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Second pandemic wave heats up pressure on food support

Canadians are edgy about whether we’ll have enough food to get us through the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – and whether Ottawa is taking the matter seriously. Pessimism has crept in and it shows.

On Tuesday, the Guelph-based Canadian Centre for Food Integrity joined with the Globe and Mail newspaper for an online discussion about food security – specifically, affordability and accessibility. In that webinar, the worries were underlined, with an exclamation mark.

Alarm bells are ringing about a potential spike in the cost of food. Prices rose marginally in the winter when the pandemic arrived. Generally, there was enough food to go around, hoarding aside.

But combined with severe job losses – a situation from which we are far from recovered – Canadians headed to food banks in unprecedented numbers. The pressure is still on, and even a slight increase in food costs are extremely worrisome.

Governments put a lot of money into trying to shore up food bank programs.

But what about shoring up farmers, the people who produce the food?

The prospects of another run on food banks has urban food advocates concerned. They fear a déjà vu situation is inevitable – they think a spike in food prices is very possible, at the same time people who were just barely getting back to work are going to be sent home again or lose their jobs as the second wave of the pandemic takes hold.

Those who were part of Tuesday’s webinar don’t believe big business is going to help them in a meaningful way. They’re convinced the answer lies in better support for a homegrown, locally based food system.

Now, that means different things to different people. As a rancher from Alberta said in the webinar, if his locally raised cattle are sold to a multinational processing company but ultimately end up as beef at his nearby grocery store, is that local?

It is to him. But many people would question it…including “city” people who don’t understand how Canada’s highly integrated food system works, and the many hands that are required in the value chain from farm to fork. They’d be quicker to call the Alberta rancher scenario local if they knew more about it; their fears of their beef coming from unknown sources, such as the U.S. or offshore, could be allayed.

No question, the food system that serves us is multi-faceted. At the very basis, it’s all about safe, nutritious, affordable and abundant food.

But then it goes in different directions, and so do its camps.

For example, local food advocates argue there should be more support for farmers who sell directly to consumers. At Tuesday’s webinar, one commented how the pandemic opened the eyes of many consumers to on-farm sales.

“Actually buying food off the farm, from a farmer… we didn’t know that was possible,” she said.

Locally, we take on-farm sales for granted. When you live in a downtown Toronto high-rise, you have a very different experience when it comes to food sources.

Other parts of the agri-food sector think there’s not enough support for exports. After all, we export about half of what we produce.

Both sides are right. The question is where will governments put their support?

Logically, it would put support where the need is the greatest. And that’s what it must determine now.

But first, the powers-that-be in government have to realize this is a burning issue for Canadians. It’s not political, it’s practical, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which it’s a matter of our very survival.

Of course, when it comes to the government, everything is political. But I can’t imagine any party saying our agriculture and food efforts shouldn’t be stepped up and real attention paid to making the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada a more senior department that has the depth and breadth to address Canadians’ needs.

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