The Fall of the Food Co-op and the Rise of the Delivery App Economy
From 2015 to 2016 two organizations launched in Toronto with the aim of revolutionizing the way people eat, although they went about it in very different ways. One was the Berry Road Food Co-op (BRFC), which aimed to empower Torontonians to eat more ethically, the other, Uber Eats, which aimed to empower Torontonians to eat more conveniently. Five years have passed and only one of these organizations remains: only one of these “revolutions” has proven successful.
Uber Eats can attribute its success to the logic of capitalism. In its pursuit of capital, our modern food supply chain compartmentalizes and optimizes each step in the preparation of a meal, from growing to processing to packaging to cooking. Uber Eats simply adds another step (delivering) to this chain of alienation, further limiting human connection and making it nearly-impossible to follow one’s meal as it is ushered through the increasingly complex food system, from farm to table, or, in today’s culture of appified eating, from farm to couch. Eating itself has fallen prey to alienation, with shared meals largely a thing of the past. “The family dinner, and more generally a cultural consensus on the subject of eating, appears to be the latest. . . casualty of capitalism,” writes Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. 1 A food system meant to maximize profit has no use for many things that have been considered, up until recently, integral to eating: tradition, culture, ritual, and community.
The decline of Toronto’s food co-ops, such as the BRFC, is also a symptom of today’s delivery app economy. Food co-ops build their politics on care, interconnection, and togetherness; delivery apps, on disconnection and detachment. Food co-ops prioritize eating together; delivery apps thrive when we eat apart. Food co-ops urge us to consider the intricate web of people and communities who participated in the preparation of our meals; delivery apps make invisible these very connections. The parallel fall of Toronto food co-ops and rise of the delivery app economy suggests that our present moment is grounded in a food politics of alienation, yet the past few years have gestured toward a more hopeful future, the potential for a food politics built on solidarity.
The Decline of the Toronto Food Co-op
The BRFC incorporated on August 30, 2016, 2 joining the West End Food Co-op (WEFC), the Karma Co-op, and the Bathurst Wholefood Co-operative as one of Toronto’s only food co-ops. Essentially, food co-ops are not-for-profit, cooperatively-owned grocery stores, but more broadly, they are places where consumers can exercise food sovereignty, a term coined by international farmers organization La Via Campesina that refers to the right of people “to define their agricultural and food policy.” 3 At their core, food co-ops are about this “right to define” local food systems: about consumers having a say over the kinds of food available within their communities and how it has been sourced, priced, and so on. In practice, this means that the food on offer has been grown, harvested, processed, and distributed in ways that reflect communal values.
It is important to flag that food sovereignty is not a neutral concept equally applicable to all Canadians. For some, food sovereignty is a more urgent matter, and unsurprisingly, these are the ones who have been fighting for it the longest and hardest. Indigenous peoples are routinely denied food sovereignty due to colonial food policies, such as those that restrict hunting and fishing, reducing their access to traditional foods. Indigenous peoples are also more likely to experience food insecurity, most directly because nutritious food is often inaccessible or prohibitively priced in remote areas of Canada. For example, in 2015, a month of groceries cost an average of $1,909 in Attawapiskat First Nation, versus only $847 in Toronto. 4 Rates of food insecurity reach almost 50 percent in Nunavut, where the majority of the population is Indigenous. 5
Food co-ops allow consumers to actively engage in determining their local food system. In a food co-op, you don’t “vote with your dollars”—a simulacrum of democracy that is accessible only to the wealthy—but rather you literally vote on the co-op’s decisions. Because they allow consumers to make decisions that feel good to them, food co-ops tend to offer far more locally sourced and organic food products than commercial grocery stores do (20 percent versus six percent 6 and 47 percent versus three percent, 7 respectively). It also explains how some food co-ops, such as Toronto’s Karma Co-op, have successfully instituted zero-waste policies, requiring members to tote around reusable grocery bags and scoop globs of toothpaste and deodorant into Tupperware containers. Food co-ops bring people together through shared values and collective action: a practice antithetical to “disruptive” and “revolutionary” food delivery start-ups.
Yet, Toronto food co-ops are struggling. In mid-2018, when the BRFC was still in its planning stages, the WEFC was forced to relocate from its decade-long home, the Parkdale Community Health Centre. Unable to find another affordable space within the gentrifying neighbourhood, the WEFC had no choice but to close down, 8 reducing the number of active Toronto food co-ops by one-third. James Partanen, a WEFC board member, explained why the food co-op’s closure was such a major blow to the city:
Between the store and the farmers market, we have brought approximately 2 million dollars of local, quality food products into Parkdale. . . and we have done this while striving to empower and include our shoppers, producers, workers and community partners in all of our decision-making processes. 9
The WEFC brought nutritious and sustainable food options into a low-income area with higher-than-average rates of marginalized residents, making its closure a big loss for Parkdale. But, as Partanen articulates, the community lost more than just a beloved shop: they also lost food sovereignty and food community, values that are essential to flourishing food politics.
Despite the closure of the WEFC, activists remained optimistic, clinging to the hope that the BRFC, a fresh new food co-op, would take its place. Partanen left the WEFC in 2016 to help organize the BRFC, and he was confident that things would be different writing:
I know from experience, both at WEFC’s inception and through with community partners, developers and city councillors on the new BRFC, that the options for the creation of a vibrant food co-operative are limited only by the vision of the community members and politicians involved. 10
And the BRFC had such community support, in the form of rent subsidies from the condo developer and robust membership pre-signups.
But community support wasn’t enough. According to its now-defunct website, the BRFC faced “numerous financial challenges,” and in 2018 began a fundraising campaign, desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to crowdsource the last $100,000 needed to open by spring 2019. 11 At this time, the BRFC already looked finished from the outside, though it would remain stuck in this pre-opening stage for several years. Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, BRFC board members posted on the co-op’s website that “unforeseen delays,” including the pandemic and unrelated financial roadblocks, had once again put their operations on pause. They pushed back their opening date to spring 2021, pending approval of a “final construction loan.” Spring 2021 came and went, but their doors remained firmly shut.
In July 2021, the BRFC finally admitted defeat. The announcement came over a year after the COVID-19 pandemic had radically changed food culture in Canada: by now, more than 30 percent of Canadians were using delivery apps to buy their groceries, and online food orders had increased by nearly 40 percent. 12 While the food co-op’s closure may have been predictable, the lack of media attention around it was not. If you weren’t paying close attention, you would have missed it: the closure is commemorated only by a “permanently closed” marker on Google and a short paragraph on the Stonegate Community Health Centre’s website posted in July 2021. 13
This blow to the city’s food sovereignty, community, and democracy went wholly unnoticed and unlamented: a symptom of our culture’s fetishization of convenience. Karma Co-op general manager Talia McGuire thinks the delivery economy is in part to blame: “This year has been particularly bad for sales declines, and I suspect a lot of that is going to delivery platforms,” she said to the Toronto Star in 2018. “It’s been huge for us. . . Most people are so time-starved these days that they have to shop where it’s easy.” 14 But forsaking community for convenience comes at a cost, most of all for the workers who prop up the delivery economy.
The Rise of the Delivery App Economy
Backtrack to 2015, one year before BRFC was incorporated and the same year Uber Eats entered the Canadian market. Foodora, another “revolutionary” and “disruptive” food delivery app, had just launched in Canada. Unlike Uber Eats, however, it didn’t last long, shuttering its Canadian branch just months after the Ontario Labour Relations Board declared that its couriers had the right to unionize. Much like the BRFC, Foodora was closed within five short years of its opening, and one could say that, also like the BRFC, its quick burnout was due to the marketplace’s aversion to solidarity and affinity for alienation.
In the years following Foodora’s and Uber Eats’s Canadian launches, the food delivery economy exploded, and it quickly became clear that the gig workers employed by these apps were being overworked, underpaid, and exploited. Couriers were designated as “independent contractors,” meaning that the delivery platforms weren’t technically their employers, which denied them access to basic labour rights and benefits. Within a few years, the situation had become untenable, and in 2018, a group of Foodora couriers met up in a Toronto park to discuss unionizing––a modest meetup from which the Foodsters United movement was born. 15
In January 2019, Foodsters United started working toward unionizing with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), and with the help of the CUPW’s veteran union organizers, began to attract media attention. In May 2019, Foodsters United launched its “Justice for Foodora Couriers” campaign, which demanded that couriers be treated like any other employee and that the many undocumented workers in their ranks be recognized and protected. 16 Finally, on February 25, 2020, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled that the Foodora couriers were right: they were, in fact, dependent contractors. 17 This landmark victory meant that Foodora couriers were now able to unionize, which a staggering 89 percent of them voted to do, proving that what gig workers want is not “flexibility” and “independence” but stability and security. 18 The Foodora couriers rejected individualism, instead opting for the safety that comes with solidarity.
Foodsters United’s win was powerful but brief. By April, Foodora had declared bankruptcy and the company officially closed its Canadian branch on May 11, 2020. 19 Still, Foodsters United proved its lasting commitment to gig workers’ rights, winning a historic $3.46 million settlement for Foodora couriers and continuing its work under the name “Gig Workers United.” 20 The Gig Workers United website explains the harms that gig workers struggle against:
Our health and safety isn’t a priority for app employers who encourage us to take risks to generate profits. . . . If the orders are coming in we’ll stay out well past the point of exhaustion because there’s no guarantee it’ll be good tomorrow. . . . Being a gig worker means dancing on the edge of financial instability, physical injury, and stress without any possibility of upward mobility. You can be deactivated at any moment without explanation, with no chance to tell your side of the story. 21
Despite these bleak conditions, members of Gig Workers United continue to organize. 22 Recently, along with Uber Drivers United and the Ontario Federation of Labour, they outlined an official “Gig Workers’ Bill of Rights,” a set of demands that comprises the labour rights each gig worker should be entitled to. These include a minimum wage, sick leave, vacation pay, the right to unionize, payment for all hours worked (including time spent fulfilling cancelled orders or waiting in traffic), access to government benefits (such as Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan), and protection against harassment and abuse on the job. 23
Over the past year, the United Gig Workers have won several victories. In August 2021, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled in favour of a $400 million class-action lawsuit filed against Uber, which like Foodora, had misclassified drivers as independent contractors and unlawfully withheld basic labour rights. 24 Since then, the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee has recognized that current labour laws do not adequately reflect Canada’s modern labour landscape, in which 13 percent of workers are employed within the gig economy. 25 The committee released 21 labour-related recommendations for the provincial government; one such recommendation, the prohibition of non-compete clauses, has already been enacted. Other recommendations include protections for gig workers, including to “create and recognize the dependent contractor category for gig or platform workers in the app-based space and give this category of worker basic employment rights.” 26
In December 2021, gig workers received a hopeful indication that their labour might finally be protected by law, as the Ontario government announced that it is considering a “portable benefits program” for gig workers. This would allow gig workers to access benefits such as health, dental, and vision coverage, and to cart these benefits between different contract jobs. No legislation is currently on the table, but it may be brought to Queen’s Park in early 2022, alongside a catch-all “dependent contractor” designation for gig workers, as Ontario Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton hinted to CTV News Toronto. 27
What does the closing of the BRFC have to do with gig workers organizing for labour rights and unionization? Both the decline of Toronto food co-ops and the rise of the delivery economy are by-products of late-stage capitalist alienation, in which consumers (often themselves overworked and underpaid) simply don’t have the time and capacity to build community and solidarity around their food choices. It follows that most would opt for the ease of an app over the hard work of co-operation.
This trend has been further exacerbated over the past two years, as the way we’ve learned to eat during the pandemic is utterly at odds with the ethos of food co-ops, and utterly in accordance with that of delivery apps. We want food that is contactless, accessible from home, and meant to be consumed alone. These values are unlikely to change post-pandemic, with half of Canadians saying they plan to continue ordering food through delivery apps at least once a week. 28 It’s hard to blame them: after nearly two years of eating in isolation––avoiding restaurants, dinner parties, even grocery stores––who wouldn’t prefer the comfort and safety of a screen over a crowded, bustling food co-op?
Food Politics in a Post-COVID World
The COVID-19 pandemic did much more than amplify our isolated eating habits, however; it also exposed the deep flaws within our food systems. For example, while the pandemic ensured that couriers for food delivery apps had a steady stream of work, it also put them in a double-bind: they were considered “essential workers” but weren’t given the required workplace protections, such as paid sick leave and access to personal protection equipment (PPE). Moreover, many gig workers didn’t qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) (and at the beginning of the pandemic, none did, due to their “independent contractor” status) leaving them unable to opt out of work, an especially dangerous situation for immunocompromised couriers. 29
“The sickness in our food supply,” Michael Pollan wrote in an article for the New York Review of Books, “is laying bare vulnerabilities and inequities that in normal times have gone undiscovered.” Pollan points out that while the middle classes were panic-buying dried pasta and frozen pizzas, “the very system that made possible the bounty of the American supermarket” suddenly came to seem “questionable, if not misguided.” Our food system routinely devalues the health and safety of the very workers who allow for its “vaunted efficiency,” which was never quite so evident as it was at the beginning of the pandemic. Pollan writes:
Slaughterhouses have become hot zones for contagion, with thousands of workers now out sick and dozens of them dying. This should come as no surprise: social distancing is virtually impossible in a modern meat plant, making it an ideal environment for a virus to spread. In recent years, meatpackers have successfully lobbied regulators to increase line speeds, with the result that workers must stand shoulder to shoulder cutting and deboning animals so quickly that they can’t pause long enough to cover a cough. 30
Not only did our food system exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, but it could lead to more viruses like it. “Factory farms are breeding grounds for pandemics,” wrote Jonathon Safran Foer and Aaron S. Gross for The Guardian, noting that most of the meat we consume comes from “genetically uniform, immunocompromised, and regularly drugged animals lodged by the tens of thousands into buildings or stacked cages.” Safran Foer and Gross further point out that many recent novel viruses, including swine flu and bird flu, evolved on factory farms. 31
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed other, more insidious “sicknesses” in our food supply. Summer 2020 saw Canada’s highest-ever demand for foreign agricultural workers: many domestic workers did not want to work during the pandemic, and access to CERB gave them the flexibility to make that decision. Foreign workers who rely on seasonal wages for their income, however, had no choice but to take the job and risk catching COVID-19. Plus, a global pandemic is not the only threat that migrant agricultural workers face. Many of these workers constantly “run the risk of losing their wages, immigration status, and housing,” according to Noelle Solange Didierjean for Briarpatch magazine, leaving them powerless to combat workplace harassment or abuse. 32 For some, the ever-present threat of deportation leaves them vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by their employers.
According to Stats Canada (reporting data from 2017), about 16 percent of agricultural workers in Canada are foreign workers, a number that more than doubled over the preceding decade. 33 Around 90 percent of them work “low-skilled,” low-paying jobs, and on the whole, foreign agricultural workers earn disproportionately low salaries as compared to domestic workers, with average annual earnings coming in at $17,900. 34 In addition to being underpaid, this work is also precarious. According to the Migrant Rights Network, “farm workers in many provinces are exempt from basic employment rights such as minimum wage, overtime, breaks, and hours of rest between work shifts.” They add that “farm workers’ permits are tied to a specific employer,” meaning “workers cannot leave bad jobs, and that the risk of getting fired—and subsequently becoming homeless and facing deportation—makes asserting their rights at work virtually impossible.” 35 Yet, despite facing “enormous pressure” to keep quiet, at least 5,386 complaints were filed by farmworkers from Mexico between 2009 and 2019. 36
Not only is this capitalist food system harmful to its workers, it also doesn’t serve its consumers. Nearly one in five Toronto households are affected by food insecurity, meaning that they have “inadequate or insecure access to food due to lack of money.” 37 This problem extends beyond hunger (though hunger is, of course, a major issue), as food insecurity is closely correlated with negative health outcomes including chronic illnesses, mood and anxiety disorders, and mortality. The city’s food insecurity rates are on the rise: according to the 2019 “Food in Toronto: Affordability, Accessibility, and Insecurity” report, the cost of buying nutritious food went up by 7.6 percent between 2018 and 2019. The cost of eating well has risen so sharply that someone living on money from the Ontario Disability Support Program would end each month $305 in debt, assuming they had paid for nothing but essential expenses such as nutritious food. 38
Capitalism requires that we forget that food inherently ties people together and that feeding a community is a complex and interdependent process. Individual action is not sufficient to change the harms entrenched within our food systems, which is why so many major corporations have had no problem embracing ethical eating, so long as it’s on an individual scale (consider Amazon-owned Whole Foods peddling vegan-friendly tech meat). Real change comes from united action, and from working in conversation with low-income Canadians, migrant agricultural workers, and Indigenous people to build systems that account for the needs of the collective. This is what food co-ops strive to do: feed the community while remaining accountable for the systems that connect us to our meals, and to each other.
From Public to Private
The weaknesses in our food system are all essentially symptoms of alienation: from the land, the community, and the means of production. Each node in the food supply chain has, under capitalism, become so convoluted that it’s hard to connect them into a coherent system, which makes it easy to ignore the web of abuse and harm linking it all together. It is fitting, therefore, that the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed so many of these weaknesses, tacked on yet another level of alienation to the food supply chain.
In the post-COVID world, meals no longer bring people together. No longer is it anyone’s business what we eat, or how, or when: food preparation and consumption are now things done behind closed doors. In fact, both the decline of the food co-op and the rise of the delivery app economy have been driven in part by food’s shift from the public sphere to the private sphere, what Aaron Timms calls “the permanent tech-driven evacuation of eating as a public activity.” 39 This is what the delivery app economy promises: seamlessness, which is to say, alienation; not needing to look directly at the people serving you, not needing to consider where your food comes from. Delivery apps obfuscate the human hands behind your meals, whereas food co-ops bring your own hands into the fold: often physically, as many members choose to work at their co-op in exchange for membership.
The alienation of food systems is a highly unnatural phenomenon. From gathering to shopping to cooking, food has historically been a communal experience. Even grocery shopping wasn’t an independent task, and up until the early 20th century, you couldn’t buy food without the help of another person. In his book Grocery Story, Jon Steinman considers food’s first leap from public to private: “Prior to 1916, grocery stores were nothing like the stores of today. Items for sale were out of reach to shoppers. Store clerks would take orders and fill them from shelves and bulk bins located behind a counter,” he writes. 40
Canada’s first self-service grocery, the “Loblaw Groceteria” (now known as Loblaws), opened in 1919 on Toronto’s Dundas Street West. Within a few decades, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find a grocery store that wasn’t self-service––the sterile impersonality of the self-service experience proved irresistible to shoppers. The popularity of self-service grocery stores mirrors the ascent of the delivery economy. Much like delivery apps—and unlike food co-ops—grocery stores shield against human connection, making invisible the complicated processes by which every aisle is filled to the brim with glossy, packaged foodstuff, thousands of kilometres from home and priced suspiciously low.
Re-politicizing Food in a Post-COVID World
So, where do we go from here? How do we recover food-based solidarity when consumers have been rubbed raw by a pandemic and the self-service grocery store has been upgraded to an app? How do we knit back together the disparate threads that bind our complex food supply chain? How do we create a food politics built not on a single issue—food security, the environment, animal rights, access to culturally relevant foods—but rather on all the issues, all at once? A food politics capacious enough to account for the whole community’s needs and desires?
It is not enough to simply revitalize Toronto’s failing food co-ops, though that’s certainly a good start. In a city where gig workers do not have basic labour rights, a fifth of the population lacks adequate food, and gentrification increasingly pushes out the poorest residents, food co-ops are too easily taken over by well-meaning but privileged shoppers, those who are more focused on sourcing vegan ingredients than achieving food justice for all. In an article in Dissent magazine, Jan Dutkiewicz and Gabriel N. Rosenberg reject the popular middle-class notion that fixing our food system requires us to think smaller and more local, as well as the idealization of family farms, which are still driven by profit, property ownership, and settler-colonial values. Instead, they urge us to think bigger, to imagine broad, interconnected systems able to viably support the needs of entire populations. 41
Indigenous food sovereignty and land back movements are good places to start when envisioning a just food system, as traditional Indigenous agriculture involved “the coordinated labor and expertise of large communities . . . organized around radically different conceptions of property, stewardship and kinship.” 42 A just food system would necessarily be large and complex since it needs to support a wide range of food, labour, and community needs. This means that we cannot discriminate in our support for workers, whether on factory or family farms, in food co-ops or in the delivery economy. We must focus on creating change for the people within the system, rather than the system itself.
Over the past several years, two ongoing and interwoven global issues—the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic—have changed the way we are thinking about action, organizing, and resistance. People are recognizing the urgent need to re-politicize how we live, work, and eat, and they are understanding that all these things are necessarily entangled. And so, even while food co-ops across Toronto struggle and shut down, there is a deep hopefulness in the city: a turn toward collective action and unionization, toward tenderness and care, and, after so long spent apart, toward eating together. *