Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy Ratifies Emergency Food Plan

Story and photo by Sidney Ulakovic

Officials say Thunder Bay is leading the way in the national conversation regarding emergency preparedness in relation to food with Monday’s ratification of Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy’s Emergency Food Plan at Roots Community Food Centre. With the COVID-19 pandemic shining a light on the weak spots of the country’s institutional structures in the face of an emergency, one of which being food access, came the need to address those inadequacies. For the last three years, Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy has developed a plan, funded entirely by the community, with input from researchers, city officials, and 11 local not-for-profit organizations who have elected to be primary partners in carrying out the plan, which complements the city’s emergency plan. 

“A really big thing that was learned during COVID is that for medium and high impact emergencies, the city doesn’t own any of the food access infrastructure that is relied on to make sure people are fed; these are held by nonprofit organizations,” explains Courtney Strutt, the emergency food plan coordinator at Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy. “This plan makes sure that collaboration is happening efficiently and at a higher level and is being connected into emergency responses in the city.” In the event of an emergency, the Emergency Food Plan works in tiered activation, with the first step being any one of the primary partners or city leaders choosing to activate it. Food strategy coordinators are then responsible for gathering the primary partners to their base and staging area at Roots Community Food Centre, to enact the next stages of their response. 

The Emergency Food Plan enjoys the benefits of having so many not-for-profit groups involved, each bringing a unique perspective from the people and specific needs they serve. Erin Beagle, the executive director of Roots Community Food Centre, explains that primary partners have a commitment from their organization as a whole that, if and when an emergency arises that has a food impact, the primary partners will respond to the capacity that they can, with Roots acting as the base to do so. “This space in particular is very central, very accessible,” Beagle says. “It has the capacity to host people, so I think that it’s a major asset for our community when we come to emergencies that have to do with food.” 

Officials say that Thunder Bay is one of, if not the first community to have prepared such a plan, with careful consideration being made to tailor the plan to the unique needs of the area. “There’ll be unique situations where there’s some things that are universal across the spectrum every time you start an experiment, but what that looks like in your community and how you develop it really started from a place of deep learning based research,” Strutt says. While the plan’s ratification is a well deserved celebration after years of careful planning, Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy maintains that it is still evolving, with imminent plans to connect with and support local food producers and regional food infrastructure as well as build operational relationships with Fort William First Nation and the city’s six neighbouring municipalities. “Helping to pave the way for this work in other places is something that I think our community should be proud of,” Strutt says. “To me, it demonstrates the resilience of northern communities in being self-reliant and creative in solving challenges.”