Event summary produced by The Globe and Mail Events team. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.
The Globe and Mail hosted a webcast on September 29 to explore issues of food affordability, access and equality. Panelists covered the pandemic’s impact on consumer awareness and trust in Canada’s food system, unequal access to healthy food and ideas to strengthen the sector for the future.
The Globe presented the webcast with support from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI), a national charitable organization with a mandate to build knowledge and trust in Canada’s food system.
Highlights from the discussion appear below the recorded webcast.
Highlights from the conversation:
Consumers want transparency
More than ever, consumers want to know where their food is grown, handled, shipped and packaged, said John Jamieson, president and CEO of the CCFI. His organization will be releasing a new research report on November 10, measuring Canadians' perspectives on the food system.
The initial data shows a 12 percent increase over 2019 in the proportion of Canadians who feel Canada’s food system is heading in the right direction, likely due to significant efforts by food providers to adapt to the pandemic and keep the food supply chain going. Even so, there are ongoing food concerns, with 56 percent of those surveyed citing the rising cost of food as a life concern, Mr. Jamieson said.
The fall will bring uncertainty
Ellen Goddard, professor of resource economics and environmental sociology with the University of Alberta agreed the pandemic is raising awareness of Canada’s food system and trust in farmers. That trust is spurring interest in buying from local producers. Canadians have widely disparate views on what local food means but at the heart of it, they want to have some influence over the food system and some connection with the people who produced their food, Ms. Goddard said.
Regarding concerns over food prices, Ms. Goddard said consumers are more aware of price fluctuations with food because they buy it more often than other products. Yet the cost of food in Canada is reasonable, on average less than 10 percent of disposable income. As Canada heads into a second wave of the pandemic though, there might be a bigger shock on the way. To date, Canadians have been somewhat buffered from the economic effects of the pandemic through government assistance programs. Through the fall, some types of food such as fresh fruits might be less available and Canada could see more food insecurity as job and income losses continue.
Canada has enough food for everyone
Food insecurity in Canada is not a matter of food shortages, said Gisèle Yasmeen, executive director of Food Secure Canada. It’s more the result of socio-economic factors such as systemic racism and low incomes. She cited statistics showing one in six children in Canada were already food insecure before the pandemic. Sixty-two percent of food insecure Canadians are working, she noted, referring to the example of a single mother working multiple minimum wage jobs. She fears these numbers could double as the pandemic continues. Black communities are 3.5 times more likely to experience food insecurity, and almost half of First Nations communities are food insecure. Canada has enough food to feed everyone but we need better socio-economic policies, she said.
She also called for more investment in food infrastructure. Numerous smaller food producers don’t have access to the cold supply chain needed to get their products to market. The average age of farmers in Canada is 55, she said. Young people want to get involved in food production but they often lack access to land, water and resources. Democratizing these resources would allow participation in the food system by more Canadians, especially in food insecure communities, she said.
We can’t take food for granted
The panelists agreed Canadians have taken food for granted, from consumers up to government. We need to take food seriously, said Joshna Maharaj, chef, activist and author of a new book, Take Back the Tray. Food is first and foremost critical to stay alive, which makes line-ups at food banks all the more alarming.
Canada needs a more complete conversation about the food system and the fragmentation causing uneven access to food across the country. We need better policies to protect farmers and cultivate smaller-scale, localized food production, Ms. Maharaj said. She feels institutions such as schools can take a leadership role in sourcing healthy food and supporting local production.
The pandemic is an opportunity to prioritize food production
Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said now is the time for Canada to make food production top of mind. Interest in the food system among Canadians has grown but we only have a small window of opportunity to build on the momentum. Agriculture should not be minor ministry at the government level, Mr. Lowe said, and farmers need regulatory support in order to make a living.
He said Canadian farmers are committing to goals to protect the future of food production, such as using technology to promote soil regeneration. The right efforts on the part of government and policy makers will provide the support farmers need to secure production while raising awareness about food among consumers.
View the full webcast above.