 1980s as a temporary measure to address a short-term food insecurity crisis and yet 40 years later we are structurally dependent on it. These two cases are very interesting because they involve marginalized, relatively powerless, communities—and were established decades ago as short-term, band-aid solutions that over time we have become structurally dependent on. Maybe the COVID opportunity is the opportunity to pull the band-aid off and actually address the root causes of these things. 


GAVIN: I love that. I remember in April when we weren’t sure whether agricultural workers would get here and there were headlines that asparagus wouldn’t get picked. And literally right after that there’d be news stories that all these people were losing their jobs because of COVID. There’s an obvious opportunity for Canadians to work on farms. But of course, people don’t want to get their hands dirty—people aren’t even offering Canadians these jobs and that’s not the participation people expect in the food system.


EVAN: Yes, we’ve got two bizarre ironies. On one hand food waste caused by COVID and the other food insecurity caused by COVID. An unemployment crisis and a labour shortage. So there’s two weird over-supplies and two under-supplies and we don’t seem to be able to connect between those dots.

But, and I know you know this Gavin, I don’t want to suggest these issues are simpler than they actually are—just like using emergency food aid is a good short-term strategy but doesn’t address the long-term causes of food insecurity, like poverty, colonialism and other social issues.

Getting a bunch of unemployed baristas or waiters onto asparagus farms isn’t a solution for the long-term agricultural labour problem. Using my son as an example, you could work for $18.00 an hour as a lifeguard, do a six-hour shift and go home at night. Or on the other hand, because of all of the structural problems in the farming sector, you’d work 12-15 hour days, maybe get Sundays off, and work in those conditions from May until the end of September for $14.00 an hour with no benefits. Who in their right mind would take that job? I said "no" to my family farm 20 years ago because I can make a heck of a lot more money and have a better quality of life talking and writing about food systems than being a farmer in Niagara.


GAVIN: I completely agree. I think COVID is holding up a mirror and helping start some of these conversations. Hopefully, as more people start looking in the mirror, we can make this moment a catalyst and push behind innovation. My experience on the ground is that this has been an incredible period of innovation. We’ve been able to do stuff in the last four months with support and resources that there’s no way we would have been able to do a year ago.

A tractor plowing a field



**Community Discussion**

  • How has COVID-19 impacted you / your organization's food challenges?
  • Are you encountering new challenges or just new versions of persistent ones? 
  • What can we do as a community through Our Food Futures to address the root causes of food insecurity–not just create more band-aids? 

Let us know your perspective on food security and how we can address it as a community.