2020: The year food mattered

Farmers often complain about the way people living in cities seem to take our high-quality, high-safety food system for granted.

Nobody in Canada worries about starving. Malnourishment is generally the result of bad diet choices, poverty  or social dysfunctions,  not an inability to find or obtain enough food to survive and be healthy. Why worry about food when the grocery stores are always loaded with an abundance of the world’s nutritional riches? There’s no scarcity, so there’s no widespread concern.

That all changed in 2020. When COVID-19 hit millions of consumers raced to fill pantries and freezers. People stockpiled flour, fearful that the stores would run out of bread. When meatpacking plants saw hundreds of workers become sick from COVID-19 outbreaks in their communities, people piled shopping carts with fresh and frozen meat.

Going to the grocery store became a fraught affair. For the first time in modern memory, people had to queue up and wait in order to be allowed to go into stores. Masks had to be worn and hands sanitized. Lines drawn, painted, stickered or taped onto the floors showed consumers what direction they had to travel in order to be allowed to shop. Consumers looked at each other with dread and suspicion. Just getting food for oneself or one’s family had become an anxious, worrisome activity.

Yet the food system did Canada and its people proud. Other than small shortages due to hoarding, such as with flour and toilet paper, most essentials remained well-stocked throughout 2020. Temporary shortages of some cuts of meat and some dairy products disappeared in weeks, as the processing sector proved itself more able than most of us had feared to adapt to multiple shocks and disruptions.

My main grocery store was only closed for a day or two, I’m sure. Every time I went, the staff were cheery and muddling through the COVID complications.

Throughout the food supply chain, the various links adjusted and adapted with alacrity. Packing plants managed to re-engineer their inside spaces while running at close to full capacity, keeping both workers and products safe. Truckers embraced multiple protocol changes so that they could pick up and drop off shipments across borders interprovincial and international that were closed to almost everybody else, even while being denied access to washrooms and other necessary facilities for their personal health and safety.

The food flowed and the people were fed.

This year I have enjoyed speaking with food industry experts like Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University and Simon Somogyi of the University of Guelph. Unlike me and many other peanut-gallery commentators, these analysts never feared that Canada’s food system might collapse. They seemed assured that Canadians could count on the food system, and they were right.

One of the best parts of this job of mine is being able to speak to and hear from experts in all sorts of areas. Journalists get access to all sorts of key people and it’s something we tend to take for granted.

For example, last week I covered a presentation by Kim Doherty of Sysco, the food service supplies giant. She talked about how the company, which supplies foods and other products to restaurants, hotels and institutions, had to undertake a “pandemic pivot” to convert some of its customers into “pop-up” grocery stores, and to begin to offer its wholesale products to individual consumers, something it had never done before. Within a few weeks and months, Sysco was serving thousands of consumers as if it was a big-box grocery chain, and its something the company expects to continue once COVID-19 has become a bad memory.

I was impressed by that corporate flexibility, that ability to take on entirely new lines of business and marketing during a crisis and to seem to be enjoying the experience. In fact, a few days after the presentation I went online to Sysco at Home and ordered a bunch of food, and it was delivered to my door the next day. During the pandemic I’ve also used multiple delivery services, such as Instacart, and found some of my favourite food suppliers going online to keep their connections with their customers. Much as big and little food companies have had to adapt to the impact of the pandemic, so have millions of consumers like me. We’re all parts of this food chain, and rather than being stiff metal links, we’re made of tough plastic, which can bend and stretch but which does not easily break.

As we head into Christmas, let’s be thankful that we’ve discovered that our food system is strong and flexible and able to keep up fed and well. If we took our food system’s existence, dependability and safety for granted before this pandemic, let’s now show some appreciation for what it has proven itself to be. As we celebrate the miracle of Christmas, we should celebrate the everyday miracle of our food system.

 

 

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