Food is on our minds and in the news these days. From grocery store shortages to meat plant shutdowns to YouTubers baking their own bread, COVID-19 is shifting our understanding of food access and food security in Canada.
As Canadian author Tara Henley suggests, “the coronavirus is putting into sharp focus the vulnerabilities in the way that modern society is organized.” Our food system – including the growing, harvesting, packing, processing, transforming, marketing, and consuming of food – is no exception. This novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is showing us the weaknesses in the interconnected web of activities that keep us fed, and the implications of those weaknesses on food security at both the household and community level.
The 1996 World Food Summit defined food security as, “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” The elements of this definition are important because food security cannot exist if only one or two of the conditions are met. For example, if food is available, but those who need it cannot afford it, or if the food they can buy is unsafe, then food security is not achieved.
By now, many of us have been impacted, at least temporarily, by shortages of food. Our food security – in terms of being able to access our preferred foods when we want them – has been impacted. People are so unfamiliar with seeing empty grocery store shelves that this creates anxiety and leads to hoarding, exacerbating existing supply chain problems. People concerned about shopping “in person” are frustrated by the challenges of underdeveloped and overstretched shopping and delivery services, and reduce the availability of those services to the people with the most need for them, e.g., seniors and those in quarantine.
Supply chain experts suggest that there is plenty of food, and that shortages reflect distribution delays caused by having unanticipated demand. Very little food is stored in retail outlets, and deliveries are scheduled around historical demand. When demand changes abruptly it takes time to respond, and suppliers are leery about ramping up production when the short-term surge in demand is likely temporary.
For most people, shortages have been temporary and related to specific products, e.g. “Why is there no tofu? And what happened to all the flour?” However, challenges have been significant for households that were already experiencing food insecurity and using food banks to try and fill gaps.
Food banks emerged in the 1980s in order to provide temporary, short-term relief to unemployed workers during a recession. Forty years later, they have become important vehicles for distributing food to those without sufficient income to buy it, including those making minimum wage or on government assistance. For many of the individuals and families using food banks, these are not short-term, temporary solutions but rather the only way to fill shortfall between income and expenses.
Food banks have been critiqued by many academics (including sociologist Janet Poppendieck, author of Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement) as offering relief to only a small portion of those who need it, using inefficient and highly labour-intensive “parallel” distribution networks, and stigmatizing users. Instead, they suggest that an adequate income to buy food (and other things) is the most effective and efficient way to ensure food security.
During the COVID-19 crisis, the demand for food banks has increased significantly, while their ability to meet demand has plummeted due to difficulties in sourcing and distributing food. The high levels of face-to-face volunteer labour required to pack food baskets and screen clients are untenable during social distancing. The federal government has promised $100 million to support food banks during the pandemic, leading nutritionist and food insecurity researcher Valerie Tarasuk to remark, “Adding cash to a fragmented... volunteer-run charity system that depends on face-to-face interactions and was only ever serving a small fraction of the people in need is completely misplaced. It isn't about how much money the feds give to food banks. The problem is that they are trying to address serious problems of material deprivation through ad hoc community charities.”
While shortages on store shelves have thus far been temporary, there are increasing concerns about supply shortages this year and next year because of COVID-19. This is because many of the workers in agriculture in Canada are actually temporary foreign workers from other countries. The arrival of these workers has been delayed, and they must go through a 14-day quarantine once they arrive. Many fruits and vegetables, however, have short windows for planting (and in the case of early spring vegetables like asparagus, harvesting), and so many producers are expecting their harvests to go down.
Other producers, especially in meat and dairy, are struggling to deal with fluctuating demand and processing bottlenecks that limit distribution. Demand for meat and dairy soared early in the pandemic as consumers stocked up, but now demand for their products has fallen because restaurants – important purchasers of meat, butter, cheese, and potatoes in particular – remain closed. In addition, processors, particularly meat processors, have found it challenging to prevent the spread of coronavirus in their enormous, crowded, and fast-paced “disassembly” lines. These giant facilities control huge proportions of the market: the two facilities in Alberta that are currently experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks process a whopping 70% of Canada’s beef.
While observers might see connecting farmers with food banks as a solution, this is not as simple as it seems; emergency food providers have no capacity to treat raw milk or pack meat, and most are not capable of handling such perishable goods safely. Fruits and vegetables need to be harvested, cleaned, and prepared for distribution, and there is labour associated with those activities that make redistribution through the emergency food sector challenging.
Of course, these factors are not just challenges in Canada; countries around the world are facing similar challenges. It remains to be seen whether this will significantly affect food supply globally, and if so, whether this will impact global trade, e.g., whether some jurisdictions will enact export taxes or bans to try and keep food available locally. Indeed, some countries in Africa and Asia are buying grain in bulk to hold in reserve, while major producers of wheat and rice – Russia and Vietnam, respectively – have imposed new restrictions on international sale. This is all contrary to dominant economic logic, which suggests that allowing the market to determine allocations is the most cost-effective solution.
It should be noted that none of these challenges is particularly new. Access to food in low-income households is an ongoing challenge in Canada, as the presence of food banks attest. Matching production with supply is a challenge that has dogged producers and governments for centuries; when supply is too little, prices rise for consumers, but a glut on the market can bankrupt a farm, leading to fewer producers in the future. Tactics such as supply management and farm income support are often effective but controversial.
Many observers have drawn attention to labour conditions in both farms and processing plants, noting that this physically challenging and sometimes dangerous work is done by structurally vulnerable workers, e.g., temporary workers who have limited rights in Canada, and who often live communally in housing that can be crowded. Workers on farms and in slaughterhouses have few other employment options, are often from countries with different labour rules, and may not communicate well in English. These factors increase their susceptibility to exploitation, because it is harder for them to object to unsafe working conditions. Relatedly, very large farms and processors are known to have ongoing challenges with outbreak control e.g., recent E. coli outbreaks that have been traced back to bagged spinach or prepared meat from a single processor.
The food system is routinely devastated by disease – however, this has mostly been diseases of animals and plants rather than humans. The global movement of humans and goods creates an environment ripe for the spread of pests and pathogens, a situation that is exacerbated by climate change; this has had an enormous but underappreciated impact on food security. From early examples such as Phytophthora infestans, the oomycete that caused the great potato famine, and Cryphonectria parasitica, the blight responsible for the destruction of American chestnuts (formerly a key staple food of North America), food pathogens continue to be introduced from one area to another at an alarming rate.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is currently on the watch for about a dozen pathogens that can affect tomatoes, potatoes, soybeans, grapes, and stone fruit among others, and fighting previously introduced pathogens has become part of the routine for many farmers. Animal diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) can also have devastating impacts, as Canadian ranchers know. This problem is of course not unique to Canada; many previously North American pests and diseases have wreaked havoc in Europe and Asia.
While we are hopefully flattening the coronavirus curve, we need to be better prepared for future challenges, including outbreaks. Our food system needs to be resilient – to be able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions – in order to provide food security now and in the future.
We need to invest in local capacity to meet food needs. In the face of shortages and export restrictions, governments are currently scrambling to develop domestic producers of personal protective equipment, to ensure these essential supplies are available when necessary. Food is even more essential to human life, and we are similarly seeing that the free market may not be able to consistently deliver food across international borders in a crisis. In this context, local farmers and processors should be given support, through both farm income support and supply management, to ensure staple foods are there when we need them. Reducing the global trade in food and plant material would also reduce the transmission of plant and animal disease.
Attention also needs to be paid to the scale of operations. A larger number of smaller farms and processors creates resilience by reducing the bottlenecks that can come when, for example, a single large processor needs to be closed. Resources for the development of online infrastructure for food sales and delivery would help smaller producers to connect with consumers in a safer way.
Canada’s reliance on temporary foreign workers also needs to be reduced. Ideally, skilled agricultural workers should be given a pathway to citizenship so they can remain in Canada. Pay in food work needs to be increased and labour conditions improved so that more domestic workers can be recruited. Similarly, the essential nature of food retail work needs to be recognized through better wages and more stable work.
It is important to note that increasing wages and keeping smaller food businesses afloat in tough times will not be free. Having smaller food processing facilities will reduce economies of scale. A resilient food system will require increased government investment on the one hand, and could result in increased food costs for consumers on the other.
Access to food for low-income households through an adequate and reliable financial mechanism is needed to reduce gaps and inefficiencies in the distribution of food to those who need it most. A guaranteed income would not only reduce inefficiencies, redundancies, and lags in government support, it would also provide adequate income to all Canadians to purchase food. Experts – including leading food bank operators – agree that this is a much more efficient, comprehensive, and resilient approach than trying to prop up the emergency food sector.
This article is the second in a three-part series on COVID-19 by Health Studies researchers at University College.