Pandemic changes public’s perception of food

A professor specializing in food distribution says the crisis has shifted the discussion from convenience to survival

The food industry is pulling off nothing short of a miracle during the pandemic, according to a prominent food distribution and policy analyst.

But that could change, said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and scientific director at the Agri-food Analytics laboratory at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“It’s been amazing to watch…. This tsunami hit the entire food retailing sector,” he said.

Charlebois was part of an open online dialogue hosted by the university every Thursday. The dialogue focused on Canadian food security and how the food industry might look after COVID-19.

In conjunction with Angus Reid market research polling, Charlebois and his team have analyzed surveys about food security during the pandemic. A recent study showed grocery store sales were up 37 percent in March.

“That is unbelievable. Grocers would dance and have a party with two percent. Thirty-seven percent is historical,” he said April 16.

He said the pandemic reveals many Canadians experience some level of food insecurity and he thinks it will last for some time.

Before COVID-19, he said food-related conversations were about plant-based, veganism, animal welfare, single-use plastics and sustainability.

Discussions now are very different.

“What have we heard in the last four or five weeks? Shelves, supply chains, food security, food prices, flour, yeast, cooking — things that we never really talked about much in the last several years.

“This COVID crisis has forced all Canadians, all consumers to think differently about food. This is not just about convenience. It’s about survival,” he said.

The new normal is also shaping how people shop for their food. The latest polling numbers suggested more than half of Canadians are trying to avoid grocery stores because it’s an open system where anyone has access to everything in the store.

“In a pandemic, that’s a scary thought,” he said.

E-commerce has created another pressure point for grocers because the infrastructure to support it was not ready before the pandemic struck.

But that’s changing.

“E-commerce barely represented about two percent of the marketplace pre-COVID and based on the numbers we’re seeing right now with Angus Reid, 22 percent of Canadians intend to buy online on a regular basis after COVID,” he said.

He said grocers are also revisiting procurement strategies because consumers are buying different things now.

He thinks the number of stock keeping units (SKU) will shrink as a result of COVID-19.

“Costco carries about 3,400 SKUs typically and the average store is around 18,000. I wouldn’t be surprised if that drops by 20 to 25 percent post-COVID, which will allow grocers to carry cooking items like flour and sugar. It will get them more space and less choice, though, for Canadians,” he said.

Joining Charlebois on the virtual panel were husband and wife farmers, Philip and Katie Keddy, who run Charles Keddy Farms in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

They grow strawberry nursery plants that are shipped across North America and are also the largest sweet potato producers east of Ontario.

Katie said COVID-19 has replaced the weather as their biggest unpredictable concern on farm.

Like Charlebois, the Keddys see a disconnect by the average Canadian consumer about food and how it actually gets to the store shelf.

“For most of us, this is the first time we’ve ever had to worry about food supply or even think about how the food chain works. We’ve never had to question if there would be enough food on store shelves to actually feed our families or wonder what it takes to actually grow the food that fill the shelves or even more so the people that it takes to feed our country,” said Katie.

Last year, the family farm grew 1.7 million pounds of sweet potatoes, which supplies two major retailers in the Maritimes and some farm markets for six months of the year. The rest of the year, sweet potatoes are imported from Ontario.

“It gives an idea of how much food actually needs to be produced to feed Canada because this is one crop in essentially four small provinces in our entire country,” she said.

The foreign workers program is crucial to their operation in order to maintain current volume. Of the 60,000 people in the country’s foreign workers program, 1,500 go to the Maritimes, of which the Keddys hire about 80 during planting and harvest.

And not having a reliable number of foreign workers impacts the farm’s production of food.

“The predictability of the amount of labour allows us to grow our business and know that we can grow so much crop to the point of harvest and we will have enough hands to harvest it,” said Phillip.

He said the farm is running two weeks behind the production schedule compared to last year. By the time foreign workers arrive and complete two weeks of quarantine, it will be one month behind.

“(This) will have a direct impact on our harvest. So that touches all of the areas of the labour market,” he said.

Added Katie: “Without proper labour on the farms, there is potential for it to directly impact the amount of food that’s available on store shelves.”

She said there needs to be the highest priority placed on the Canadian food supply and not necessarily count on the high volume of imports from other countries.

Charlebois said although a food policy is in place in Canada, he’s not sure if it is robust enough to enable most Canadians to feel food secure no matter what happens at the border.

With meat processing facilities shutting down, Charlebois said a real crisis is looming.

“If you actually take the three major plants in Alberta, that’s 90 percent of all the beef we consume in Canada and right now these plants are being affected by COVID cases,” he said.

“That system is under a lot of pressure and we’re about to get into a barbecue season, a very good season for cattle ranchers. So this is going to be a huge problem.”

On a positive note, however, a crisis was averted in the hog sector after two recent processor shutdowns in Quebec.

“People got together — governments, processors, farmers to divert some of the hogs to actually get it to somewhere else. Some regulations were changed temporarily as well. So you can see that really the supply chain is working together to support each other and eventually to feed consumers,” said Charlebois.

He said COVID-19 and empty grocery store shelves have been a catalyst — helping fuel understanding and appreciation of supply chains from farm to fork.

But while the pandemic is exposing some uncharted shortcomings, the Keddys are analyzing and looking for encouraging areas of growth and change.

“As producers, we are using this as a learning opportunity and that stress that we’re feeling and those lessons that we’re learning is going to go back to positive changes to better prepare for the future on our operation. I believe that it’s a matter of when this will happen again and not if,” said Katie.

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