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Pandemic gives Food Day Canada a deeper meaning

The 2020 pandemic version of Food Day Canada, being held this Saturday, August 1, will be as cerebral as it is celebratory.

Not that the two are exclusive of each other. But when we toast our good food fortunes this year, we should reflect on what a wild ride we’ve been on since the winter, and how the outcome could have been disastrous if not for Canada’s amazing farmers and the dedication of everyone involved in the entire food supply chain.

Food Day Canada, the brainchild of Elora food diva Anita Stewart, is intended to be a day that we recognize the achievements of the people who keep us fed.

Like every year, we should offer them more than thanks. They deserve our support and patronage, too… not just because they produce food, but because they produce good food, some of the best in the world.

This year though, besides offering our understanding of not only their Herculean efforts from farm to fork, let’s also show some appreciation for what they’ve been through as a result of the pandemic, and what’s still to come.In these upside-down times when desperation may trump loyalty, they need to know consumers are focussed on more than the bottom line.

Looking back, that’s how Food Day Canada began, when beef farmers were hit below the belt in the early 2000s by the BSE crisis and exports to the U.S. ground to a halt. Stewart and a handful of sponsors then created what she’d call the World’s Longest Barbecue, urging Canadians from coast to coast to coast to barbeque Canadian beef and show their support of producers here.

It was meant to bolster spirits as much as sales. When a major part of the ag sector like the beef industry takes a beating, the ripple effect is significant. Consumer agreed, and Food Day Canada became an entity, growing steadily since then.

This year, everyone involved in food production and sales has been on edge, watching to see how consumers would react and changing things up – or trying to – when clarity emerged.

So now, here’s what we know about food in 2020.

For the most part, supplies have been plentiful. Food hoarding – and some instances of food insecurity – got our attention early on and made us think more about where our food comes from. Unfortunately, we still take it much for granted way too much, because the industry is served by such a well-established and efficient supply chain between producers, processors and retailers.

But if any one of those parts of the chain breaks, its effectiveness fails, and instances of that surfaced.

While some consumers worried about availability, others who were less fortunate, like those whose jobs were lost due to the pandemic, also faced problems with affordability. Even though Canadians spend a lower percentage of their income on food than almost any other nation, we are using food banks in record numbers. Just this week reports from Toronto declared food bank usage had tripled since the pandemic started and unemployment soared.

Most recently, the fresh fruit and vegetable sector has struggled mightily with pandemic-related labour shortages, as international farm workers were unable to come to Canada and fulfill their normal roles.

Restaurants too, where we’ve traditionally had many of our best food experiences, have their backs against the wall as a result of being forced to close for so long, then reopen with so many restrictions.    

And besides those extremely difficult situations, some farmers – particularly those who produce grain – are frustrated that the U.S. counterparts they compete against are receiving mountains of government cash to tie them over through the pandemic, giving them an unfair advantage.

These situations won’t all be fixed by supporting Canadian farmers. But food affordability and availability are less of an issue if we continue to have a solid food system in place – the kind of system we should think about this Food Day Canada, and figure out ways we can support it and enhance it.

That’s a great patio discussion topic for Saturday as we enjoy our incredible food supply from restaurants we haven’t been able to visit for months, from a nearby park or from our own balconies or backyards, and reflect on where we’re at.

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