Jody Williams is finding it hard to manage complex food landscapes caused by COVID-19.
The St. John’s, N.L. foodbank manager says his Bridges to Hope Food Aid Centre operation has had to grapple with produce price increases of up to 25 per cent – on bulk orders, to boot – as well as food supply chain issues since April, when the pandemic reached new heights across Canada.
Since then, Jody has learned how to work around the issues and is managing to bring in food as he and many other East Coast residents work overtime to find ways around these rising food costs.
“Our spending is up … and our public donations are down by 80 per cent … as office food drives have shut down, so I’m putting in time on weekends to manage the extra workload. This has not been an easy time,” he says.
Rising prices, limited access
Jody says his situation started getting complicated in April, when prices on his produce orders jumped by 25 per cent and caused his spending budget to increase five times over.
But the biggest problem for the foodbank hasn’t been rising prices, but rather access to food. Jody says food supply chain issues have begun occurring as his orders are either partially filled or not at all, and he worries this will only worsen as COVID-19 case numbers rise in Ontario, where Newfoundland and Labrador imports much of its food from.
“When I order food, it’s just not there for me to get. COVID-19 has created a problem that’s impacted us even more than these rising prices,” he says.
Mount Saint Vincent applied nutrition professor and Food Action Research Centre director Patty Williams says a lack of access to affordable, fresh produce and other food is nothing new on the East Coast, which she says is often among the least food secure regions in Canada.
With food prices increasing this year by nearly two per cent across the country, she says Atlantic Canadians’ situation has been further compounded by COVID-19, with Statistics Canada data reporting one in seven Canadians experiencing food insecurity, and one in five households with children, during a 30-day period this May.
She says that since the sample pool was limited, these numbers are likely even higher.
“I think we’ve just barely starting to see the impact of food insecurity and what the implications of rising food costs, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, will be for those impacted,” says Patty.
Flyer shopping not enough
As a person living with disabilities, Dartmouth, N.S. resident Gaidheal McIntyre has become a budgeting expert. She says that even with years of experience, the practice can be tough at times.
“When you’re trying to juggle food and medication costs, it means you’ve got to stick to a tighter budget. Things can get complicated,” she says.
Food discount apps have become her money-saving method as she practices grocery geography: the mapping out of her route from store to store, discount to discount.
But Patty says research shows this is often not enough for those experiencing food insecurity, who largely are educated shoppers and skilled cooks but simply lack the resources to afford food.
She says government policy is needed to stop this problem and believes that with the government having recently delivered the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), such a solution is possible.
“What’s needed is more secure and adequate income for low-income households. I think as Atlantic Canadians … we need our governments to step up with something like a basic income,” she says.
Jody also favours a basic income as a solution and has met with other St. John’s social service groups on the matter, who all reported a drastic decrease in their number of clients once the CERB came into effect.
Since the benefit stopped in September, Jody says the food bank’s numbers are back up, thanks to a new crop of clients: people who’ve yet to return to their full-time jobs.
“That’s proof for me that a basic income could really work,” he says.