Dr. Jamie Seabrook and the FRESHER study

2020 – A Western University researcher-led project has been named among 15 initiatives province wide as part of the government’s $20-million Ontario COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund. The initiatives focus on areas of research such as vaccine development, diagnostics, drug trials and development, and social sciences.

At the same time, Western also launched a million-dollar Research Western Catalyst Grant: Surviving Pandemics initiative and backed 13 projects. These projects have the potential for long-term impacts that will aid humanity in its resilience and recovery efforts during the current and future disease outbreaks.

Brescia University College is excited to be a part of these two major grants. The studies are led by Principal Investigator (PI), Dr. Jason Gilliland, a Geography Professor at Western, and co-Investigated by Brescia’s own Dr. Jamie Seabrook, Associate Professor in the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences.

The smaller Western-funded study focuses on Southwestern Ontario and will take a year to complete. It looks at how retail food businesses had to modify their operations once COVID-19 hit. The impact on these businesses was severe, with many temporarily – or even permanently – closing. The study will not only assess how the pandemic affected business operations, but also the employers and employees who are still employed, as well as those who are no longer employed. It will also investigate whether the businesses are located in urban, suburban, or rural areas, and if there is food disparity based off the location.

To be chosen by the province as one of the 15 recipients for the larger provincewide grants was an exciting moment for the research team. The Food Retail Environment Study for Health and Economic Resiliency (FRESHER) is a study of the effects of COVID-19 on restaurants, fast food outlets, grocery stores, cafes, bars, pubs, and alcohol retail stores in Ontario, across all types of communities.

The team has already started gathering information from businesses and retail food workers in the province who have filled out online surveys. The local research study has been picked up by many media outlets, such as CTV, The London Free Press and the St. Thomas Journal, and has been shared, tweeted and reshared all over social media. Dr. Seabrook shares, “Premier Doug Ford even commented on our study in his remarks (found in Premier Ford’s COVID-19 update on May 21, 2020 around the 2:00 minute mark).”

In their research, the team is conducting a survey of employees, managers, and owners to determine how the pandemic has affected individual people, and interviewing business owners to assess the impacts of the pandemic and subsequent government and other organizational support programs and policies. This way, should there be a second major wave of the pandemic – or some other type of major emergency – the government could have something in place. Dr. Seabrook shares that “The end goal is to hopefully have a web portal with information on mitigating strategies that seemed to have worked and hopefully more information on things we can put more money into. It’s our hope to give this information back to the government based off the feedback and research we receive.”

As Co-Investigator, Dr. Seabrook will use his background in sociology, epidemiology, nutrition, and biostatistics to assist trainees with the statistical analysis. He notes, “This research will help policymakers assess the impacts of COVID-19 financial support programs on business survival. It will also allow them to adjust programs and policies as needed to ensure Ontario’s food security for any future pandemics and emergencies.”