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Food affordability is top of mind with Canadians

Doomsday scenarios about food shortages in Canada related to the pandemic didn’t really play out or last long with Canadians.

For the most part, we had all the food we needed during the start of the pandemic. And now, ensconced in the next wave and likely headed for lockdowns, we again are in good shape.

Affordability rather than availability is another matter for many Canadians. Even though per capita we spend less than most countries on food, such statistics don’t matter when you can hardly afford to eat.

But as far as supplies go, we appear to be fine.

And that must be bringing Canadians comfort when so much of the world swirling around us is turned upside down.

Last week the Guelph-based Canadian Centre for Food Integrity released its fifth annual public trust research report. The organization surveyed 2,900 Canadians, asking people how they feel about their food supply.

It showed huge, eye-opening optimism. The proportion of Canadians who say the system is headed in the right direction was the highest it’s been in the survey’s relatively brief history. 

That’s an amazing vote of confidence considering the trend had been going the other way.

As well, almost 90 per cent of respondents said they believe the food system will ensure healthy food is available.

What a switch. When this survey was first time five years ago, the agri-food sector was aghast. Even though it suspected what the centre found, it was nonetheless a shock to see how many people thought the food system was trending the wrong way, and that so few knew anything about where their food comes from or how it gets into their shopping carts.

Some thought it would be a wake-up call for the industry and spark major efforts to try to build confidence in the system, perhaps through public campaigns. And indeed, some efforts were put forward, such as the ‘It’s Good, Canada’ campaign.

But as far as I know, none have moved the needle as much as the system’s performance through the pandemic.

Maybe now this new vote of trust in the system means campaigns can and should change.

First off, the research also showed the topic of sustainability in food is required for those who want to be a trusted and successful food system player. What does sustainability mean? Almost half of the survey respondents equated it to food options and production practices that address climate change and have a positive impact on the environment.

That means they need to hear messaging from the sector about how it’s working on those areas, mitigating greenhouse gas and reducing food waste.

As well, with food affordability being on everyone’s minds, it behoves the sector to show what it’s doing to hold down the cost of food. According to the centre’s survey, half of Canadians say they have less money to spend on food, as a direct result of the pandemic.

Showing economical approaches to food production is not a problem for farmers. They’ve long been forced to take such measures to stay in business. Consumers can’t or don’t want to pay the real cost of food, and processors and manufacturers take a huge share of the food dollar. So farmers get what’s left.

Should they get more? Sure. But who will give up some of their share?

It’s up to the food industry, particularly multi-nationals, to explain what they’re doing to keep costs down. I suspect they’ll say they’re supporting farmers with new products and technologies.

It all starts on the farm. And you can expect to see more emphasis there as the sector capitalizes on building public trust.

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