Lori Nikkel is the CEO of Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization.
For years, Canadians have survived with a patchwork system of aid to feed the hungry – a sprawling, informal network of some 60,000 charitable groups offering sustenance.
Then came COVID-19, which ruthlessly exposed the precarity of this existing system. It shuttered schools, churches, domestic violence shelters, summer camps and other institutions of civil society that had helped meet pre-pandemic needs.
When more than five million Canadians lost their jobs, leaving many wondering for the first time how they would put food on the table, it became clear that the Band-Aid social-safety net that had barely worked in the good times was completely failing us when we needed it most.
In responding to the challenges brought on by COVID-19, government, food producers, and the charities that support Canadians with food came together with unprecedented urgency – and now is not the time to lose the progress we’ve made.
To the government’s credit, they took swift action. In May, the federal government gave $100 million to food security organizations to address food insecurity. Full disclosure: at Second Harvest, where I am the chief executive, we received a small share of that money and used it to allocate grants of up to $20,000 to charities through FoodRescue.ca, a digital platform we operate that connects businesses with surplus food to local charities that can distribute it.
The most effective interventions during this crisis have been the boldest ones – the system-wide changes that strike at the heart of the problem, instead of efforts that tinker around the margins.
First, take the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). It has been a de facto experiment with a universal basic income (UBI), an idea now embraced as an anti-poverty tool by many economists, if not yet voters and politicians. The pandemic has made this grand experiment with UBI possible, and it can be safely credited with keeping millions of Canadians out of poverty and hunger.
Second, the government has also staged some of the most dramatic interventions in our food-supply system in living memory. Through the $50-million Surplus Food Rescue Program, the government is buying surplus agricultural goods to save from landfills and redistribute amongst vulnerable populations instead.
Finally, the government has supported vulnerable, remote communities by allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to emergency aid, which includes offsetting the cost of food.
Now, as society reconstitutes itself and braces for more widespread reopening, we find ourselves at a crucial juncture. We have seen that a different way is possible and even desirable. We cannot return to the status quo.
But more work is needed.
The first step will be to finally, properly quantify the scale of the problem. Until we begin accurately tracking food waste and the need for food across the country, we will never be able to find a solution. We can also start by solidifying the logistical networks that sprung up during the pandemic and helped us to deliver goods to remote, rural and northern communities. Even with tens of thousands of active charities, many such communities were previously beyond our reach. Pandemic-driven spending has helped to rectify that problem, and we should make those resulting solutions permanent.
Most importantly, we should also make permanent those broad-based, systemic interventions that have more than proven their worth in recent months, like the CERB or the surplus food-buying program.
Food waste in Canada is endemic – it is estimated we discarded some $17-billion worth of food into the garbage last year. As it rots in landfills, this food waste also contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions – a leading cause of climate change.
This is the linear economy at work. A farmer grows food, a manufacturer refines or produces it, a retailer sells it, and then a consumer eats it. At any point in this life cycle, that food may be discarded.
Based on Second Harvest research, more than half of all food produced in Canada never makes it to our tables.
Instead of a linear economy that squanders so much, we should strive for a system in which surplus is matched with unmet demand. We now have some tools in place to allow people the dignity of purchasing the food they need. We can continue to divert surplus food away from landfills and use it to feed people, as we work toward a day when there are fewer people who need help accessing food. The pandemic has shown us that alternatives to our old, wasteful ways are possible.
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