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Second wave? Canada's food sector has us covered

Many months into the pandemic, we know more about this relentless virus and how it behaves and spreads. Using public health measures have kept us largely safe. Back in March, however, given the unknowns, the only solution possible was a complete lockdown. It came into our lives violently, enticing many to panic buy, thinking they would not be allowed to leave their homes for weeks, possibly months. As consumers, we behaved irrationally as we coped with many uncertainties.

Regrettably, over-buying food led to more food waste and added unnecessary pressure to the food supply chain. The food industry was also compromised by a food service sector that was almost completely idle for weeks. In addition, the livestock industry was hard hit by COVID-19. A total of twelve meat processing plants had to shut down, some for as long as a month, because so many employees contracted the virus. The Cargill plant in High River, Alberta, became a case study when it experienced the largest outbreak at one address in the country.

The weird and wacky quest for toilet paper aside, empty food shelves gave many a profound, heart-thumping fear of food insecurity. It became real for many people, likely for the first time in their lives. After all, North America has not experienced the famine, major wars, or chronic civil unrest seen elsewhere in the world over the last century. In the land of abundance and bounty, running out of food seems like something that happens elsewhere.

That was then. This is now. Though pictures of empty shelves led Canadians to believe our food system has limits, it quickly became apparent that shelves would continue to be stocked with food, however messy the process of getting it there was. Panic slowly disappeared as measures were put in place to keep people safe and responsible, and a few weeks into the pandemic, rationing became an expectation. All measures were gracefully executed as consumers complied.

Technologies and just-in-time procurement allowed the food industry to absorb the unprecedented shock back in March and April. In a stunning display, the food industry really delivered, using different assortment and packaging schemes to ensure shelves were stocked. We’ve all witnessed a beautiful miracle of collaborative spirit.

The industry also learned how to serve consumers who are unable to go to grocery stores, as quarantines and self-isolation measures forced many to order online. Barely six months ago, it was almost impossible to get a grocery order delivered within eight days. Now, most markets offer great home delivery service and will deliver just about anything, including groceries, within two hours. As a result of this pandemic, online food sales will triple the numbers seen in 2019.

The food industry and consumers also benefited from the decision to allow borders to remain permeable throughout the pandemic. Just a few decades ago that would not have happened, but cool heads prevailed and governments around the world quickly understood that closing the borders would only make matters worse. Canadians should feel comforted by the willingness to allow the borders to remain permeable.

While most Canadians will be food secure, despite higher food prices, this is not true for all Canadians. Poverty rates have increased under the pandemic, and Statistics Canada reports an additional 700,000 people have experienced food insecurity since March. Let’s hope Ottawa has long-term plans for our financially vulnerable populations.

The pandemic has made life challenging, and, quite understandably, Canadians are on edge and a little restless going into the fall. But we do not need to panic. Companies do learn, and it is highly doubtful an uncontrolled, mismanaged scenario will happen again. The food sector has been preparing for a potential second wave for months now, and though it may not be perfect, we should trust that food will remain available across the country.

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