The FRESHER Project: Investigating how the pandemic has affected the retail food industry in Southwestern Ontario

The Food Retail Environment Study for Health and Economic Resiliency (FRESHER) aims to identify the impacts of COVID-19 on the food industry (fast food outlets, restaurants, grocery stores, cafes, bars, pubs and alcohol retail stores) as well as to explore the government-supported programs and policies available for business owners.

The FRESHER project examines the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 on the Southwestern Ontario regional food system. The findings of the study are expected to guide policymakers in developing programs and policies to assist business owners to bounce back from pandemics or future public health emergencies.

The study is composed of two parts:

  • A mapping exercise to track the operating status of retail food outlets before, during, and up to a year after the pandemic.
  • Surveys and interviews with current and former employees, and senior managers of these retail food outlets to determine how the pandemic situation has affected the industry.

This is a rapid response initiative led by Dr. Jason Gilliland in the Human Environments Analysis Lab at Western University, with academic collaborators from the Ivey School of Business, Brescia University College, University of Guelph, University of Waterloo, and Wilfrid Laurier University. The project is further supported by the Elgin Middlesex Oxford Workforce Planning and Development Board, members of the Western Ontario Warden’s Caucus, and countless other organizations from across Ontario. The FRESHER project is grateful for funding support from Western University, and the Province of Ontario.

The FRESHER team is excited to share a story map that presents a cohesive narrative about how the pandemic has affected the retail food industry in Southwestern Ontario:

During Phase 0 (March-April) of Ontario’s Action Plan in response to COVID-19, large chain grocery stores were fully operational. However, many smaller grocery and specialized retail food outlets were closed. Quick-service and variety stores remained relatively unaffected. For Phase 1 (April-May), there was a relative increase in the number of open food outlets. The increase was observed primarily in the number of operational quick-service and full-service outlets. In Phase 2 (June 12), food outlets were permitted to operate walk-in services. Current information on the number of open food outlets is still being compiled.

Despite the challenges the food industry has faced due to the pandemic, restaurants and other retail food outlets have implemented some strategies to increase their resiliency. These include changing their menus, new product offerings, modifying physical space, leveraging social media, and making us of online ordering and delivery apps. Learn more about how businesses have reacted to the pandemic situation in this blog post on the FRESHER website:

There has been a severe impact on the food industry in Ontario from COVID-19, yet there are many lessons to be learned from how businesses survive and thrive during these difficult times.


Categories: FRESHER, Newsletter

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