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COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare weaknesses in Canadian food systems: expert

Last Updated Mar 25, 2020 at 10:53 am PST

Grocery store shelves await restocking early in the morning in Toronto on Friday March 13, 2020. Shoppers across Canada face long lines and empty store shelves in some grocery stores as the novel coronavirus outbreak has prompted people to stock up on toilet paper, cleaning products and other supplies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

COVID-19 pandemic highlights existing food-access issues

Food insecurity on the rise, as Canadians lose jobs and economy weakens

Food security could be improved if more Canadians eat local fish

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life, while putting a spotlight on existing weaknesses in the structure of Canadian society.

The country’s food systems are no exception.

Panic buying has emptied grocery shelves across the country. Food banks have pleaded for donations as hundreds of thousands lose their jobs. And, as this crisis appears set to extend over months, Canadians could see a return to war-time food rationing.

That’s according to Graham Riches, emeritus professor and former director of UBC’s school of social work.

Millions of Canadians face food insecurity

He said the pandemic is laying bare two separate but linked issues: food insecurity and food security.

“In Canada – wealthy, food-secure Canada – we’ve actually already got 4.4 million people who are struggling in different ways to put food on the table and a certain proportion of them simply cannot do that,” Riches said, citing a report released earlier this month.

PROOF, the food insecurity research centre at the University of Toronto, found one in eight Canadian households struggle to put adequate and nutritious food on the table.

That number, which was already rising, is sure to jump as the devastating economic impacts of the novel coronavirus continue to ravage the country, Riches said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were roughly 500,000 applications for employment insurance benefits last week, compared to just 27,000 during the same week in 2019.

“I think we’ve got a lot of rethinking to do in Canada and this crisis should jolt us into looking at new and important ways forward,” Riches said.

As federal and provincial governments boost various benefits and tax credits to support Canadians put out of work, Riches said it’s a “very deep irony” that it took a global crisis for them to do what they should have all along.

“We’ve allowed our welfare state to fall by the wayside,” he said.

A return to war-time food rationing?

While many Canadians struggle to afford the food they need, Riches said he anticipates the availability of food will increasingly become an issue.

“I think, in an emergency, you may well be looking at food rationing, which I think is probably very much in the cards,” he said, referencing the Second World War practice in which the Canadian government limited how much sugar, coffee, meat and other products people could buy.

While Canada is generally food secure, meaning it can feed itself primarily with the food it produces, the increase in demand from people hoarding food in anticipation of an extended lockdown and further restrictions on movement could put pressure on the weak spots in the country’s food system, he said.

While grocers have assured Canadians their supply chains are secure, Riches said their empty shelves put that into question.

One solution, during this crisis and in the long-term, is to focus on sourcing more of our food locally, rather than have it shipped and trucked from farther afield, Riches said.

Eat local fish to improve food security

Joy Thorkelson, president of the United Fishermen and Workers Union, agrees.

From working in close quarters contrary to social-distancing guidelines, to coastal communities weary of accepting them on-shore to processing plants potentially scaling or shutting down, she said UFAWU-Unifor’s roughly 400 members are facing a multitude of challenges as they enter the prawn and halibut season.

“It’s a big knot,” she said.

Add to that a cratering international market, with demand and prices plummeting, and B.C. fishermen are in need of help from both provincial and federal governments, Thorkelson said.

That assistance could come in the form of EI benefits, easing of federal licensing fees and better domestic marketing for B.C. fish, according to Thorkelson.

“We would like to see some assistance to sell our products in local markets, instead of trying to get into a depressed export market,” she said.

If more Canadians appreciated the wide variety of fish caught off the B.C. coast, it would not only be good news for the struggling industry but also strengthen the country’s food security, she said.

A Vancouver-based company has a similar message. Skipper Otto Community Supported Fishery runs a seafood subscription program in which home cooks pay into a pool of money to fund fishers and then collect their share of the catch throughout the season.

The company’s cofounder and CEO, Sonia Strobel, said the model is a great way to support fishers who are seeing demand from local and international distributors drop during the pandemic.

“They’re panicking, reasonably, about how they’re going to sell their catch this year,” she said.

Strobel said the COVID-19 pandemic has only put a finer point on the need for better food security.

“When you have a crisis like this, it’s a really important illustration of why we need a robust local food system,” Strobel said. “We don’t have a robust-enough local food system to handle crises like this.”