‘Not enough to feed our region’: Experts working on emergency food strategy in Thunder Bay

Food security experts in Thunder Bay say the northwestern Ontario city’s food supply is precarious and vulnerable to disruptions in the global supply chain, and they are currently working on an emergency food plan to address some of the issues.

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has resulted in short-term shortages of grocery items in stores as waves of employees in the food industry have either fallen ill or had to quarantine, according to one expert. The cross-border vaccine mandate has also contributed to shipping delays he said.

Now border blocks by those opposed to such mandates risk further disrupting the country’s supply chain.

“We do have a lot of local food suppliers, but it’s definitely not enough to feed our region,” said Karen Kerk, the coordinator of the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy.

Neither Kerk nor Charles Levkoe, the Canada research chair in equitable and sustainable food systems at Lakehead University, have data on how well the local food supply could sustain the population if it were cut off from outside suppliers.

Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy Coordinator Karen Kerk said the pandemic has brought together a variety of groups working on food security issues that previously tended to work in silos. (http://tbfoodstrategy.com/)

But Levkoe said, “I don’t think we’re very resilient.”

The food strategy is working in partnership with the city’s community safety and wellbeing officials to draft the emergency strategy. It’s a project that began earlier in the pandemic, Kerk said.

“When COVID first hit, we saw that there was a lot of panic and empty grocery store shelves … And then a lot of emergency food providers in the community — places like Dew Drop Inn — were seeing a real increase in demand,” she added .

The project began with researching the experiences of groups who were involved in emergency food distribution, with the goal of finding ways to be more efficient in the future, Kerk said.

The aim is to take stock of which groups have which resources available and fashion that information into a “skeleton” of a plan that can be used to respond to different kinds of emergencies.

The partners will release a preliminary report in a couple of weeks, she said.

The final strategy is expected to be finished in the late spring.

Breaking down silos among groups working on food security

Levkoe, who serves on the food strategy’s governance committee, said he believes a lot of people working on the issue in the city do so in silos.

“My frustration with the strategy is like, we all sit at a table together, and we have these discussions, and then people go off into their regular jobs, and they forget that,” he said. “Everyone’s busy, and folks are getting wrapped up in their own work.”

Everyone is trying to juggle multiple projects, I have added, and when crises strike, they sometimes can’t even make meetings anymore.

One of the best outcomes of the pandemic has been breaking down those silos, Kerk said.

“I think this pandemic has brought us closer together,” she said. “There’s a lot more networking and communication and information sharing.”

The executive director of one of those other organizations working on food security in Thunder Bay said the constant challenges getting food during the pandemic have been making him weary.

The Regional Food Distribution Association, which supplies food banks and feeding programs, has struggled to get its monthly fresh vegetable shipment from the Leamington area near Windsor, said Volker Kromm.

It was disrupted for two months due to a lockdown.

Charles Levkoe is the Canada research chair in equitable and sustainable food systems. He said people who want to help address food insecurity should connect with initiatives like the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy. (Charles Levkoe)

Now he said, that has eased off, but getting drivers can be a challenge because there’s heavy competition for them.

That’s also contributing to price increases that make it hard to buy as much food or as much of a variety of foods as the RFDA used to, he said.

“The suppliers have just indicated, we’re probably seeing somewhere between a five and a 15 per cent increase,” Kromm said, “because [of] the demand, but also the transportation.”

Kerk said the food strategy has looked at what it would take for local food producers to scale up long-term production so that the region is less reliant on distant food suppliers, but “it’s way more complicated than it seems.”

Scaling up local production

“There’s the whole issue of supply and demand,” Kerk said. “Then there’s the whole issue of infrastructure. For example, we have a lot of meat producers in our area; we have one abattoir that is fully booked for this year.”

People who would like to see Thunder Bay ramp up local production would need to commit to buying more local food in order to allow producers to grow, Kerk said, adding that the food strategy wants to counter the perception that local food is more expensive than food that comes from farther away.

Asked what else people can do to improve food security in Thunder Bay, Levkoe said that, while solo initiatives like urban gardening are “fine,” more important is connecting with organizations like the Food Strategy that are doing big-picture work and getting involved in lobbying governments on issues such as climate change.

“Yes the pandemic will probably either go away, or we’ll figure out how to live with it,” Levkoe said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have another situation, especially with future pandemics, with climate change, you know, where we’re going to see more disruptions. There’s no question that the prices are going to go up ; more disruptions are going to happen.”

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