Food insecurity

Russell Wangersky rwanger@thetelegram.com
Published on March 21, 2016
Russell Wangersky

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.

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 russell.wangersky@tc.tc — Twitter: @Wangersky.