Building Resilience in Food and Health Supply Chains

Note: The Resilience seminar series has concluded, you can find all the recordings at the bottom of this page or on our YouTube playlist.


Supply chains are the primary societal infrastructure for the production, delivery, and recycling of goods and services. Though sometimes invisible, supply chains are the systems that ensure that flour is available in your grocery store, that hospitals have sufficient personal protective equipment, and that there are enough trained staff to administer medical tests, deliver babies, and check-out your groceries. While much of the effort in supply chains over the past 50 years has been to make them agile, fast, and cheap, there is a growing realization that supply chains must be able to adapt to disruptions from local events such as the inability for a plane to land due to weather to global changes such as the closing of the US-Canada border due to COVID-19. 

This seminar series seeks to develop a multi-disciplinary understanding of resilient supply chains by examining two which are of critical importance to everyday life: food and health supply chains. The talks in this series look at these supply chains, both independently and together, through the inclusion of diverse speakers representing at least the following perspectives:

  • Supply Chain Optimization
  • Northern and Remote Food and Health Security
  • Urban Food Systems
  • Systems of Food Production
  • Healthcare Systems


Optimizing the Supply Chain

Supply Chain Optimization focuses on the use of mathematical tools and algorithms to efficiently design, organize, and operate the production, delivery, and recycling of goods and services. Some examples of problems addressed:

  • Where does Amazon locate its distribution centres to most efficiently deliver its goods?
  • How does Federal Express decide which packages go on which trucks and the routes the trucks take in the GTA?
  • How does Walmart decide what inventory levels should be maintained and where?
  • How should operating room time be allocated to surgical specialties in the University Health Network?
  • How does Loblaws determine its staffing schedule given varying customer demand during a day/week?
Northern/Remote Food and Health Security

People living in rural and remote communities have a particular relationship with their supply chains, as well as the structures of governance through which they operate.

  • How do we define and operationalize “remoteness” in terms of essential goods and services delivery?
  • To what extent do current transportation and supply systems address the priorities and lived experience of people living in remote places?
  • What are the current policy barriers to greater local self-determination in the provision of essential goods and services?
  • Are their international models of remote community sustainability that offer insights for North American contexts?
Healthcare Systems

The concept of resilience in population health and health systems takes on many forms, including but not limited to: natural or human disaster response, emerging public health threats, health care delivery and sustainability (delivering the same quality and quantity of care to all), patient safety and, more recently, the broader social, economic, climactic and political context to which the health system responds to threats. Health systems arguably are under the most significant pressures in modern times from multiple dimensions. Resilience in the health context has been used to both describe essential services during unexpected disruptions as well as the ability to adapt and thrive under shocks. This session will explore the following themes:

  • How do we measure resilience in health systems, especially public health where success is the occurrence of non-events?
  • What role does healthcare and public health workforce planning have on system resilience?
  • What is the role of community resilience in the ability for health systems to prepare, respond and recover from major health threats?
  • How does the lack of integration of outputs from outside the health system (transportation, education, food systems) affect system resilience?
  • What tools/approaches can we learn from other fields (e.g. engineering to re-think our approaches to measuring and building health system resilience?
Systems of Food Production

While there are certainly exceptions, the dominant food system can be characterized as industrialized, globalized, dominated by a shrinking number of corporate enterprises, and increasingly shaped by financial actors, logics, and markets. A key question that emerges is whether this particular form of provisioning food is the most resilient to contemporary and emerging stresses, including climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing tensions in international trade. To answer this question, one could consider a variety of underlying sub-questions, including the following:

  • Which types of agricultural technologies and practices are most resilient to economic and environmental stresses?
  • How does corporate concentration shape the resiliency of food systems? Is a smaller number of bigger corporations better?
  • What are the determinants of the international trade in food (i.e. who produces what and where are those products consumed)? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a globalized food economy vis-á-vis more localized food systems?
  • How is contemporary financialization reshaping food systems and do these changes create new vulnerabilities?
Urban Food Systems

The urban food environment is a complex system of restaurants, grocers, and other food retailers where production and distribution networks meet the consumer. Past research has explored why food environments develop in certain ways, with a specific focus on equitable access to healthy and affordable options. However, this work has often ignored the supply chain forces that shape the food environment, and underemphasizes the agency of producers and retailers. In this theme, the following questions will be explored:

  • How does the food supply chain impact the geography of food retail in cities around the world?
  • What roles do race and racism play in food environments, specifically in the North American context?
  • How have government programs sought to govern food environments, and for what reasons (e.g. dietary health)?
  • Is it possible to develop a better framework for linking agricultural supply chains to downstream nutrition-related impacts on public health?