Food Stories is a research project that was led by York Region Food Network (The Network) and supported by organizations across York Region, in the Greater Toronto Area in Ontario. Through the ‘Food Stories’ research project, stories were collected from community food service providers to highlight their experiences and perspectives, and those of their clients, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and food insecurity. The goals of this research were to:
- Capture who was impacted and where the gaps were and who was missed;
- Document the innovation and resiliency of the sector through stories;
- Better understand if and how initiatives worked together;
- Better understand opportunities for a more coordinated emergency food system in York Region.
- York Region Food Council (Advisory role)
- 3C Emergency Food Access Cluster Table (an initiative of The Regional Municipality of York and United Way Greater Toronto)
- United Way Greater Toronto and the Regional Municipality of York (Advisory role)
Data Collection Process
Between July 2020 and January 2021, a team of York Region Food Network staff and volunteers spoke with 46 York Region-based organizations over phone or via Zoom. The Network originally reached out to 65 organizations and thus had a response rate of 70%. Each of these organizations shared their stories of working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic providing food to their clients and communities. Each interviewer conducted semi-structured interviews that spanned 20-35 minutes in duration. . Interview questions were developed by the Network in consultation with the United Way Greater Toronto and the Regional Municipality of York. Organizations approached for interviews were based on a list compiled from United Way’s Local Love Fund recipient list, YRFN’s Emergency COVID-19 Resource list, 3C Emergency Food Access Cluster Table participants and word-of-mouth. Participating organizations fell into three categories: those who had food security as part of their mandate; those that incorporated food into their programming pre pandemic but expanded efforts due to the pandemic; and those that pivoted to supply emergency food as an urgent response to community needs.
Intention behind the initiative
At the start of the pandemic, the emergency food sector was largely uncoordinated, and many stakeholders were working in silos. There was no reliable data coming in on the current state of food insecurity in the region as well as the impact of various responses from the sector. Working groups that were established, particularly the 3C Emergency Food Access Cluster Table, part of the York Region COVID Community Coordination initiative, were receiving different snippets of information, with most of it being numbers based (number of donations, number of users, number of food baskets given out). However, this data was context specific and differed across organizations which didn’t give a full picture on the state of emergency food and food insecurity in the Region. The regular conversations among service partners at the 3C Emergency Food Access Cluster Table has led to new community knowledge about local and regional food initiatives and ultimately inspired the ‘Food Stories’ project.
Food Stories was developed to address these gaps in qualitative data and provide a better picture of what was happening in the emergency food sector during the pandemic. The members of the Emergency Food Access Cluster Table also wanted to have data to help build more coordinated action down the road. If an emergency happens again, the stories and recommendations that have been collated will support a more effective and coordinated response by the sector.
Results at the system level
The full impact of Food Stories has yet to be realized as the final report is being released in Summer 2021. The intent is that there will be a project wrap up event that will include a forum with research participants, other community organizations and policy makers. It will be focused on showcasing the stories of organizations and highlighting recommendations from the report. The goal is to re-engage the participants and broader food sector in discussions around food insecurity and how to build more coordinated action moving forward.
Expanding the Network
Many food-based and other service-based organizations operate in silos, which was revealed through the interviews. The Food Stories report highlights recommendations for enhancing coordination among service users. The intended result is greater service delivery coordination and a better understanding of community needs which ultimately results in better services for end users.
Through the process of generating Food Stories, new connections were made between organizations that hadn’t been there before. The Network is widely connected across the region and thus were able to play a small role in connecting organizations and individuals during the pandemic. They were also able to share the stories and lessons learned from the interviews at the Council, Emergency Food Access Cluster Table and other working group to better inform decisions and discussions based on what was happening on the ground.
The project organizing group hopes the recommendations from the Food Stores report will become more embedded in policy and decision-making processes. It will allow policy makers to understand food security issues better and have more informed conversations when making decisions. This research also intends to demonstrate the importance of having food as a budget line in projects and programs.
New projects were developed because of the Food Stories project. As an example, some of the student interns who were conducting the interviews noticed that they weren’t getting youth voices and input on food security. To capture these voices, York Region Food Network hosted a Youth Forum in fall 2020 and which led to the creation of a Youth Food Committee. This committee now meets once per month and are in the process of establishing projects.
This project has helped raise awareness of the York Region Food Network and the York Region Food Council. Given both these organization’s role in the project, it has exposed them to a wide range of organizations (many of whom were previously siloed from the local food sector network). The Food Council in particular, has become more integrated into the community and membership is growing to include new non-profits who work in the food sector. This has brought new and important voices to the table which have previously not been there.
Overall, the design of the research was accessible to a wide variety of individuals. Interviews were structured to be 20-30 minutes long and were done remotely. This was designed to accommodate the front-line service providers who were extremely busy during the period of the pandemic. Interviews were semi-structured (mix of open ended and closed questions) which allowed room for a variety of responses and for either the interviewee or interviewer to lead the discussion in a certain direction if needed.
Another important success was the project’s ability to bring in support to conduct the research. York Region Food Network hired contractors and local university students to support the data collection efforts. Having more than one person conducting the research also brought in different perspectives. During the data analysis phase, a collaborative approach between staff conducting the research resulted in being able to incorporate different perspectives such as food policy, anti-oppression, and community building. This resulted in a better overall analysis.
Partner Roles and Collaboration
This project was inspired by conversations at 3C Emergency Food Access Cluster Table. Based on conversations within this group, York Region Food Network saw great value in capturing the COVID19 food stories However, it was not established from the beginning who and to what extent other partners would be involved in the project. The York Region Food Council, Regional Municipality of York and United Way Greater Toronto were originally intended to provide a consultant support which included help formulating interview questions and providing oversight to the project. However, this never formally came into fruition and due to some capacity challenges with other partners, York Regional Food Network worked independently. As a project that was meant to help break down silos in the system, a more formalized partnership structure would have been beneficial
Food was at the centre of the pandemic and many organizations were stretched with capacity. Noting this, the Network was conscious to conduct short interviews. There was a desire to engage the participants in the research process beyond just the interview phase but noting the limited capacity of the participants, they decided not to. However, York Region Food Network as an organization is very focused on community development and so it was a challenge to work within the capacity of their own organization. To overcome this challenge during the data collection phase, they have put emphasis on re engaging the participants in the project wrap up phase through a community forum.
Research Design, Analysis and Recommendations
The project team encountered a few challenges when analysing the data and providing recommendations to move forward. First and foremost, the research was not able to capture service user perspectives (only service providers). It was a big deficit of knowledge and experience that was missing to capture a full picture of the landscape. In the future, recommendations to include service user voices were to conduct surveys or to have service users embedded within the project team to provide perspective and input into the design, implementation, and analysis.
A second limitation of the design of the research was that it was not able to account for changes in the external environment. The project team noticed during the data analysis phase that responses of participants differed drastically between two periods of time – while the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was being offered and while it was not. With federal and provincial supports readily available throughout the research period, it was a challenge to understand how the external environment contributed to what food initiatives were seeing and hearing on the ground.
For communities looking to replicate or build from a project such as York Region’s Food Stories, there are some lessons learned:
- Communication between all partners, especially upfront is extremely important towards the successful execution of the project, and particularly so when the outcomes of the project aim to decrease siloed work.
- Encouraging system thinking in the design and plans for knowledge sharing. It is often a challenge for organizations to think outside of their own realities which results in hyper-focused thinking. Yet the food system is very big and to address challenges within the sector, it requires a systems approach.
- It is important to have a network of organizations supporting the project, even if they aren’t actively involved. This allows for a platform to talk about the project and the importance of the work which widens its impact.
- In terms of project design, questions for the interviews were pre-established. This design didn’t allow for adaptations as the interviews progressed and common themes started emerging. A semi-structured interview design would allow for themes that are emerging to be discussed more directly.
- Ensuring support to carry out the interviews and data analysis was incredibly important to the success of the project, especially given that these are very time intensive.
- Interviews were carried out by online conferencing or phone due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic, but this resulted in more people being able to participate. There were less barriers to participation by utilizing technology rather than in person interviews.
- There were differences in perspectives around what was considered an anti-oppressive practice. There were some value judgements and interview questions weren’t able to directly address their practices.
- Bringing in additional expertise and perspectives in the data analysis phase could have helped to round out the analysis and recommendations. Perspectives suggested include: food and nutrition from public health, representation from a more diverse group of individuals (BIPOC, LGBTQI2S, Youth, Disability), service user voices.
Food Security Lessons & Findings for Other Communities
The hope for the Food Stories project in the future is that it will help give a better picture of what is happening in the emergency food sector, which will enable policy makers, service providers and networks to allocate and align resources/services more effectively. Some of the food security lessons include:
- Income and affordable housing were at the centre of a lot of conversations and at the core of food insecurity issues. Food banks, food boxes and hampers were generally seen as temporary solutions to the issue.
- A lot of organizations didn’t necessarily focus on food to begin with but had to move into that space out of need within their communities
- People have different understandings of what is meant by ‘culturally appropriate’ but it is incredibly important to the conversation on food security
- Culturally appropriate is about selection and about having options. Thus, hamper models of food boxes were not necessarily the best options during the pandemic as it meant there was lack of choice
- Providing choice to service users in food options was considered an anti-oppressive practice
- Providing services that were inaccessible to various means of transportation meant additional barriers to accessing food. There was increased fear around using public transportation during the pandemic, so organizations had to be creative about how they offered services
- Service providers perception of anti-oppressive practices differed. There were differences in what was considered healthy food versus unhealthy food which impacted how they provided choice in their offerings
- A limitation to the services offered by the organizations participating is that they didn’t have clear information on how to access or who could access their services. From a service provider perspective, there was also lack of data on who was utilizing services. A data driven approach would have been more beneficial for organizations in being able to clearly communicate and reach out to people.