With a little nudge by a pandemic, the curtain has been opened between the consumer and food system, according to Toronto-based Nourish Food Marketing president Jo-Ann MacArthur.
“For the first time (consumers are) starting to read about it. They’re starting to ask questions and they’re starting to understand that distribution systems are different for retailers versus food service,” said MacArthur.
“And they’re also starting to look at conditions and how our food is grown, harvested and produced, and that, I think, will be a lasting effect of this crisis.”
The sudden effect on primary agriculture as a result of the pandemic was the big surprise for Len Kahn of Kahntact Marketing. He said he wasn’t surprised at how well the primary ag sector handled the crisis, but was amazed at the supply repercussions.
“One thing I never would’ve thought of was french fries. When restaurants started to close, demand for french fries dropped rapidly and there were some pretty serious effects on potato producers in the Maritimes and across Canada,” he said.
“That happened almost suddenly because you were coming out of last year with potatoes in storage and they were backing up and now it’s planting season. So just how interconnected the food system is, this really pointed that out to me as well,” Kahn said.
The two industry experts spoke this fall during Canada’s Digital Farm Show. They discussed how the pandemic has accelerated production and consumption trends.
Generations of consumers have never known real hunger but in 2020 they experienced the shock of empty shelves in some stores.
“The pivot overnight was incredible because prior to this we were eating many of our meals, more than half the time, from out of home, whether that was delivery, takeout, eating in a restaurant. Overnight that basically went to almost zero,” said MacArthur.
“We’ve never seen those kinds of shortages. We track consumer behavior and the consumer started to Google food supply and food systems and words that they never would have used.”
MacArthur referenced a July survey of more than 11,000 Canadians in which 42 percent said they didn’t know where they would be living in one year’s time.
“That’s unprecedented in terms of uncertainty,” she said.
Consumers’ behaviour related to food has also changed throughout the pandemic. People began cooking more at home.
“In extraordinary times, you reach for the ordinary,” is a saying MacArthur found to be true, given higher meat sales and more focus on fresh food.
However, alcohol sales also increased, likely as a way for people to deal with stress.
As the pandemic progressed, people began to refocus on health. They also stepped up attention on reducing food waste to keep within limited budgets.
Kahn said the pandemic has turned more attention to food logistics and distribution.
“These are the things we tend not to talk about. We complain because we get stuck behind a slow truck on the 401. Now we realize that that truck has the food that’s going to the grocery store,” he said.
“I think it’s just been a whole awakening. And I think in the long term, that’s going to be a positive if we don’t squander the opportunity.”
The two speakers agreed that consumers came to rely on resiliency and efficiency within the supply chain.
“It’s food security. And part of food security is this movement that was happening before. I think we’ll be on steroids coming out of this (pandemic), which is supporting our own producers. So the whole trend to local buying Canadian, that has been a trend for a while, especially in times of crisis,” MacArthur said.
“There’s this sense of community coming out of that. I think that will be a long-term impact of this. There’s a new appreciation for farmers and people who get the food on the shelf and on our plate. We’re going to want to support our own producers and manufacturers.”
A new dynamic has formed since the start of the pandemic. Opportunities have increased for online marketing and delivery as more consumers buy directly from farmers.
With the shock to the restaurant supply chain, small- to medium-sized farm producers who were supplying food services have had to find new markets.
“Companies (are) springing up to actually do online ordering of inputs and supplies with delivery. And that has always been kind of the third rail in ag because of the key role that retailers have,” said Kahn.
“I still think retailers have a key role, but I think the functionality coming out of this could change more rapidly. I can see the government investing more quickly and heavily in rural broadband, and I can see supply chains changing because of that.”
However, consumers’ desire to shop remains.
“There’s that love of going out and discovering, especially the perimeter of the store, which has all the fresh produce and proteins,” said MacArthur.
Many consumers now pay more attention to food quality as well as how it is grown, made or raised.
“I was shocked at how few people knew about our use of temporary foreign workers,” MacArthur said.
“They now understand the conditions and that’s becoming a real hot button. Before it was how you treat your animals. It’s expanded now to how do you treat your labour. Even frontline workers in grocery stores — living wage discussions, full-time employment, benefits, citizenship, worker conditions — these things are broadening,” she said.
Kahn said the primary ag sector could take advantage of consumers’ interest and engagement with food and its sources.
Organizations are helping bridge the gap between the consumer and producer.
“I think for example, (the) Centre for Food Integrity is kind of an integrator for all parts of the food system and that’s their kind of unique point. And I do see them continuing with this, and maybe you may even see some government support for things like that,” he said.
MacArthur said the pandemic has highlighted the lack of value-added food processing in Canada.
Kahn said he hopes primary producers, processors and retailers will do a better job of working together.
“It’s all about margin and money, but I think we’ve seen here that hanging together is not only good for the industry, but it’s probably more profitable and it does set us up in a better way to handle future shock,” he said.
“I’d say my confidence level is a little lower than my hopeful level, but let’s see.”