Food occupies a special place in our lives and has taken on an even greater significance during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, focusing on food in the context of COVID-19 provides valuable insights into how to build a more equitable and sustainable society. A recent article framed the current social and economic slowdown as an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the regular rhythms and order of society, referring to this slowdown as the Great Pause. The current moment certainly calls for critical reflection, but characterizing this period as a pause omits important lessons. We stand to learn a great deal more from the activity and movement that continues amidst the pandemic: from the seasonal approach of the growing season, to essential workers arriving to work, to the natural metabolic cycles of hunger and energy. Focusing on the activity and relationships that emerge from our daily need for food reveals important lessons on how to create a more sustainable and just normal.
Emergency measures to prevent the spread of the virus have created a completely new context for the production and distribution of — and access to — food on local, national, and international scales. In response, authorities in both the public and private sector have sought to ensure that food is available and accessible to those in need. However, the limited efficacy and extent of these responses indicate the inadequacy of neoliberal machinery and capitalistic values to protect the essentials of life. These limitations are especially clear when we contrast them with the work and vision of community-led groups, which are expanding community care and advocating for more sustainable and equitable practices.
Community-level groups have long pushed for the recognition and drastic rearrangement of institutions that are now being brought to the brink of crumble under the pressure of the COVID-19 outbreak. These community groups include farmers’ associations, trade unions, and groups in the non-profit and voluntary sector composing a broadly construed food movement. By working to reorganize the production, distribution, and enjoyment of food, these groups work towards a Great Realization — a future that situates sustainability and equity as organizing principles. Focusing on events in Canada, from the perspective of a resident of Nova (the province consistently found to have the highest levels of household food insecurity), this piece will demonstrate how food-focused community-level groups provide a vital source of labour and vision.
Precarious Links in the Food Supply-Chain
In a March 16th press conference, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland invoked the image of “people driving trucks of food both ways across the border” to justify travel between Canada and the United States. Elected officials in federal and provincial press conferences continue to reference food in order to signal that they are in touch with the everyday needs of common people and to reassure the public that the food supply is stable. However, delays in regular international supply-chains have brought about both new challenges and increased demand for domestic food producers. The increased importance of local producers has only highlighted the government’s lack of knowledge of how to effectively support domestic production without regular market activity.
To help producers cope with decreased access to international trade and shifts in demand, the Government of Canada and the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture initially released $5 billion of increased lending capacity to Farm Credit Canada. While this is a big number, farmers expressed frustration that increased debt only adds to the risk they already hold and does not assist them with the time-sensitive challenges in their work. Critical calls from producer associations have led to targeted subsides for labour and other increased costs of production but these short-term investments do little to overcome structural challenges. That millions of dollars in aid continues to miss the mark reveals a worrying gap between government programs and producers’ intimate knowledge of what is needed in this essential industry.
Pre-existing inequities in the employment of Seasonal Agricultural Workers (SAWs) have demonstrably increased the impact of the pandemic. Disruptions in international supply chains have delayed the arrival of approximately 60,000 SAWs coming to Canada, largely from the Global South, as part of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. In response to labour shortages, farmers are planning to render a smaller harvest. While the TFW program subjects workers to a heightened-level of precarity and exploitation, a dependence on these skilled labourers is now demonstrated by the shortage of substitutes within the domestic workforce. For SAWs who do arrive, inadequate access to housing and healthcare is further complicated by requirements of mandatory quarantine and physical distancing, as shown by the current outbreak of COVID-19 illness (including tragic deaths in some cases) among SAWs across Canada. The unanswered calls to address these inadequacies from Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and farmers associations chart a course to a more resilient and equitable food system.
Equally worrying disruptions in the food processing sector are similarly responded to with crude attempts to maintain stability and resilience. The close-quarter working conditions of processing and packing plants have led to significant risks for workers on the shop floor. A Cargill plant in Calgary, identified as the largest single-site of infection in North America, closed after an outbreak among employees but has reopened despite continued cases of illness and death among employees. Processing 40% of the beef produced in Canada, this Cargill plant represents vulnerable bottle-necks in the industry that have forced farmers to euthanize their livestock in response to significant slowdowns. Early government responses increased inspection capacity, and more recent investment has subsidized the employer responsibility to provide safe working conditions. Nevertheless, oversight by United Food and Commercial Workers, which predicted the first shutdown, continues to be necessary.
The Canadian response to pressure on the processing sector is marginally more insightful than that of the United States. After the largest American meat processor, Tyson Foods, launched a media campaign warning that “the food supply chain is breaking,” the Trump administration used the Defense Production Act to deem processing facilities essential and to outlaw their closure by local authorities. Rather than including formal obligations for employers to step up safety protocols, the Trump Administration has indemnified them of liability and therefore risks creating future outbreaks. A deadly myopia is well illustrated by Cargill CEO David MacLennan who praised the decision to consolidate authority: “what we’re seeing is local governments wanting to protect their local population, which is very understandable. But what [Trump’s decision] does is it consolidates decision-making authority”. Striking the balance between continued productivity and worker safety is undeniably difficult in the context of a pandemic. However, the influence of industry elites must be offset by a clear understanding of the safety requirements necessary to keep workers safe and plants open. Large corporations with strangleholds on the processing market demonstrate that processing regulations must be restructured to protect workers and to support stable market access.
Growing Beyond Groceries from Profit to Purpose
While supports from federal, provincial, and municipal governments have sought to mitigate disruptions, food access is almost completely managed by large-scale distributors and grocery chains. Reports of panic buying clearing grocery stores shelves perpetuated concerns among the public about the supply of essential goods. In interviews and press releases, industry experts attempt to alleviate these concerns by explaining the adaptive nature of modern supply-chains. Indeed, corporations such as Sysco, Gordon Foods, Empire (Sobeys), Loblaws, and Walmart contribute to the availability of food but do so with the priority of expanding market profile rather than maximizing food access. Large-scale grocery store chains have kept stores open, instituted physical distancing practices, and temporarily increased pay to front-line staff (with support from temporary wage subsides from federal and provincial governments). These chains have also taken part in the torrent of donations from the private sector toward food access needs. However, donations consistently rely on the labour of other groups to distribute food outside of stores and, when issued in the form of grocery cards, function to recoup profits.
Consequently, the responsibility of closing gaps in food access is largely situated within the non-profit and voluntary sector. Various levels of government have boosted funding to address food insecurity. Examples include the federal $100 million investment in organizations addressing gaps in food access and the provincial $1 million to Feed Nova Scotia. Again, these investments are welcomed but, as Nick Saul of Community Food Centres of Canada reminds us, they must address not only current circumstances but look toward long-term solutions. Addressing cycles of food insecurity by making healthy food more accessible and affordable has long been envisioned and advocated for by non-profit workers, volunteers, and activists organizing around community care and a more just society. While these groups typically struggle to attain sufficient funding and recognition from government, they are key to addressing both long-standing and newly-emerging issues of food insecurity. The on-going reliance of government on these groups demonstrates the value of both their labour and vision.
Community-led groups that are typically situated on the fringe of the predominant commercial model now play a central role in guiding emergency responses. Groups of local producers, such as the Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia, use small amounts of government funding to create online markets and creative drop-off arrangements. In Halifax, community food centres and initiatives like the Mobile Food Market use their networks and infrastructure to turn government funding and donations into life changing programs in food insecure communities. In Cape Breton, groups like Nourish NS, Undercurrents Youth Centre, New Dawn, and Cape Breton Food Hub identify and redistribute available resources, such as school breakfast programs no longer reaching low-income youth. Food banks are launching pilot projects to more effectively reach those in both acute and chronic need. Such actions are taken despite the typically minimal amount of infrastructure and funding for staffing at these organizations. Individual community members are starting creative initiatives such as stocking “little free libraries” with food or creating websites that direct residents to local food producers. Community leadership comes in all forms but consistently seeks to mobilize skills and repurpose infrastructure in response to local needs. Within the context of the COVID-19 crisis, local governments that have already built strong relationships with community groups are found to be more capable of addressing long-running and emergent needs. Therefore, the vision of community-led food-focused groups provides leadership in the process of immediate recovery and in building new levels of resiliency.
The Low-Hanging Fruit of Structural Change
Focusing on food unearths important lessons that must be accounted for in the formation of a post-COVID-19 normal. Significant, and at times life-threatening, inequities in the food system require increased investment in community-led networks and increased support for community management of physical and social infrastructure. As Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the Congressional representative of one of the most afflicted regions in the world, stated in response to questions about addressing food insecurity, pre-existing inequities are the greatest barriers to resiliency. Just as the celebration of front-line heroes in public healthcare and grocery stores ought to continue when the crisis subsides, a demonstrated reliance on local producers, food processing workers, and non-profit groups to keep people fed should ensure these groups have a more central role in food system governance.
This short account has shed light on various weaknesses and vulnerabilities currently struggling under the weight of the COVID-19 stress test. In Nova Scotia, authorities have stated that now is not the time to fix pre-existing inequalities. This is only another example of the gap in comprehension between existing authorities and ground-level perspectives. While this unprecedented challenge has been responded to by a flow of aid and corporate social responsibility (closely matched by the abundance of self-congratulatory press conferences and corporate messaging), the limited capacity of the current system to ensure food is produced and enjoyed demonstrates the urgent need for significant change.
Critical community-led groups provide guides for this significant change toward a more sustainable and just world — one in which producers of food are celebrated and effectively supported, the influence of industry elites is offset by a concern for human life, definitions of “essential work” respect workers rather than restraining their rights, and where community-led groups are valued not just for their labour but for their knowledge and vision of a better normal.