Working together to build sustainable food systems: A view from Québec

APRIL 30, 2020 –

By Nancy Neamtan

As we begin to plan for a gradual end to confinement, many voices are proposing strategies and priorities for the coming years.  Yet too many traditional solutions for recovery are popping up like old reflexes at a time when new thinking and new approaches are more important than ever. In Québec, where the crisis is hitting particularly hard, a discussion has begun on the necessity to rethink not only how we take care of victims of this pandemic, but also how we can become more self-sufficient in the production of basic essentials, especially food. With a vibrant agricultural sector and broad support for local, sustainable food, Québec offers some interesting lessons for us as we work towards not just recovery, but building a better food system for all. 


Broad support for buying local

Encouraging local purchasing now has more interest than ever in Quebec, with the Premier announcing Le Panier Bleu, a dedicated site to encourage consumers to buy local. Other online tools to buy local online have also been introduced, including the recently launched  Ma Zone Québec, and the campaign launched by Union des Producteurs Agricoles to eat locally (Manger local plus que jamais). At the same time, small-scale producers and farmers markets have innovated to reach clients through online ordering. 

Online ordering platforms to support local  businesses in Québec.


Strengthening local production

Faced with potential difficulties in importing some food products, the limits of local food production has also come to the forefront. With the abundance of hydroelectricity, the Québec government is considering the possibility to leverage this to encourage urban and peri-urban agriculture in greenhouses that extend the growing season.


Responding to food insecurity now and in the future

A  key challenge facing all of us is the issue of access to healthy food. This is not a new discussion, however the COVID crisis has brought it to the forefront.  For example, as an argument in favour of deconfinement, public health experts are citing the fact that many children are going hungry because they do not have access to school food programs during school closures. This is a compelling example, showing that the issue of food security is not new, but simply exacerbated by the crisis.  

In the meantime, in communities across Quebec a diversity of local initiatives have emerged to respond to this challenge. At the grassroots level, innovations in the production and distribution of food are rapidly being put into place, with school food organizations like La Cantine pour tous pivoting to producing meals and distributing to those in need. Though most of these actions are responding to an urgent need for food security based primarily on a charitable model, these cross-sectoral partnerships lay the basis for other models for our food systems, rooted in collective action and putting the importance of people, place and planet over profits in the production, transformation and distribution of food.


Need to work across silos

As Winston Churchill and many others since have insisted, one must never let a good crisis go to waste. How can we make sure that we do not “waste” this crisis, but rather draw lessons and make sure that they become a force driving for doing things differently and better? How can we make sure that recovery prompts us to work together in a meaningful way,  to implement new innovative solutions to respond to basic needs, and particularly access to healthy, sustainable food for all?  If the solutions reside in a multiplicity of initiatives involving a wide range of partners, these initiatives can only reach their full potential if we avoid a siloed approach and weave together a broader strategy for systemic changes. Not only must we collaborate in the short term, we must find ways to build or reinforce local food systems by working together at various levels.

How can we make sure that we do not “waste” this crisis, but rather draw lessons and make sure that they become a force driving for doing differently and better?


Collective action needed for lasting change

The Chantier de l’économie sociale is a Quebec-wide organisation devoted to promoting and developing collective entrepreneurship as part of a new development model. The Chantier has launched a broad campaign to identify collective solutions to the challenges we are facing, including food security and food sovereignty. A call for ideas and proposals on how collective action can rise to these challenges has been launched. Discussions have begun with organisations such as La Cantine pour tous, the Montréal food policy council, and others to develop a consensus around the proposals and initiatives to prioritise in the coming period. An ongoing collaboration with Food Secure Canada opens the door to interprovincial collaboration and mutual reinforcement, as well as creating a united voice in discussions with the Government of Canada over the future of its food policy.

The food movement in Québec, as in Canada and around the world, has been calling on governments to adopt policies that enhance food security and self-reliance for many years. It has been speaking out on the issues of hunger, malnutrition, lack of access to healthy food, unsustainable agricultural practices, and many other issues related to the food sector. For example, the situation in too many indigenous communities remains unacceptable with nearly half of households having difficulty putting food on the table, according to a 10 year study released last November. The COVID-19 crisis has brought these issues to the forefront and increased awareness of the pertinence of the solutions that have been put forward in the past, be it a universal school food program that is negotiated with the provinces, or more local purchasing.

We must ensure, by coming together in a strategic manner, that they have the necessary conditions, tools and recognition to continue as an essential part of rebuilding in the post-COVID era.

Now is the time to come together and to create the conditions, through public policy and collective action, for the emergence and consolidation of local food systems. From this crisis we must draw hope, but it will not happen on its own. We must work harder and better together. In communities across the country, citizens and organisations are strengthening the basis for us to succeed. We must ensure, by coming together in a strategic manner, that they have the necessary conditions, tools and recognition to continue as an essential part of rebuilding in the post-COVID era.




NANCY NEAMTAN is a member of the board of directors of Food Secure Canada. She is a strategic advisor for  the Chantier de l’économie sociale and for  TIESS (Territoires innovants en économie sociale et solidaire), a social innovation liaison and transfer centre. She was one of the founders of the Chantier de l'économie sociale and its Executive Director from 1996 to 2015.