Food insecurity

Russell Wangersky
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There’s a little object lesson writ small in St. John’s every time the weather fearcast tells us there’s going to be a major snowfall: go to the grocery store and you’ll see plenty of semi-panicked shoppers doing their best to stock up before the absolutely regular, absolutely-expected phenomenon of … snow in winter.

Russell Wangersky

You’ll see something else, too: just how quickly some products vanish from the shelves. Weather makes things vanish in other ways as well. Often, when there’s bad weather or high winds on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, perishable food items disappear or become so motley — frozen, half-spoiled or wrinkled with age and bad treatment by the time they make it to the produce section — that they’re scarcely worth buying for the elevated prices that are being charged. When the weather’s bad enough, we see occasional printed apologies on empty store shelves saying expected supplies haven’t arrived.

It’s something that we should probably be thinking about. Spoiled by regular road and ferry links, grocery stores and other suppliers appear to be following the “just in time” distribution model that started in the manufacturing industry; why hold inventory when you can simply depend on ordering it and having it show up just as your limited shelf space empties?

It’s in other businesses, too. Need a common part for your car? Chances are, your dealership won’t have one, but no worries — it can be shipped in by air in a few days. Once again, why keep something in stock if a captured clientele can be made to wait?

But the reason the snow panic should be so interesting to us is that it’s actually a symptom of a disease we should be preparing for.

Earlier this year, a major road link in Northern Ontario was blocked for a few days because of the failure of a brand-new bridge. The bridge was on the only road link between Eastern and Western Canada, and it briefly brought Canadian trucking to a halt for a period of time. National news.

Here’s another thought.

When it comes to emergencies, aid agencies suggest that we should all be prepared to be self-sufficient for 72 hours — that we should have enough bottled water, batteries and other supplies to make it through the first three days of a serious emergency.

At the same time, 90 per cent of the food consumed in this province is imported, and we actually maintain a two to three-day supply of food on the island portion of the province — meaning, essentially, that if you stock your home for three full days of a supply-chain emergency, you might actually have a better supply within your four walls than the supply chain itself does.

Now, cabbage, potatoes and beets aren’t exactly sexy grub. They’re not aged Alberta beef, nor are they rare cheeses. But they can be grown and stored effectively here, and they can help the local economy as well.

As a report from the Harris Centre pointed out back in 2012, “By increasing agricultural capacity, the province will be able to create employment, sustain rural economies, and increase local food production — all of which will help create a more food secure Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Truth is, though, the number of agricultural operations in the province have continued to drop, and the provincial government hasn’t helped, especially by getting out of things like the pork farming business. Meanwhile, the money we spend on less-secure sources of food continues to travel out of province to larger agricultural businesses.

So, it’s going to snow — rush off to the store to buy those essentials. It just reminds me of parables about ants and grasshoppers.

The cupboard security of that latest food top-up will last about as long as the latest March snowfall.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

Organizations: Harris Centre

Geographic location: Northern Ontario, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Kev
    March 21, 2016 - 13:01

    Not sure gov't should be in the pig business (or any other farming business, or any other business).

  • Ev
    March 21, 2016 - 08:25

    Maybe if local farmers could get a better price for what they grow, rather than having to match prices with mass produced products from the mainland, USA, Mexico, etc, they might be encouraged to stay farming. Farmers in NL have to farm in some of the most challenging conditions, but they produce a much better quality product, but are forced to sell and match prices with quantity mass produced products from up along, they can't make a decent living, so they quit. A premium price for a premium product would be what is expected and needed to keep producing a premium product. Nobody expects to get a Rolex watch for a Timex price,or do they.

    • Kaye
      March 21, 2016 - 12:44

      Generally speaking, farmers on the mainland are not getting a fair price either - haven't for decades. The middlemen are the culprits in all of this.

  • The real Calvin
    March 21, 2016 - 07:32

    Speaking of food, there has to be some way for government to address the cost of foods at the two big grocery chains, Sobeys and Dominion. You can go to Costco and fill up your trunk (as long as you drive a mid sized sedan) with fresh fruit, veggies, meat, milk, eggs, etc. for under $150. Go to Sobeys and try to spend the same amount and you end up with two reusable Sobeys bags full of food. Not to mention the food at Costco is seemingly infinitely more fresh. These grocery chains are no different than Walmart or McDonald's, the only thing they are worried about is profit. Large profit. They based price hikes in the past on the ever increasing price of shipping due to expensive fuel. Well, the price of gas is almost half what it was just a few years ago. Where are the price reductions? Sure, you are buying bulk at Costco, I get that. However, Costco still makes a tidy profit selling essentials at a lower price than anyone else around. We are reliant on Sobeys and Dominion to rip us off in order to eat! Does that sound ridiculous to anyone else? As far as I am concerned, they should be regulated by the PUB, same as every other utility who provides an essential service. There is a way NL could become less reliant on food shipped to us from halfway across the world, and the Muskrat Falls project is the basis. A wealthy NLer, or government for that matter, could set up some massive green house facilities to allow us to grow the food we can't grow in our climate, with cheap power backing the whole project. Within a couple years we could be growing enough food to stop the trucks full of grub from California at the ferry in Sydney. Unfortunately like everything else it would take cooperation from government, private business and the public, and we all know how friendly and easy to get along with NL has become....