Case: Place-Based Food Systems

Iain Davidson-Hunt; Kaitlyn Duthie-Kannikkatt; and Shannon Bahuaud

Strengthening place-based food systems: Learning from organizational responses to the COVID pandemic in northwestern Ontario and southern Manitoba

Iain Davidson-Hunt is an ethnobiologist and professional planner who has worked with place-based food systems for over thirty years in northwestern Ontario, southern Manitoba, Mexico, Central America, and Latin America. He is a professor at the Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba.

Kaitlyn Duthie-Kannikkatt is a PhD Candidate at the University of Manitoba working on food sovereignty and seed systems. She was the project coordinator for the research program “Nourishing ourselves during a global pandemic: Building a food secure future during the era of COVID-19.”

Shannon Bahuaud is a Master’s Candidate at the University of Manitoba with a background in conflict transformation, currently working on community-based natural resource management. She has worked within urban and place-based food systems for over ten years.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe actions of local organizations to support food security during the COVID pandemic.
  • Explain limitations of existing local food systems to meet food security needs through local/regional procurement during a crisis.
  • Articulate the importance of building place-based food networks and infrastructure prior to a crisis.


The COVID pandemic provoked a crisis that was amplified by inadequate political responses from institutions and leaders. It changed how we interact with one another and disrupted local food systems, causing challenges for community food security, especially among the most vulnerable in our communities. While many of us were required to continually (re)adjust to an ongoing public health crisis throughout the pandemic, it has become clear that community food security in future emergencies will require better collective adaptation strategies. COVID has illuminated a dependence on global food systems to meet the food security needs of local communities as they face procurement disruption in the supply chain. Therefore, we need to critically reflect on how our food systems are constructed and deliberate about the best course of action for building regional food systems and place-based food systems that meet community food security needs during a crisis. Such reflections should include the lessons learned by community organizations who were on the front lines of the pandemic.

In this Case, we present results from focus groups conducted by a group of diverse organizations in Kenora, Ontario and southern Manitoba to understand how they supported food security during the summer of 2020, under the “new normal” brought on by COVID. Project partners included a range of community groups, service providers, cooperatives, and farmers’ associations committed to building community food security and sovereignty through stronger place-based food systems. The project provided organizations with the opportunity to undertake a process of self-reflection on their responses to the COVID pandemic, identify existing strengths that supported their approaches, and isolate barriers that inhibited their efforts to adapt to the disruptions.


Following the principles of community-based research, the project grew out of relationships built amongst members of the Food Systems Research Group at the University of Manitoba, which comprises university faculty members and graduate students, as well as local food organizations. In the early days of the pandemic, Iain Davidson-Hunt convened an online meeting with organizations involved in supporting local food efforts in the region and the idea emerged to work together to develop a self-reflection guide. Following this, a self-reflection workshop was undertaken by the organizations, supported by a research assistant. Kaitlyn Duthie-Kannikkatt led this process as described below. Given than there are few organizations involved in local food efforts in the region, all were invited to participate and all but one undertook a self-reflection with their members. The organizations involved included Harvest Kenora, Kenora Association for Community Living, Fireweed Food Co-op, Direct Farm Manitoba, and the Winnipeg Food Council. (See details at the end of this chapter.)

These local food actors led their own workshops with their boards of directors, management teams, and front-line staff. During the workshops, each group documented how their organization responded to the pandemic and what opportunities and concerns emerged out of this challenging experience. Strengths and barriers that impacted their work were also identified. All the workshops followed a self-reflection guide that was co-developed by all project partners (Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations) during a virtual workshop held during the summer of 2020. Facilitators from each partner organization adapted and personalized the guide to suit their unique contexts. Designed using a community-based approach, the workshops provided opportunities for participants to reflect on their own responses to the pandemic and produce meaningful feedback to incorporate into their future work. Reports were then written up by the research team and provided to the organizations for their own uses.

Organizational Responses to COVID

Given that all the partner organizations work on place-based food systems, it was not surprising to find that responses were diverse, responding to contextual factors such as their organizational missions and the needs of the people they support.

An imperative first step for many organizations was to get government bodies to deem farmers’ markets and community gardens essential services. This made it possible for them to remain in operation when other businesses and services were shut down to reduce the spread of COVID. The government recognized that, given the increased demand for local food, this would be an important year to grow the local food sector and support local food security through various means. This led to one organization partnering with the City of Winnipeg to provide physically distanced drop-off zones across various city facilities, so that markets and farmers could sell directly to consumers. This partnership, coupled with increased demand for local food, also helped them to quickly circumvent urban agriculture zoning by-laws and develop new community gardens.

Supporting individual households in growing their own food was important for many, both for increasing access to fresh produce and for providing a safe(r) outdoor space for socializing when gatherings indoors became more difficult due to the pandemic restrictions. One example comes from a community organization in northwestern Ontario that encouraged households to grow their own “resiliency gardens” using the containers and yard space that were available:

[We] tried to build resiliency within our community… by equipping people to grow food for themselves and have the skills to do so. We really wanted people to take a look at things positively, and the idea of the resiliency garden was that gardening is a really positive thing to do for yourself and your community, and [it] can give you some purpose. Although we may not have been able to bring people to our [collective] garden, we opened up lines of communications by talking with people about what they were growing in their containers through online platforms we created.

For organizations that already focused on local food distribution, many had to respond to the pandemic by adapting the way they served their clients and organized food orders to follow physical distancing measures and new public health guidelines. Some switched to online ordering, organized curb-side pick-ups and deliveries, and moved to larger facilities to allow for better physical distancing among staff and clients. Some organizations benefitted from existing relationships with larger facilities by sharing infrastructure to increase available space for food storage. These partnerships also allowed for the introduction of additional locations from which customers could access food. Many of the organizations were able to hire more staff and secure more volunteers who were keen to support local food security during a time of need. This helped manage the increased workload that came with their increased capacity to distribute food.

Another response common among urban food organizations and communities in Kenora was the preparation of food hampers. Some organizations found ways to tap into their broader social network to reduce food waste while increasing food access to individuals. One Winnipeg food cooperative teamed up with an emergent community network (dedicated to mutual aid) to assemble hampers that diverted their farmer members’ fresh produce—originally intended for restaurant supply chains—to people facing food insecurity. This ensured that food, which would otherwise be wasted due to decreased demand by restaurants, could be used by people in need. Another organization created a program that worked to connect food insecure individuals and families directly with local small-scale producers that could provide them with fresh, locally grown food at low or no cost.

Many of the organizations found that the pandemic helped to illuminate the importance of food security and legitimize their previous work. As one organization in Winnipeg reflected:

Because of COVID-19, [we] seemed to become more active and more visible. The pandemic added to the urgency of our work and increased our presence both at City Hall and in the community. Previously, food council work was left out of city reports. The awareness of the food council is much higher now.

Even organizations that had not received much broader recognition of their work were able to respond to the pandemic by expanding their network and deepening relationships, thus increasing their ability to provide better food security programs and initiatives in their regions.

Strengths and barriers

Flexibility, adaptability, and strong relationships were some of the key strengths identified by the participant organizations as critical for the success of their efforts to support food security within their communities. Even amidst rapidly changing regulations and evolving community needs, local food actors found ways to adapt their models to fulfill the needs of their communities. From delivering food products directly to consumers to piloting online ordering systems, people involved in building place-based and regional food systems worked to continually adapt their approaches while following public health orders. Had they not already built strong relationships with those they served and worked with, many of these efforts may not have been possible to achieve.

A few organizations found that preexisting relationships with their municipalities helped them access essential resources, such as free water for a community garden. In another case, having established connections to city councilors and public servants helped raise an organization’s profile at city council. Farmers who were members of one organization found that their membership fostered a culture of collaboration among farmers with whom they would have previously been in competition. To help with the transition of delivering food to customers, some farmers purchased food from one another to resell. This helped to increase their sales by extending what they had to offer while helping their competitors access broader markets. For example, some farmers formed a mutually beneficial relationship by including vegetable boxes from other farmers in their meat and cheese deliveries, which increased efficiency and value to their deliveries through the sharing of delivery costs, while creating a value-add for their customers.

While adapting to a new way of living and doing business brought about positive responses from local food actors, each organization also faced considerable challenges. For example, many farmers pivoted their business models to focus more on direct marketing to consumers because, while demand for local food increased, changing pandemic restrictions made it difficult to rely on farmers’ markets staying open when COVID case counts began to rise. Some farmers who relied on restaurant sales saw their sales dramatically decrease as restaurants remained closed. This uncertainty made it difficult for farmers to plan. Unfortunately, this shift to direct marketing also meant that many producers—who would usually sell their food through markets or cooperatives designed to facilitate restaurant sales—were no longer able to commit to selling through those avenues. The effect was that cooperative business models sometimes became more precarious.

Other organizations also found that funding and resource capital was a limiting factor in what they were able to accomplish, as they spent time and resources applying for additional funding that could have otherwise translated into programming. New initiatives and programming required greater resources in order to adequately support their members, clients, and customers. These resources were difficult for some organizations to acquire. One organization found that a lack of support from government, in combination with restrictive policies and regulations, limited their capacity to scale up production to meet local market needs.

Emerging concerns and opportunities

For local food actors, there is still concern over the accessibility of local food in their region. As an urban food cooperative in Winnipeg observed:

Farmers are working hard to build community relationships and support people through this crisis by increasing access to local food. But there is a concern that those who are accessing local food are the ones who have the capacity to find it, travel to it, and, of course, pay for it.

Many identified a need for a regional food strategy that can recognize existing capacities and gaps in the region’s food sector while engaging producers, distributors, and consumers in finding a path forward that enhances community food security. Doing so would support those who make a living producing food. Local producers expressed wanting to be better supported in making their products more accessible. However, as long as the agricultural policies and programs in Manitoba are focused on export-oriented agriculture, small and medium farmers will not receive the policy and program support they need to make local food more accessible.

In the case of farmer-member organizations, increasing production limits is another avenue that could allow for small-scale producers to scale up in manageable increments. This means that policies currently suited for large-scale production must be adapted in ways that can work for small-scale producers in order to support them in producing food for local consumption. The need for policy changes also applies to zoning by-laws to support community gardening initiatives as part of a regional food strategy. This would increase the ability of organizations and individuals to utilize public greenspaces for urban agriculture to make place-based food more accessible to those who may not have the capacity to afford or to travel to local food markets.

Despite the noted challenges, organizations and community groups saw positive outcomes emerge out of the COVID pandemic. Increased collaboration and new ways of operating came about through existing networks as well as the strength and adaptability demonstrated by local food actors in the face of adversity. For example, members of a small farm organization began to work together in a more intentional way to come up with solutions that were mutually beneficial. Existing networks among food actors that were usually used for information sharing, policy advocacy, and the running of farmers’ markets were activated to play other roles as the pandemic unfolded, such as resource sharing and marketing collaboration. This resulted in being able to increase their capacity as they tried to meet rising concerns about food insecurity coupled with an upsurge in demand for local food. Many of the organizations found that their networks helped them to create productive responses to food security in the pandemic that they intend to continue with in the future. For example, new programs were developed to educate and engage individuals in growing their own food, while new garden spaces were created to support these initiatives. Some farmers who began using new networks and means of selling their products found they gained new customers who in turn were happy with their ability to acquire local food.


The responses of local food actors to COVID were shaped by existing relationships and their ability to adapt to changing needs. These relationships helped many organizations have access to much-needed infrastructure and resources that helped them navigate their varying responses to pandemic restrictions and public health guidelines. However, the capacity for local food systems to scale up and distribute regionally did not match the needs of urban food programs as they scaled up their purchasing during the pandemic to support community needs. Many local food actors experienced roadblocks in meeting the needs of their members, clients, and community when faced with policies that prevented an increase in production of local food. Moving beyond the local to think about regional food systems that can support procurement is necessary to build regional, place-based food systems that will be able to respond to crisis in the future.

Regional, place-based food systems may be critical in providing accessible and nutritious food, but they also work to enrich community networks, support holistic approaches to wellness, and recognize our interdependence as producers and consumers. There is still much left to be done when it comes to building necessary infrastructure, skills, and regional networks of place-based food systems that can contribute to food security and meet community aspirations of food sovereignty. Local food actors and service providers are highly adaptable and intimately understand community needs as members of the communities with whom they work. But the ability for local actors to scale up food programs and meet local demand during the pandemic was highly dependent on the availability of existing infrastructure and networks. Regional food strategies could play a role in understanding what infrastructure and policies need to be in place to support regional food suppliers in scaling up to meet regional food demands generally, and specifically during a future crisis.

Discussion Questions

  • Who are some of the local food actors in your community/region? What kind of work do they do to enhance local or regional food systems in your area?
  • If another crisis like the COVID pandemic were to strike again, what kinds of local food infrastructure would your community need? Think about infrastructure that might support consumer food security as well as producer livelihoods.
  • How can procurement be used as a strategy to support local and regional food systems?

Additional Resources

Andrée, P., L. Langille, C. Clement, P. Williams, and E. Norgang. 2016. “Structural constraints and enablers to community food security in Nova Scotia, Canada.” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition 11(4): 456–490.

Klassen, S. and H. Wittman. 2017. “Place-based food systems: ‘Re-valuing local’ and fostering socio-ecological sustainability.” In Sustainable Food Futures: Multidisciplinary Solutions, editing by Jessica Duncan and Megan Bailey. New York: Routledge.

Levkoe, C. Z. 2017. “Communities of food practice: regional networks as strategic tools for food systems transformation.” In Nourishing Communities: From Fractured Food Systems to Transformative Pathways, editing by Irena Knezevic, Alison Blay-Palmer, Charles Z. Levkoe, Phil Mount, and Erin Nelson. 183–200. Springer: Cham, Switzerland.

Mullinix, K., N. Robert, and Rebecca Harbut. 2019. “Place-based food systems: making the case, making it happen.” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 9: 1–3.

Sumner, J., M.D. Tarhan, and J.J. McMurtry. 2019. “Eating in a place: Mapping alternative food procurement in Canadian Indigenous communities.” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 9: 239­–250.

UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems. 2020. Webinar Series: Building Resilient Food Systems During COVID-19 and Beyond.


Kenora Harvest is a collective of local members who manage a micro-farm and work together to promote community gardening initiatives in and around Kenora.

Kenora Association for Community Living employs over 200 people to advocate for social equity and support healthy living in Kenora. They partner with other local organizations while providing support and services to children, and to adults with mental health needs and developmental disabilities.

Fireweed Food Co-op is a non-profit co-op made of producers and consumers of small-scale, local and sustainably produced food in Manitoba. Their aim is to produce a resilient and collaborative regional food system that promotes fair labour and regenerative ecological practices.

Direct Farm Manitoba is a member-owned co-operative in Manitoba that focuses on farmers’ markets and direct-marketing small-scale producers to consumers.

Winnipeg Food Council is a council of citizens who sit as an advisory committee on food system-related issues for Winnipeg City Council. They work to improve public health and local food security, community food issues, and increase food literacy.



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Food Studies: Matter, Meaning, Movement Copyright © 2022 by Iain Davidson-Hunt; Kaitlyn Duthie-Kannikkatt; and Shannon Bahuaud is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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