From concerns about food shortages to renewed interest in buying local, the COVID-19 pandemic has made Canadians more aware of food production.
This awareness has offered the opportunity to highlight the gaps that exist in Canada’s food system, relating to the lack of attention our society generally places on food.
“Food and food production has not been a high priority with people. We’ve taken it for granted forever, and that’s from consumers right through governments,” said Bob Lowe, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president, in a webinar on food affordability and access, hosted by The Globe & Mail on Sept. 29.
Lowe and other panelists spoke about the issues this has created in our food system and how these were affected by the pandemic, one of which is food insecurity. This was a problem prior to the pandemic, with an estimated 4.4 million Canadians facing food insecurity, including one in six children.
Some trends in food insecurity are related to structural inequalities, with Black households in Canada “being 3.5 times more likely to be food insecure because of the legacies of structural racism and the ongoing issue of structural racism,” said Gisèle Yasmeen, executive director of Food Secure Canada. Similarly, a 10-year study found that half of all First Nations households are food insecure, with comparable numbers in Métis and Inuit families.
“This is related to the legacy of colonialism, and it has nothing to do with food supply. It has to do with poverty. It has to do with the ability to purchase food relative to the cost of living,” said Yasmeen. “This is really something that requires concerted social and economic policy to address those systemic inequalities.”
These troubling statistics on food insecurity are expected to double due to the loss of income and unemployment related to the pandemic.
“I don’t think we’ve really seen the fallout from the income shocks that happened as a result of the pandemic, because I think we’ve been buffered to a certain extent by some of the programs,” said Ellen Goddard, professor of resource economic and environmental sociology at the University of Alberta.
Based on her interactions with those who lost their livelihoods, Goddard predicts larger problems on the horizon.“If that bigger shock, the second wave of the pandemic, all of those things happen in the fall when some of our fresh fruits and other foods are less available, then we could see a big impact in terms of food insecurity, and I am actually really worried about that coming down the pipeline in the near to longer-term.”
As well, she anticipates grocery costs to rise in the short to medium term and is unsure when they will stabilize. “Our food processing industry, our grocery stores, the people that transport food have all had to take extra precautions about the pandemic, and all of those costs have not really been realized in the food chain yet.”
Other effects on the food supply chain in the pandemic’s early days were at odds with the reality of food insecurity in Canada. “There’s something really disjointed when during the height of COVID…we were actually having to euthanize hogs while other people are hungry,” said Lowe.
Chef and author Joshna Maharah agrees. “A really effective food system needs to exist to support everybody who uses it, not just for those who can afford it,” she said. “Access to good food is a basic, simple human right, and if somebody walks through the door of a food bank or a dining program, they are saying very publically that they are not able to keep themselves alive.”
The panelists agreed that strong leadership and policy are necessary to address food insecurity facing Canadians. “If we want to get to the root of the issue, this has to be about sound public policy that ensures that sustainable, healthy food is accessible to all,” said Yasmeen.
One public programming option that could make a difference to both food insecurity and building local and regional supply chains, she suggested, is a national, cost-shared school food program. Other initiatives could focus on poverty reduction, self-sufficiency in remote communities and access to resources generally held by few.
The overall takeaway from this panel is that food needs to be taken seriously by all Canadians to truly address this issue. Maharah spoke about projects on the food system she has conducted at three major institutions, and her research suggested that these gaps exist “because nobody with any real power cares enough about food and understands the role that food plays in nurturing peoples’ lives to actually do any better,” she said.
“We’ve seen the way this plays out around gender, around race, around socio-economic status, around geographic location in the country, and our food system needs attention. It needs attention, it needs care and we need policy to do things like protect our farmers and ensure there are steady supplies throughout crises like this pandemic.”