COVID-19, Food Insecurity and Related Issues

Revised on 10 September 2020, 3:55 p.m.
Any substantive changes in this HillNote that have been made since the preceding issue are indicated in bold print.

(Disponible en français : COVID-19, insécurité alimentaire et problèmes connexes)

When the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) arrived in Canada, Canadians became concerned about disruptions to their food supply. A March 2020 survey by Abacus Data showed that, at that time, almost two-thirds of Canadians were worried about rising food prices (65%) and the availability of certain food products (62%). However, there is no evidence that the pandemic has resulted (or will result) in widespread or long-term food shortages in Canada.

Food Insecurity

According to a March 2020 report, at least 4.4 million Canadians were food insecure in 2017-18, meaning that they lacked access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food. Food insecurity is strongly linked to people’s financial ability to access food, both in quantity and quality.

Experts believe that, currently, “skyrocketing unemployment is driving up food insecurity to catastrophic levels.” As people lose their jobs and main sources of income due to closures of non-essential businesses, efforts to control the pandemic may exacerbate existing food security vulnerabilities in Canada. This is particularly concerning since, according to Statistics Canada, the national unemployment rate reached a “record high” of 13.7% in May 2020, compared to 5.6% in February.

Food banks have been experiencing increased pressure as a result of the pandemic. The national organization Food Banks Canada reported a 20% increase in their use between March and May 2020. On 3 April 2020, the Prime Minister announced that $100 million will be provided to food banks and other organizations to support access to food for people experiencing food insecurity as a result of COVID-19. In an open letter, several academics acknowledged the announcement’s timeliness, but stressed that some communities may lack the capacity to fully take advantage of these funds. They also noted that Indigenous communities, which are already disproportionately affected by food insecurity and malnutrition, may need logistical support to maintain a supply of safe, nutritious and traditional food during the pandemic. Other experts argue that food banks and charity are not the solution to food insecurity.

On 14 April 2020, the Prime Minister also announced additional funding for northern communities, including $25 million for the Nutrition North Canada program.

Food Supply Chain

With border and plant closures related to the pandemic, there is concern that the food supply chain is vulnerable. However, long-term shortages are unlikely given the robustness of Canada’s supply chain. Dr. Evan Fraser, a Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security, agrees that panic is unwarranted. According to Dr. Fraser, however, the pandemic could lead to debates about globalization and the interdependence of global food systems. There could be a push for more locally and regionally-based food production. The COVID-19 pandemic also raises questions about our “just enough, just in time” food system, which minimizes stocks of food so that stores have just enough food, just in time to sell it. Although convenient and cost-efficient, this model is less resilient to shocks or distribution disruptions.

At the international level, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states that disruptions to food supply chains are minimal so far. The Committee on World Food Security notes in its interim issue paper on COVID-19 that, over the medium and longer terms, disruptions to global supply chains will depend on the duration and severity of the pandemic.

The current situation has also drawn attention to the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector’s dependence on temporary foreign workers as labourers for both food production and processing. Such workers are exempt from international entry restrictions related to COVID-19, under certain conditions involving self-isolation upon entry. The government announced that $50 million will be provided to farmers, fish harvesters and production and processing employers (through the Mandatory Isolation Support for Temporary Foreign Workers Program) to ensure compliance with the 14-day isolation of foreign workers arriving to Canada. Following the death of two temporary foreign workers as a result of COVID-19, Mexico decided to temporarily stop sending workers to Canada on 15 June 2020. Within a week, the two countries reached an agreement to allow Mexican workers to once again travel to Canada.

To support food producers and processors, the federal government announced several measures, including:

Additionally, on 15 May 2020, Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canadian Dairy Commission Act, received Royal Assent. The bill increases the Canadian Dairy Commission’s borrowing limit from $300 million to $500 million to account for additional costs associated with the temporary storage of dairy products.

Food Prices

In March 2020, researchers at Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab and the University of Guelph’s Arnell Food Institute updated their forecast for food prices in 2020. Despite the pandemic, they confirmed their December 2019 forecast of no more than a 4% annual increase. However, they note three factors that may also affect food prices in the coming months:

  • the pressure to change food safety practices in retail and production could lead to an increased workload for the industry;
  • the weakness of the Canadian dollar could increase the cost of imported food; and
  • the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which resulted in a massive drop in the price of oil in the early months of 2020, could lower the cost of transporting food to markets.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois also explains that, although food prices could increase in Canada, consumers may end up saving money as they spend less at restaurants and become better at managing their food inventory. However, a survey conducted in August 2020 indicates that Canadian households may have been producing a higher volume of food waste since the start of the pandemic. It is unclear how much of this increase results from the fact that Canadians have been eating at home more often. Notably, more than half of the respondents reported wasting proportionally less food compared to before the pandemic.

At the international level, the FAO reported that world food commodity prices declined in February, March, April and May 2020 due to reduced demand for some food products as a result of the pandemic, reaching their lowest point since December 2018. Global prices started to rise again in June and July 2020.

Food Safety

Food safety, which is not to be confused with food security, includes the measures and practices to prevent food from carrying or transmitting foodborne illnesses, contaminants and other hazards. At the time of writing, there is no scientific evidence to support that food is a source or route for the transmission of SARS-CoV2, the virus causing COVID-19. In September 2020, the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods wrote that “SARS-CoV-2 should not be considered a food safety hazard.”

During the pandemic, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is maintaining critical services, such as food safety inspections and investigations. The government announced it will provide an additional $20 million to the CFIA to support these services. In May 2020, several CFIA inspectors contracted the disease following outbreaks in meat processing plants.

Additional Resources

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, COVID-19 – Information for the agriculture and agri-food industry.

Bashar Abu Taleb, Julie Béchard, Madalina Chesoi and Natacha Kramski, “The Movement of Goods and People In and Out of Canada in a COVID-19 World,” Library of Parliament, 3 April 2020.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Coronavirus (COVID-19): information for consumers about food safety and animal health.

Elisa Levi and Tabitha Robin, “COVID-19 Did Not Cause Food Insecurity In Indigenous Communities But It Will Make It Worse,” Yellowhead Institute, 29 April 2020.

Food Banks Canada, Find a Food Bank.

Natacha Kramski, “Legislative Summary of Bill C-16: An Act to amend the Canadian Dairy Commission Act,” Library of Parliament, 27 May 2020.

Statistics Canada, Food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, May 2020, Catalogue no. 45-28-0001, 24 June 2020.

Author: Olivier Leblanc-Laurendeau, Library of Parliament