Local food system responses to COVID-19: Toronto and its city region

Authors: Lori Stahlbrand (George Brown College) and Wayne Roberts (Food Systems

Toronto and its city region – known as the Greater Golden Horseshoe – is the most populous area in Canada, with nine million inhabitants. As in much of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the economy, leading to spiraling unemployment, increased food insecurity, and questions about what changes to the food system are called for.

Ontario has been in a state of lockdown since mid-March 2020. Businesses are closed, with the exception of essential services, and residents have been asked to remain at home as much as possible and keep a distance of two metres from each other if they leave their homes to buy groceries or perform other essential tasks. As of mid-May 2020, there have been approximately

20,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 1600 deaths in Ontario, with more than a third of both cases and deaths in Toronto.

Toronto has a strong public health department that is trusted by the public and politicians. Toronto Public Health (TPH) has been a factor in Toronto’s polity since the cholera outbreaks of the 1800s. TPH had its right and ability to manage a public health crisis tested and acclaimed during the SARS epidemic of 2003, which infected more than 400 Toronto residents and killed 44. As a result, there was no need to re-establish or negotiate the leading role of public health authorities during this pandemic. Ironically, less than a year before the outbreak began, the current provincial government announced massive cuts to public health departments across the province, and to Toronto Public Health in particular. Fortunately, there has been no mention of these cuts in recent months.

The food sector is a major source of jobs in Toronto and its city region. As the fourth largest city in North America, known for its cosmopolitan flavour, the hospitality sector is a major player in Toronto’s economy, worth $37 billion annually.[1] In addition, Toronto is one of the largest food processing hubs in North America, generating $15 billion annually.[2] The city region is a rich farming area, generating $2.6 billion in ecosystem services and $12 billion in a range of farm products.[3] With the development of more mid-scale infrastructure, it has the potential to be a model of a city region food system.

In evaluating Toronto’s response to the pandemic, it is important to look at both food availability and food access. While the overall food supply has remained relatively stable because of protective structures in the economy, food insecurity has increased dramatically as businesses closed and jobs have been lost.

Food Availability

Relative stability in terms of food availability has been maintained as a result of two sets of longstanding public practices and traditions – a publicly-owned food terminal and a system of supply management.

Since 1948, Toronto has been home to the Ontario Food Terminal (OTF), which centrally warehouses most of the fresh food brought into the city, and from there across much of the province. A wide range of food outlets, including supermarkets, “mom and pop” grocers, and social agencies, have access to low-cost licenses allowing them to buy wholesale fresh food grown across North America.

Thanks to this public food terminal, neighbourhood food retailers across the city have been able to provide ready access to high-quality fresh food at reasonable prices. Although food insecurity continues to be a significant problem, the food deserts common across the USA did not become embedded in Toronto, and such food segregation has not been an issue during the pandemic.

Although the OTF stocks food from across North America, it also provides direct access to food from smaller local producers. Such connections, central to any city region food system, have remained relatively intact during the pandemic.

This public infrastructure is well suited to a city region food system because it ensures relatively equitable and transparent access to small and large, conventional and sustainable producers, distributors and retailers. The oligopoly characteristic of processed foods does not hold as much sway when it comes to fruits and vegetables.

Interruptions and delays to the normal abundance found at Toronto food retail outlets have been largely due to the virtually overnight closure of the hospitality industry, workplaces, schools and other institutional food settings. This shutdown led to a collapse of demand for food from institutions, and a short-term spike in demand for food from grocers and supermarkets. Price-gouging to take advantage of that, however, was immediately denounced by the general public and government alike.

Canada’s system of supply management for certain farm products has also been a factor in stable availability of food. Supply management matches production volumes to the overall demand from the population at-large. Canada has long practiced supply management for dairy, poultry and egg production, and has withstood pressure from multiple trade deals to maintain this form of protecting food security and family farming. As a country with a small population that cannot match agricultural subsidies common across the USA and Europe, supply management has served as a cost-effective method of protecting family farmers in provisioning core consumer products across the country. This approach to managing supply and farm survival in key products has now been tested by the shock of COVID-19, and its value as an effective force for market stabilisation has been confirmed.

The combination of a public food terminal and a system of supply management has protected the population from price spikes caused by black market and other dysfunctional responses to sudden shortages of essentials, and from wanton waste of over-produced products – as seen by dumping of milk on fields by dairy producers across the USA and Europe.

However, the longer-term stability of food availability in Toronto and its city region is not ensured by infrastructure or policy. As the 2018 FAO-RUAF report on the Toronto city region food system indicated, mid-size infrastructure for processing and distribution is limited. As well, agriculture relies heavily on migrant labour to plant, tend and harvest much of its fruit and vegetables. Indeed, more than 69,000 temporary migrant agricultural workers came to Canada in 2019 from the Caribbean, Mexico and other countries.[4] There is concern that the federal government has placed too much responsibility on employers to ensure the safety of farm workers during the pandemic. In particular, critics are concerned that there is no oversight for accommodation, sanitary measures, and access to health care, and that migrants have not been assured that they will be cared for if they become sick.[5] In the meantime, a website called HelpCanadaGrow.com has been launched to encourage unemployed Canadians to work as farm labourers.[6]

Food Access

Pandemics like all shocks, aggravate the harmful effects of inequities such as food insecurity. Despite the stabilising factors of the Ontario Food Terminal and supply management, food insecurity has spiked in Toronto and its city region in the last two months. Toronto was already the child poverty capital of Canada before the pandemic. More than a quarter of Toronto’s children live in families with incomes below the poverty line. For racialised children, this figure doubles. The figure sits at 80 percent for Indigenous children.[7]

Overnight, restaurants and hotels closed, and an estimated 300,000 food sector jobs vanished.[8] Many of the workers in the hospitality industry are precariat workers in the “gig” economy. Other service sector and retail jobs also vanished with the imposition of the lock-down to prevent the spread of the virus.

Toronto’s “community of food practice”[9] and its many civil society organisations quickly found ways to “pivot” and increase their output. Food banks have seen demand surge as they develop new ways to receive and distribute food to increased numbers of people who suddenly find themselves food insecure. FoodShare and The Stop, two of the largest city-based food bank alternatives in Canada, have stepped up distribution of food boxes and prepared meals. Community Food Centres Canada moved into high gear to raise philanthropic funding for community-based emergency food services across the country, and received a $20 million dollar donation from the Sprott Foundation to be shared with the food rescue organisation, Second Harvest. The Chef School at George Brown College, which suddenly found itself with recipe ingredients but no students to teach, donated thousands of dollars of food to a variety of community agencies and is working with FoodShare to provide food boxes for students in need. Many other lesser-known initiatives have sprung up across the city, many of which can be tracked at the Facebook site of Toronto “Caremongers,” a tribute to spontaneous neighborhood caring and sharing.

One of Toronto’s unique food institutions is the Toronto Food Policy Council, the oldest food policy council in a major city in the world, and a hybrid model with one foot in the municipal civil service and one foot in the citizenry. The TFPC has worked for thirty years to convene and empower philanthropic, civil society and citizen activists, as well as social entrepreneurs. Food Policy Councils are usually judged in terms of their impact on city food policy, but the pandemic experience highlights the food council impact on social capital and the collaborative infrastructure a city can tap into.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the informal citizen/social enterprise coalition enabled by the TFPC has been successful in going beyond the “post-political” consensus for managing a pandemic under the hegemonic umbrella of neutral scientific and medical auspices. Food activists have had some success in conveying their point that “social distancing” does not require privileging a long-distance food system as distinct from a community system operated in public spaces with appropriate precautions to prevent contagion. TFPC members have continued to meet online and to help coordinate advocacy for two major initiatives – re-opening community gardens and farmers markets.

Efforts on the part of the TFPC, together with other organisations such as the Toronto Urban Growers and Sustain Ontario, as well as individual citizens, have persuaded Ontario and the City of Toronto to permit the opening of community and allotment gardens in order to make nutritious foods available to people who live in apartments or condominiums and who lack the resources to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

At the time of writing, farmers markets are still not permitted to open. A LinkedIn site and other activities are underway to advance understanding of the public policy significance of municipal public markets as critical institutions of regional collaboration for local food security. Without such institutions as farmers markets and community-scale food retail, dogmatic interpretations of measures needed to prevent contagion may end up entrenching a retail monopoly by supermarkets controlled by oligopolies – often the same corporations that promote the sale of ultra-processed and low-nutrient foods that undermine population immunity to withstand disease outbreaks. In the meantime, individuals and markets have set up online ordering from local farmers with drop-off sites across the city. This is a stopgap measure to link farmers in the Toronto city region with eaters, but one that does not meet the demand for local and sustainable food.


Many in Toronto are hoping to #buildbackbetter. A range of Toronto-based non-profit and for-profit food organisations have appealed to the public during the pandemic to advance a progressive agenda for economic recovery after the pandemic. Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a Toronto-based international non-profit promoting green infrastructure, is offering a free course on farming green roofs. Chef and food activist Joshna Maharaj has just launched her timely book, “Take Back the Tray” on the power of institutional food procurement to support local and sustainable food systems.[10] Local food entrepreneur Ran Goel has issued a list of “spade-ready” food projects that include greenhouses for long-term care homes, “agri-corps” action teams to create pollinator and wildlife buffer zones, produce street vending, subsidised food trucks, a garden for every school, and an enshrined right to grow food.[11] Corporate Knights, a Toronto magazine which calls itself “the voice for clean capitalism”, is sharing solutions from thought leaders for a green recovery, including farming strategies to reduce GHGs.[12] There is also growing support for a Guaranteed Annual Income for all Canadians, spurred on by the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) which is providing $2000 a month for four months to “workers who lose income as a result of the pandemic due to job loss, illness, quarantine, caring for others (including children) and work disruption”.

Toronto and its city region are hurting like the rest of the world. Despite the horrors of this pandemic, there is some hope that this may be a moment for paradigm shift, as many around the globe see the burden of inequity with fresh eyes and the need for local food resilience. As the FAO-RUAF 2018 assessment of the Toronto city region food system indicated, it remains challenging to reconcile rapid population growth with the potential for high food production. Yet, in assessing the global impact of shock events such as the coronavirus pandemic, the FAO’s chief economist has written that measures encouraging food localization are needed for food security. Toronto and its city region provide an ideal environment to test the viability of such measures.

[1] https://www.blogto.com/eat_drink/2020/04/lost-jobs-ontario-food-beverage-sector/

[2] https://www.toronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/95cb-omaftor_finalreport.pdf

[3] http://www.fao.org/3/CA1111EN/ca1111en.pdf

[4] https://sciencepolicy.ca/news/government-covid-19-guidelines-gamble-lives-migrant-agricultural-workers

[5] https://sciencepolicy.ca/news/government-covid-19-guidelines-gamble-lives-migrant-agricultural-workers

[6] https://helpcanadagrow.com/


[8] https://www.restaurantscanada.org/industry-news/covid-19-has-cost-ontarios-foodservice-sector-more-than-300000-jobs-since-march-1/C

[9] Friedmann, H. Scaling up: Bringing public institutions and food service corporations into the project for a local, sustainable food system in Ontario. Agric Hum Values 24, 389–398 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-006-9040-2

[10] https://www.joshnamaharaj.com/take-back-the-tray

[11] https://medium.com/@ran_54655/6-food-projects-government-should-fund-starting-tomorrow-9df55bfd9d5d

[12] https://www.corporateknights.com/green-recovery/

Local food system responses to COVID-19: Toronto and its city region

Local food system responses to COVID-19: Toronto and its city region