Photo: Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia.

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For most of us, COVID-19 marks the first time we’ve had to worry about our food supply or even think about how the food chain works.

That was one of the insights shared by Nova Scotia farmer Katie Keddy on Thursday during a panel discussion hosted by Dalhousie University’s Open Dialogue Live online series.

The livestreamed discussion focused on the pandemic’s impact on food and our food systems and how things might change in a post-pandemic world. Speakers included local farmers Philip and Katie Keddy and Dalhousie University professor and food researcher Sylvain Charlebois.

“I want to thank the food industry…What they’re doing is a miracle. It has been amazing to watch,” Charlebois said.

He started by citing the same store sales numbers released by Sobeys on Wednesday for the last month, figures he referred to as unbelievable.

“For the month of March and April, the first month of this pandemic, same store sales were up 37%. In a month,” he noted.

Charlebois said grocers would normally “dance and have a party” with figures of just 2%. Considering the pressures faced by the industry with regards to processing and production, 37% is nothing short of historic.

“Just to give you an idea of what 37% looks like, the busiest day at a grocery store is typically two days before Christmas, so December 23. That’s when things are really really busy,” he said.

“Grocers went through December 23 twice a day for at least a month. So just think of the volume, the traffic, let alone the anxiety and people being just in panic essentially not knowing what was going to happen.”

One of the things this pandemic has brought into sharp focus for him as a researcher is just how little Canadians understand how our food system works. While he knew it would deliver, he was surprised by the level of uncertainty created around food as a result of the pandemic.

“I saw a lot of Candians feeling probably for the first time ever food insecure, and that’s a really profound sentiment that I think will last,” he told the panel.

“That will probably be the legacy of COVID, because we’re in this for awhile.”

He points to our pre-pandemic conversations about food and the industry. Topics like plant-based, veganism, single use plastics and sustainability were the ones most frequently bandied about. But over the course of the last five weeks, that has shifted to discussions about grocery store shelves, our supply chain, food security, food prices, flour, and yeast.

“This COVID crisis has forced all Canadians, all consumers in the western hemisphere, to think differently about food,” he said.

“This is not just about convenience. It’s about survival. And that’s why flour is all gone and the consumer walking into the grocery store is a very different consumer.”

Katie Keddy and her husband Philip run Charles Keddy Farms Ltd. in the Annapolis Valley alongside her in-laws Charles and Doris Keddy. They’re the largest sweet potato producers east of Ontario. The farm also produces strawberry nursery plants and raspberry canes that are shipped across North America, as well as blackberry plants, asparagus roots, and rhubarb crowns for the Canadian market.

“A month ago (Wednesday) all of our lives changed. Terms like social distancing became a part of our everyday conversation,” Keddy told the panel.

“We started talking about quarantining with friends and family and travel restrictions were put into place, our country was closed down, we watched states of emergency being declared around us.”

What also changed were people’s priorities, with health care, the economy, and food being among the top three. Keddy said she was referring to food rather than agriculture because there’s still a disconnect for many around how food actually gets to store shelves.

This is a gap she hopes will soon narrow.

“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 fills the shelves or even moreso the people that it takes to feed our country,” she said.

“We’re used to food always being there, ready and available whenever we need it. And in my opinion it’s a part of life that we’ve all taken for granted, ourselves included, and we’re the ones who are growing the food.”

Her husband pointed to the critical role temporary foreign workers play in our food system, since there simply aren’t enough people locally to do all the required work. The important role of temporary foreign workers was actually brought up by Premier Stephen McNeil during his media briefing on Thursday.

The Keddy farm first turned to the temporary foreign worker program in 1997 after half their crop was left in the ground because they didn’t have enough workers for the harvest. The experience brought them close to bankruptcy.

Much of their crop is hand harvested, so they employ about 80 temporary foreign workers during the harvest season. In the early days of the pandemic, discussions around possible setbacks for those workers entering Canada created a great deal of stress.

The Keddys say we need to make our Canadian food supply a priority.

“We see what’s happening in the States and Mexico. We don’t know that the food that we rely on to top ourselves up, to feed ourselves from other countries, is going to be available,” Katie said.

“It very well may, but we don’t know that for sure at this point, so our investment and dollars from government need to…ensure food is secure and we can feed ourselves as a country.”

Philip agreed, noting that farmers are great at adapting quickly. He pointed to former farmers’ market vendors having pivoted to doing deliveries, food boxes, and creating CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). He said many are not only maintaining their sales, they’re actually seeing increases.

The couple also pointed to a need for us to all re-evaluate what our food “looks” like. They said going forward we need to shift our thinking and start eating food that’s currently discarded simply based on its appearance.

“What I’d like to see from this pandemic is that our large retailers work more with producers to reduce this waste for food security purposes, especially right now,” Katie said.

“We need retailers and consumers to continue to appreciate all food, not just perfect food.”

When this is over, she said we need to properly invest in our local food systems. She hopes more people commit to buying local and Canadian first, all the while gaining an understanding about how that builds a sustainable food system.

“It (COVID-19) is giving us the chance to reevaluate our entire food system and our priorities,” she said.

Charlebois believes this pandemic could lead to what he refers to as the democratization of supply chains.

“I could see eventually Phil and Katie sell directly to consumers eventually and not be at the mercy of what we have right now in Canada which is really an oligopoly at retail,” he said.

Charlebois said e-commerce barely represented 2% of the pre-COVID food retail marketplace. Based on recent Angus Reid survey numbers, that has soared to 22% of Canadians stating they intend to regularly purchase their food online after the pandemic has passed.

“What I do hope of course is Canadians recognize the work being done and understanding of supply chains overall from farm to fork,” he said. “It has been underappreciated and COVID is really changing that. The empty shelves I think really affected a lot of people.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. Food Security for Each Canadian Province

    As one of the essential parts of addressing pandemic and climate change disruptions, I feel every effort should be made so that each province becomes “stand alone” food secure and can survive entirely on what the farmers of that province produce. Taking Nova Scotia as an example, people here need to understand clearly that as pandemic-related labour shortages occur, as well as those stemming from increasing west coast drought, wildfires, water shortages, etc., interruptions are likely to occur in crop production as well as in truck deliveries that currently supply our local stores. The harsh reality is that if there were to be growing numbers of hungry people in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and elsewhere, none (NONE) of those trucks from the west coast or middle Canada will ever get as far as the Maritimes.

    A second essential understanding is that, at a minimum, it would take a few years for NS farmers to gain the experience, additional land (if needed), plus the knowledge through trial and error about which crop varieties can cope best with changing growing conditions – in short, everything necessary to be able to successfully ramp up the amount of food they produce sufficiently to feed the entire province. Although do-able, a steep learning curve is inevitable as well as one important additional critical economic barrier to overcome: presently they are UNABLE to get their produce into the big grocery store chains to sell (except in token amounts) where the vast majority of people buy their food.

    Adding widespread hunger to the present level of economic and social disruption being brought on by both pandemics and climate change would complicate the situation beyond imagining. To approach stable food security for each province as rapidly as possible so that Canadian families are less likely to go hungry, the federal government needs to provide leadership through tax incentives and supportive legislation, to insure that grocery store chains are REQUIRED to accept for sale ALL the food that local farmers within that province can produce. This is analogous to the critical WWII directives to manufacturers requiring them to shift their focus to producing war related products in order to meet the needs of the emergency. If the quality of the accepted produce isn’t perfect, sell it at a lower price, but require that it be accepted. Farmers must be able to know in advance that they will be guaranteed a return on all the produce they can grow, otherwise it would be foolhardy for them to increase production at the needed rate. In my opinion, this is the only way farmers will be sufficiently enabled and supported to, 1) buy more land and equipment if needed, 2) develop the necessary varieties and practical know-how (including planting nut and fruit trees for the future), and 3) acquire the financial resources to increase their overall production at a rate quickly enough and sustainably enough so that each province becomes truly food secure.

    Helen Jones MSc, Ed.D.
    Dartmouth, Nova Scotia