The pandemic reveals structural inequalities that only well-designed food policies and programs can rectify. Act now to build a resilient system.

Following decades of advocacy by those with concerns about the food system, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau announced the Food Policy for Canada in June 2019. Nearly a year later, in the midst of a global pandemic, the cracks in the global food system have become even more apparent. Millions in Canada have lost their livelihoods and have been pushed into food insecurity, vulnerabilities in our long-distance food supply chains have come under scrutiny, and the essential roles of agricultural and food workers have become more widely understood.

Decisions made now — specifically about recovery and stimulus plans — will impact our food systems for years to come. The moment calls for visionary and bold structural change rather than piecemeal approaches reinforcing “more of the same.” Food Secure Canada, grounded in almost two decades of engagement with food movements, has spent the past few months listening and engaging with our constituencies to develop Growing Resilience and Equity, a policy action plan for healthier, more just and more sustainable food systems in the context of COVID-19.

Here are some of our key recommendations:

Address the root causes of poverty

COVID-19 is magnifying the structural inequalities in our food systems. Experts are concerned that food insecurity in Canada — a wealthy country — may double from its unacceptable pre-pandemic levels. As of 2018, 4.4 million people were already experiencing food insecurity, meaning they had inadequate or uncertain access to food because of financial constraints. Nearly two-thirds were working. The impacts fall disproportionately on Indigenous, Black and racialized communities.

We need urgent and participatory public policy debate about how to effectively address food insecurity. Ultimately, charity-based approaches won’t address its root cause: poverty. Now is the time to enact a well-designed universal livable income floor beneath which no one can fall, while ensuring that everyone has access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. The government’s longstanding obligation to fulfill the right to food was underlined by the Sustainable Development Goal of attaining zero hunger by 2030 and reiterated in the Food Policy for Canada.

Build resilient local food systems

The pandemic has also provided an aha moment with respect to how food currently makes its way to our plates. The need to build resilient systems that shorten and diversify food supply chains has never been more obvious. Provinces such as Quebec, New Brunswick and British Columbia have jumped on this opening to promote local, regional, often small-scale food industries. The Food Policy for Canada and its Buy Canadian campaign can serve as a framework for provincial and local cooperation to revitalize communities and ensure greater access to healthy and fresh foods, advancing the Healthy Eating Strategy. This approach could help reduce diet-related diseases, lowering the $26 billion they are estimated to cost the economy annually.

A proactive approach to stimulus, like the Green New Deal first proposed in the US, could support lower greenhouse gas emissions by incentivizing agro-ecological agriculture within shorter local and regional food supply chains, reducing food loss and waste while building greater resiliency. The dominant long-distance food supply chains, largely controlled by a limited number of often multinational corporations, are highly dependent on fossil fuels and are vulnerable to market, labour and border disruptions and logistical bottlenecks.

We import 30 percent of our food, yet we export more than 50 percent of what we grow. A study from Ontario showed that replacing 10 percent of the top 10 fruit and vegetable imports into that province with locally grown produce would result in a $250-million increase in provincial gross domestic product and the creation of 3,400 new jobs. If this were done across the country, and for more foods, the impact would be significant. Local and regional food “webs” all over this country have sown seeds of change and innovation over decades. If scaled up, these structures could help build sustainable local food systems from the bottom up across the country, strengthening our economies at this critical time.

Champion decent work and justice for workers

Due to COVID-19, the concept of “essential worker” has quickly evolved. The urgent need to keep food flowing to consumers has shone a light on often invisible yet key occupations, such as temporary foreign agricultural workers, those working in a handful of massive meat-processing plants, truckers and grocery clerks. The critical function these workers play has prompted a long-overdue dialogue on working conditions. Now is the time to put measures in place to achieve decent work and justice for all workers along the food supply chain, ensuring adequate pay and respectful conditions for Canadian and international food workers, and meeting the specific demands of migrant workers.

Migrant workers in the fields of Norfolk County, Ontario, in 2018. Shutterstock by intoit

Support Indigenous food sovereignty

The pandemic has exacerbated the high rates of food insecurity among Indigenous households and communities, already prevalent in almost half of First Nations families, and it will continue to do so. The crisis has driven home the importance of Indigenous food sovereignty. Indigenous self-determination is an explicit commitment of the 2019 federal food policy. First Nations, Métis and Inuit have the inherent right to determine their own place-based food systems, advancing policies that will best support resilient futures. Pandemic response and recovery urgently need to include actions to meet these goals.

Advance a national school food program

A compelling example of how to translate food policy into effective programming is a national school food program. Canada is the only G7 country without one. In the Food Policy for Canada, the federal government, following a similar statement in Budget 2019, committed to “engage with provinces, territories and key stakeholder groups to work toward the creation of a National School Food Program,” but no steps have yet been announced. Programs exist all over the country, providing meals or snacks to children in school. A well-designed national school food program would bring together the policy priorities above, with multiple, linked benefits rippling out across education, health, food systems and local economies. Supporting Indigenous-led and Indigenous-oriented school food programs would also advance Indigenous food sovereignty, provide access to culturally appropriate healthy food and food literacy, and connect younger generations with elders and traditional food systems.

Since schools closed, the Coalition for Healthy School Food has been documenting innovation by its members to shift from school-based provision for children to community-based provision for children, youth and families. Members across the country pivoted to different purchasing, preparation and distribution models to enable this shift in mandate, including new partnerships with farmers, chefs, restaurants, municipalities and community hubs. In a context of rapidly accelerating need, coalition members are striving to uphold values of universality, healthy food, local sourcing and food literacy so that short-term actions enhance long-term goals.

Ensure everyone is at the table

The government of Canada’s commitment to create a multi-stakeholder Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council (CFPAC) has not moved forward, despite a call for nominations last September. Without the CFPAC, existing industry round tables and strategy tables representing private interests continue to dominate government decision-making. In the context of COVID-19, a series of disconnected, ad hoc engagement mechanisms have been put forward by the federal government. What is needed is an inclusive space for coherent strategy and dialogue on obvious food-systems-wide challenges and related openings for positive change. Convening a diverse CFPAC now is an urgent and long-overdue step as we move toward scenarios for post-COVID-19 recovery.

Food is undeniably centre stage at this time. Let’s use this moment to build healthier, more just and more sustainable food systems now.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: Farm workers near Chilliwack, BC. Shutterstock by Eric Buermeyer.