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Canadians quickly adapted to find local food, but COVID wasn't enough for permanent changes: UBCO prof

UBC Okanagan researcher Joanne Taylor says it will take more than COVID-19 to trigger a big move to locally grown food.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED / UBCO / Nikita Shoots
September 09, 2020 - 7:00 AM

While the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted people’s interest in locally sourced food, even some of the strongest proponents of the movement don’t expect a sea change just yet.

“During COVID, the community-focused farmers, the ranchers and other food systems demonstrated that they were able to rapidly adapt to food supply and food production demands,” UBC Okanagan researcher Joanne Taylor told

“They were feeding more families. They innovated. They expanded certain mechanisms to facilitate direct marketing. Feed suppliers also ramped up their production. People quickly adopted alternative procurement means, alternative food production means," she said. "For example, direct marketing, new outlets, bulk buying, baking at home surged. There were new means for farm-direct marketing and online ordering so they diversified very quickly."

Taylor has done extensive research on food security and noted people’s heightened awareness of where their food was coming from after store shelves emptied and borders were closed.

READ MORE: Farmers' markets, community gardens way to improve food security during pandemic: UBCO researcher

“People will adapt to shocks, like we’ve experienced with COVID, and it may have to take another huge shock for people to slowly – and they are realizing slowly – the importance of food because we can’t exist without it,” Taylor said. “That is shown by the increase in farmers' markets. It is happening very slowly at the grassroots level.”

She said that farmers' markets have “grown exponentially” over the past 30 years, but there is no data available to show whether COVID-19 has accelerated or slowed that growth.

“It would be true to say there is a global growth,” Gabrielle Spenard-Bernier, membership and communications manager for the B.C. Association of Farmers’ Markets, said. “This season, the markets have noted a growing interest for local food. Shoppers did buy more when they came.”

The problem is it’s impossible to quantify how farmers' markets did this summer since there is no consistent data collection system. Some take attendance but not necessarily on all market days. Vendors often keep their sales numbers to themselves.

The association did do a survey in June with about 50 per cent of members responding, Spenard-Bernier said. Generally, while interest was up, attendance was down because of safe-distancing rules and early restrictions on what venders could sell. Initially, only food could be sold, not other merchandise.

READ MORE: More COVID-19 restrictions on B.C.'s farmers' markets lifted

Another indication that interest in locally-grown food increased because of COVID-19 was the popularity of community gardens.

“We definitely have seen a bigger interest this year, because of COVID,” Georgiann Kosdorf from Central Okanagan Community Gardens said. “People were just thinking outdoor activity, something to do that is healthy and good exercise. It’s also a community-oriented activity.”

There are 17 community gardens run by the organization with about 500 plots. Some of them have wait lists of more than a year.

The organization is volunteer-run so can’t handle more community gardens but is encouraging developers to include things like rooftop gardens when they build. It was approached by numerous people interested in starting their own gardens, Kosdorf said.

“COVID has made people feel a little bit food insecure,” Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said. “They believe it’s better to buy local. But I’m not sure if they’re willing to pay extra money. I doubt it. The fact is, we’re experience an economic downtown. There are a lot of people without a job.”

Food prices climbed by 6.5 per cent from February through July this year, well ahead of the rate of inflation.

READ MORE: It’s not your imagination, groceries are more expensive since COVID-19

If local products are reasonably priced, people will buy them ahead of imports,” Charlebois said. “What I see is different this year, retailers are making a deliberate effort to make local products affordable.”

But, while COVID-19 generated some interest in more locally grown food, it will likely take another shock before significant changes are made, Taylor said.

Whether that shock will be shortages caused by drought in California or crop failures due to global warming is unknown.

“I think that change is happening very slowly,” Taylor reiterated. “It won’t happen overnight unless you’re like Cuba in the 1990s when the Soviets pulled their entire financial and economic supports from them and they starved within 18 months and they had to do something about it and the government said: Grow food.”

B.C. has the potential to be self-supporting with food since it exports about half of what it produces and imports about half of what it consumes, Taylor said.

But, if that were to happen, it could also come down to what is considered food.

“What is food?” Taylor asked. “What is important and what is a priority? Some cannabis producers say it is food of the gods. And so is wine.”

It may also mean converting golf courses, sports fields and parking lots into farms.

Decades ago, many people had their kitchen gardens, raised chickens and milked their own cow.

“I think we need to go down, a little bit, to smaller scale production,” Taylor said. “I don’t think we can ever go back. I’m not saying we should go back to serfdom. I don’t think we can ever go back but we can change."

Every little bit helps, she said, whether that’s a community garden, growing veggies in the back yard or even a few pots of tomatoes on the balcony of a high rise.

The other help could come from government.

“The provincial and Canadian governments could care less about agriculture,” she said, noting there are lots of hidden subsidies for industrial scale farming but not much for small growers.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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