Food Security Shockwaves of COVID-19

and its surprising impacts on the North American food system

(Original infographic)

A bomb representing the COVID-19 virus is dropped having ripple effects across the food system. 

Mid-March 2020: COVID-19 strikes, panic buying

Crowded stores with empty shelves are replaced by people taking new precautions: wearing personal protective equipment, maintaining social distancing, offering curbside pickup options.


  • The disease is officially defined as a pandemic and consumers quickly empty grocery stores.


  • New rules allow stores to re-stock 24 hours per day and restore inventories.
  • Retailers offer special hours for vulnerable folks, add safety measures, and offer hazard pay.
  • E-commerce expands.

Late-March: Mass layoffs

Consumers have trouble buying essentials like eggs and flour, while suppliers are stuck with large quantities of ingredients originally packaged for restaurant use.


  • Restaurants close.
  • Eating at home is different than ordering in restaurants - demand soars for baking supplies, but collapses for french fries.


  • Families reconnect over home-cooking and baking.
  • Community gardens declared essential, and restaurants innovate with home delivery.

Early April: Travel bans

Border closures lead to loss of income for Temporary Foreign Workers, and a bottleneck in production on North American farms.


  • Agriculture loses much of its skilled labour. Farmers depend on tens of thousands of seasonal foreign workers.
  • Farm incomes and harvests will likely decline.


  • Governments expedite travel visas for Temporary Foreign Workers, and provide funds to renovate housing for foreign workers to align with quarantine requirements.
  • National conversations on labour create new collaborations between farmer associations and governments.

Mid-April: Abbatoirs close

Reduced processing capabilities and restrictions on food exports highlight the importance of local food systems.


  • Workers in meat packing plants test positive for the virus. Approximately 70% of Canada's beef packing industry shuts down temporarily.
  • Reopening with social distancing is costly, slows productivity and poses threats to workers.
  • This also hurts farm incomes.


  • Worries over concentration of meat processing drives improvements and stimulates renewed interest in regional food systems.

May and Beyond: Food insecurity on the rise

Food banks are overwhelmed by new patrons, while policymakers concentrate on food system innovations.


  • Lower economic growth, lost wages, and unemployment push up food bank use in Canada.
  • Globally, the United Nations predicts "famines of biblical proportions."


  • Rising threat of global food insecurity drives policy at the highest level and (hopefully) will energize the upcoming UN food systems summit in 2021.

Rippling Across the Waves

Some Challenges and Inspirations that Span the Timeline

  • Large amounts of food meant for restaurants are dumped as producers struggle to repackage for consumers before it spoils.
  • Farmers struggle to maintain herds as processors shut, leading to culling of livestock. (This is not intended to imply farmers ignored euthanasia regulations.)
  • Canadian government provides one hundred million dollars to food charities for affected Canadians.
  • Food banks see a surge in donations from individuals and organizations.
  • Governments and companies keep food pricing fair, preventing price gouging.

This infographic was designed by Scott Mooney ( in collaboration with Evan Fraser, Director of the Arrell Food Institute ( and

Thanks for additional input to:

Tim Benton, Director, Chatham House, UK

Jennifer Clapp, Canada Research Chair, University of Waterloo

Charles Godfray, Director of the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford

Lynda Kuhn, SVP Maple Leaf Foods and Chair, Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security

Lenore Newman, Director and Canada Research Chair, University of the Fraser River Valley

Deb Stark, former Deputy Minister, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Sarah Stern, Director, Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security

Rene Van Acker, Dean, Ontario Agriculture College, University of Guelph

Jeffrey Wichtel, Dean, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph