Opinion: A nuanced take on ‘Food Freedom’

Glacier FarmMedia – The Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) took a different approach last month when it marked its annual ‘Food Freedom Day’ on February 9, just one day later than last year.

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Ordinarily, it’s a straightforward affair where they note that by this date, the average Canadian has earned enough to pay their food bill for the year.

Its original intention seemed to be to encourage Canadians to reflect on how fortunate they are, and that the food produced by the nation’s farms really is a good deal.

But this year the CFA had to tiptoe a bit more lightly.

To put it bluntly, a lot of folks are stretched pretty thin these days, and they’re particularly anxious about the rising cost of feeding their families. One can hardly blame them.

This past fall, Statistics Canada found food inflation averaging 11.4 per cent, a 41-year high. Cereal was up 17.9 per cent, dairy 9.7 per cent and meat up 7.6 per cent, to just note a few of the increases. All those figures were substantially above the 6.3 per cent national inflation rate for 2022, also reported by StatsCan.

Meantime StatsCan also reported an average wage increase in 2022 of 4.2 per cent, which adjusted for inflation is actually a 2.1 per cent wage cut.

Suffice it to say that the aforementioned anxiety is now being translated into a bit of anger. So far, it’s been mainly aimed at the nation’s grocers with accusations of ‘greedflation.’

CFA has dove into these waters, with a more nuanced take on food costs than it has ever provided before, breaking the issue down by income level.

What CFA found isn’t pretty; it’s a snapshot of the emerging bifurcation of our society into haves and have-nots.

Its media release noted that Canadians paid 11 per cent of their disposable income on food in 2022, only slightly higher than the 10.7 per cent they spent in 2021. The group noted the finding would “… likely come as a surprise to many …” and went on to say that the average Canadian scenario wouldn’t fairly portray the struggles many are facing with rising food prices.

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It’s when you look at the more indepth data a clearer picture develops. CFA divided Canadians into ‘quintiles’ — five evenly sized groups, divided by income. Not surprisingly they found the poorest 20 per cent of Canadians paid the largest share of their income on food expenditures in 2022, at 23.1 per cent. That’s compared to the richest 20 per cent of Canadians, who paid just 5.2 per cent of their income on food and beverages through the year.

The proportion of food and beverage spending is also rising much faster in poorer households. Those Canadians spent two per cent more of their income on food in 2022. The richest households saw their food cost them just 0.1 per cent more of their income.

CFA further addressed why there’s that disconnect. They noted that food and beverage spending is “… fairly rigid.” The richest households only spent 39 per cent more on food than the poorest, despite “…having more than 500 per cent more disposable income.”

One can certainly picture how that might play out — wealthier households might pick up a beef roast, or steaks, while a lower-income household might buy hamburger or forgo meat altogether. Yet hungry mouths must still be fed in both homes.

CFA then went on to make another crucial point, after having respectfully dealt with the economic reality for many Canadians, noting that the farmer share is just “…a small percentage of what consumers pay for food.” They also noted that key agricultural expenses had risen “nearly 100 per cent” in the past two years.

From a communications perspective, it was a very effective strategy for demonstrating common ground between farmers and grocery buyers.

“While our food costs are low when compared to global standards, Canadians are seeing their disposable incomes shrink as it is taken up by the increasing cost of essential products,” Mary Robinson, CFA president, was quoted as saying in the release.

“It is only through investing in resilience throughout our entire food supply chain that we can create a system less vulnerable to disruption that can provide Canadians affordable food even in the face of global supply chain disruptions.”

All-in-all it was perhaps the best use of Food Freedom Day I’ve seen in my entire career in agriculture media. It was a measured, nuanced take that builds bridges rather than hectored consumers. It was sensitive to their financial challenges and painted a clear path forward that would benefit all.

Other agricultural groups seeking to engage more closely with the Canadian public should take close look at CFA’s efforts here.

Convincing Canadians we’re all in it together will go a lot further than entrenching an us-and-them mentality.

– Gord Gilmour is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. His article was originally published in the February 16, 2023 issue.

Source: Farmtario.com