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South Asian Supermarket on Carling is just one of the city's many BIPOC-owned grocery stores. Photo: Ross Dunn/Apt613 Flickr pool.

Ottawa is hungry for business: Visibility for BIPOC-, immigrant-, and refugee-owned small food businesses during COVID-19 and beyond


While temporary closures have local businesses scrambling to keep their doors (virtually) open, giving great visibility to some, there is a silencing of others because of their lack of capacity or choice not to engage in social media and web-based shopping. I’m talking about Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)-, immigrant-, and refugee-owned small food businesses.

We like to think that Ottawa is a vibrant and inclusive city, but there are real blind spots and biases that deter the average Ottawan from shopping in these spaces. From the mystification of food processing habits to the stigmatization of certain foods as toxic tropes of broader societal stereotypes, these small food businesses have been subjected to it all. In the era of COVID-19, racial profiling of Asian immigrant communities is a reality that has compounding effects.

Despite all of this, they still have an integral place at the heart of our neighbourhoods. They are the place you go to because you know you can get that “thing” (RIP Boushey’s Fruit Market). They work extremely hard to source an array of specialty items that big-box grocers don’t carry, because they know it’s important to you and their surrounding community. It’s an open door to engage in some harder discussions about cultural acceptance and breaking down barriers for meaningful inclusion.

So let’s show them some love and support them through this tough time. Apt613 has compiled a geotagged map of places you can shop for all your grocery, meat, and bakery needs. If you know of any BIPOC, immigrant, and refugee-owned small food businesses in need of some love, let us know in the comment section so we can continue to grow!

Big-box grocers aren’t the only ones in town

Local businesses in Ottawa have recently seen a surge in community-led support during COVID-19. Great initiatives like together-apart.ca, Savour Ottawa, Edible Ottawa, the City of Ottawa’s Buy Local, BIAs, Local Eats Ottawa, and Shop Ottawa are bringing great visibility. Some are even combining forces to create hubs like FarmScore.ca, PoppaBean Company’s Vendors Project and Buchipop’s BurrowShop. Yet big-box grocers have seen a rush of #panicshopping and #panicbuying—yes, I’m talking about that 10kg bag of flour and yeast for your sourdough bread baking—giving massive boosts in sales to companies like Sobeys and Loblaws. While empty shelves aren’t indicative of weak supply chains, it is indicative of the privileging nature of your purchasing power.

Where you spend matters. It’s easy to just go line up at Sobeys or Loblaws, I know. For some, it may be the only place you can get your groceries—I get it. If you have the choice, though, you have the power to support not only someone’s livelihood, but their family, who likely spent a whole lot more time and effort to source culturally important foods for you to enjoy. That means spending time finding the importer who is willing to pay the customs fees to clear items with the Canadian Border Service Agency, consultations with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to make sure it’s safe for imported consumption, and likely spending that extra money to have it transported from major food ports to the city of Ottawa. For a small food business like the corner store or specialty food shop, that cuts into their margins deeper than big-box grocers.

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South Asian Supermarket on Carling is just one of the city’s many BIPOC-owned grocery stores. Photo: Ross Dunn/Apt613 Flickr pool.

Food security through the local

Ottawa has a vibrant community supporting an amazing local food system. We have the luxury of the Ottawa Valley and surrounding areas growing some amazing food, but buying local doesn’t always have to mean it comes from the ground beside you or raised in a nearby pasture. Like many, our food system is complex, political, and exciting. For BIPOC, immigrant, and refugee communities, the challenge is sourcing culturally important foods in Ottawa’s local food system. Small food businesses fill these major gaps and they are not called “international” or “ethnic”—it’s food. This squarely renegotiates that space of “other” in our communities, and that is powerful.

Now more than ever, it is important to maintain the vibrancy of our food system and ensure that inclusion matters. Supporting local not only means spending your hard-earned dollars on take-out/delivery or on farmer’s baskets/CSAs (we still love you!). Rather, it gives you an opportunity to broaden your sourcing and build your skills in the kitchen through different ingredients while supporting the local grocer, butcher, and baker.

It gives you an opportunity to broaden your sourcing and build your skills in the kitchen through different ingredients while supporting the local grocer, butcher, and baker.

In times of COVID-19, we are all in search of some comfort. As a first-generation child of Korean immigrant parents, we would drive up to an hour in order to source what was needed for our staples. Believe me, things like kimchi, nori (seaweed) snacks, pork belly, and oxtail were not cool in the ’90s, but my parents knew that even having a corner store with all the junk food at my disposal could not replace that packet of Shin ramen with homemade kimchi and poached egg.

Relief for front-line service workers

Supporting small food businesses also is an opportunity to provide some relief to front-line service workers who are inundated with online orders. Curbside pickup orders and delivery requests cause bottlenecks in service delivery and increase risks because of human congestion. More business is great, but hero pay is ridiculous when big-box grocers are actually giving hazard pay. The burnout is real and their mental health matters.

Yes, we’re in a pandemic and it’s important to practice proper social distancing, but it shouldn’t deter you from being conscious of where you spend your money. Take the time to think about your needs and see where you can support BIPOC-, immigrant-, and refugee-owned small food businesses. Don’t let them fall through the cracks just because they’re not on your homepage.