• Editor at The Migration Initiative

Food insecurity, COVID-19 and its impacts on marginalized groups

Samantha Stewart


One of the major and highly publicized issues that has come to light in an era of COVID-19 is that of exponentially growing rates of food insecurity as a result of disruptions in Canada’s food supply chain. The significance of this issue can be seen in the statistics revolving around food insecurity such as the fact that 4.4 million Canadians were living in a food insecure household as of 2017-2018, while 1.1 million visits were made to Canadian food banks and 5.6 million meals served (on average) each month in 2019. It is expected that these numbers have significantly increased during COVID-19, disproportionately affecting vulnerable and historically marginalized populations across the country. This extends to those who are receiving CERB payments due to economic hardship, as well as those who were experiencing food insecurity prior to COVID-19, whose status of food insecurity has become more severe during the global pandemic. In fact, a recent study conducted by Statistics Canada has specified that rates of food insecurity across Canada has increased to almost 1 in 7 (14.6%) which has increased from 10.5% two years ago. It is estimated that these numbers will continue to increase when CERB payments taper off in the fall of 2020, leaving many in dire economic situations.

Widespread issues involving Canada’s food system across the country during COVID-19 can be seen in a lack of availability of certain products in grocery stores. This has resulted in a heavy reliance on emergency food programs and assistance is that because diverse types of food are no longer readily available at grocery stores, there is even less availability of food for emergency food services and programs, due to issues including a slow down or halt of donations from the general public, as well as fewer workers or people willing to volunteer for organizations and food assistance programs due to a drop on economic development and higher unemployment rates due to COVID-19. This is especially true in circumstances such as COVID-19, where due to an economic downturn, paid staff that were working for such organizations, may have been let go or laid off until the recent funding support from the Federal Government of Canada was released.

This funding, which totals an investment of $100 million, was focused on addressing Canadians' access to food during COVID-19 when many are experiencing diverse barriers including social, economic and health hardships through assisting organizations with funding challenges including national, provincial and regional organizations. It was the hope that through this influx in funding, there would be an opportunity to address issues of food insecurity across diverse organizations including organizations such as Food Banks Canada, Salvation Army, and Second Harvest for example. Organizations such as these allow for food to be accessible to all demographics and populations across Canada, including newcomers , due to the common ideology (for those who work in emergency food services who believe) that access to food is a human right.

These precarious circumstances in the Canadian food system have also translated into the acknowledged importance of and reliance on migrant workers who come to Canadian farms every spring and remain until the end of October in some cases, to work on the food production of Canadian produce for Canadian farmers. Although these workers have been exempted from travel bans in Canada, the process of transitioning from their home countries to be able to work on Canadian farms has turned into a multi-week process to ensure they are not, and have not been exposed to COVID-19, which has caused delays in an already limited growing season. This demographic of workers within the Canadian food system are understood as crucial and vital actors to the success of Canadian produce and agricultural production, but have become disproportionately disadvantaged by COVID-19. This is due to restrictions on their already complicated labour agreements between their home countries and the Canadian government, lack of healthcare coverage while working in Canada, and incredibly precarious nature of their employment on Canadian farms. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected migrant workers, who support the development and success of the Canadian agricultural system with their labour, which has further contributed to the severity of the current food crisis across Canada during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has contributed to major enlightenment in terms of acknowledging the longstanding gaps and policy issues that have existed in Canada’s food system and landscape, such as the lack of a comprehensive plan to address ever-increasing rates of food insecurity, especially considering how these rates have increased dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic. This is in addition to other policy priorities such as supporting the shifting of the current Canadian food system to be more localized, a notion which has been supported during the pandemic as issues with retention of migrant workers and the globalized food supply chain continue to arise. These times of uncertainty have contributed to a highly publicized acknowledgment of the short-fallings of Canada’s food system, its high dependence on migrant labor forces, the importing of food and food products, and the fragile situations in which millions of Canadians (and even more so now) continue to experience growing levels of food insecurity at both the individual and household level. By addressing the interconnectedness of Canada’s food policy failings, it is possible to identify the ways in which we can move forward in an era of COVID-19 that works to address these policy gaps. This can be seen in the formation of a holistic national food policy which would govern all areas of the Canadian food system for all residents, regardless of their immigration status in Canada. This policy would acknowledge and address the severity of food insecurity as a result of disrupted food supply chains across Canada during COVID-19, while working to address systemic inequities in the Canadian food system for migrants, historically marginalized populations, including newcomers and Indigenous peoples across the country through a grounding in availability, accessibility, acceptability, appropriateness and agency across the food system.

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