Living Well Amid Waste: Wealth, Wages, and Food Insecurity

Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest rate of food insecurity in Canada. It also has the second lowest minimum wage. These two things are connected.

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Dominion grocery stores in Newfoundland and Labrador—and more specifically the company that owns them, Loblaw Companies Ltd.—have an incredible problem with waste right now. But it has nothing to do with the produce itself. Instead, the company seems to have made it this quarter’s mission to ensure most of its employees in the province can’t afford the very food they stock on the shelves.

Dominion employees are represented by Unifor, making them the only unionized food retailers in the province. But since their collective agreement with the company expired on October 28, 2019, Loblaw has refused to revisit an aggressive cut in full-time positions which paid a higher wage, provided access to benefits like paid sick days, and short- and long-term disability. Since a campaign began in June to reduce 20% of remaining full-time positions to part-time through buyouts and offers of early retirement to staff in 11 stores across the province, 83% of positions are now on part-time schedules that make it difficult to qualify for health benefits and which pay an average of just $12.75 an hour.

Of the 1,336 Dominion staff represented by Unifor Local 597, 43% make under $12.00 per hour. 32% of the entire staff make minimum wage—which is the second lowest in the country at $11.40 an hour.

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“It’s a big problem for us,” Chris MacDonald, Assistant to Unifor’s National President, tells the Independent. “Full-time is down to 17% of the workforce. Where does it end? People aspire to be full-time, they used to think that they could start as part-time and eventually get full-time hours—they can’t.”

Loblaw walked away from the bargaining table with Unifor on November 15, effectively shutting down negotiations where MacDonald says they “had trouble getting them to have open and honest conversations” about what Unifor is calling a concerted and strategic effort by Loblaw to cut full-time positions across Canada.

They Broke the Staff’

Kim Youden has been with Dominion for 6 years. “When I first started, it felt like a place I could grow in,” she tells the Independent. “In Corner Brook especially, it felt like a store I could advance in, possibly to a manager position or even higher. Now with what we know about all the cuts, that’s not going to be possible. They’re trying to make us all part-time.”

“Originally I could see myself there until I retired,” she continues. “I work 40 hours a week but by the time you pay the bills, with the price of fresh, healthy food these days, it’s hard.”

“Some people are struggling to survive,” Raelene Cull, a Produce Manager, tells the Independent. Staff in her department have been cut from full-time to part-time, and are now finding it difficult to pay their bills.

“It’s the day to day living like food and rent, electricity, cell phone bills,” Cull explains. “I pity them, it’s not easy. There’s no future here for them. And when they can’t afford to pay their cell phone bill, I can’t call them in. When I tell them that, they say ‘well that’s the last on my list of things to pay.’ They can’t live on 20-25 hours making $11.50 or $11.75 an hour. How could you even live on a salary like that if you have children?

“When they took the full time jobs, they broke the staff.”

According to a video published by Unifor Canada, some of its part-time members have found themselves having to avail of food bank services due to the lack of income caused by too few hours at too little pay.

“I have heard of that happening in our other stores, and from other people,” says Cull, who notes that her Store Manager “has a heart of gold” and that he’s known to give staff store gift cards for groceries if he becomes aware that they are struggling.

“We’ve had to use the food bank a few times, but it’s been a while. We try not to, we don’t as much with the 50% racks now at work,” Youden explains. She has two teenagers and a nine year old at home. She says that’s where ‘Flashfood,’ a new app that lets grocery stores post their discounted food online, comes in for her. “It’s not gone bad, but it’s close to code—close to the expiry date. It’s the only way I can provide healthy food for myself and my family.”

“I’ve had to avail of it a few times—I’ve been having to cut back a lot lately because of bills but after Christmas I’ll avail of it more again. I’ve picked up a lot of fruit that way, apples, bananas, kiwis, all the fruits that my kids like so they’ll take them to school.”

“Food insecurity—which is the struggle to afford food—is primarily an income issue,” Suzanne Hawkins explains to the Independent. Hawkins is a Program Coordinator with Food First NL, a provincial non-profit organization that works to ensure access to enough healthy and culturally-appropriate food for all people in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“The majority of people who experience food insecurity in Canada are employed. They’re people working minimum wage, part-time, and other types of precarious jobs who can’t afford the food they need.”

Living Life Well?

Meanwhile, Loblaw Companies Ltd. is the largest food retailer in Canada. Its Chairman and CEO, Galen Weston Jr., is one of the highest paid CEOs in the country with an average annual salary of nearly $7 million over the past five years.

In last year’s annual report, he boasted to shareholders that “2018 was just as strong strategically as it was financially. [We have] a workforce focused on helping deliver on our purpose: Live Life Well.” In the same report, net earnings for the year were reported as $800 million, and in 2017 Loblaw earned over $1.5 billion. Loblaw and its parent company George Weston Ltd. run their own individual charities aimed at “tackling childhood hunger” through nutrition education, and partner with Food Banks Canada each year to host its Holiday Food Drive.

But with some of its own employees being forced to use similar emergency food services after experiencing cuts to their hours, it seems like there is a huge disparity between who Loblaw believes gets to ‘live well.’ This becomes clearer especially when considering again that poverty and food insecurity is tightly tied to income according to a recent report on living wage in the province by Policy Alternatives.

“Far too many people are living in poverty in [St. John’s] (22.2%). The child poverty rate in the province is 20%, which means 1 in 5 children are living in poverty and 23.4% of those who are aged 6 and under are living in poverty,” the CCPA report writes.

“Of the families served by the food banks in the province, 11.5% are two parent families, and 21.4% are single parent families. Considering the age of individuals being served by food banks, the largest percentage by age category are children aged 0–17 years (36.6%).”

The report also found that even modest changes to income can have a considerable impact on people’s risk of food insecurity. At the same time, there is no indication that increasing ‘food skills’ (like those taught through the Weston/Loblaw charities) will increase food security.

Instead, it argues a living wage—which is the hourly rate at which a household can meet its very basic needs—paid voluntarily by employers would help families escape poverty, foster healthy childhood development, increase gender equality, alleviate severe financial stress, and allow people to participate in social, cultural, and civic life.

For the province’s largest city, a living wage of $18.85 per hour would afford a family of four, with two adults working 35 hours a week, the basics like access to adequate amounts of nutritious food. That’s $7.45 higher than Newfoundland and Labrador’s current minimum wage, and $6.85 higher than Loblaw is paying almost half its employees in the province.

‘There’s A Connection There’

“It is important to think about the different scales of food insecurity,” Dr. Sarah Martin, a professor in Memorial University’s Political Science department who specializes in the global political economy and governance of food and agriculture, tells the Independent. “Food insecurity is usually connected to hunger, but folks in North America (around 8%) experience something the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization calls ‘moderate food insecurity’ which describes uncertainties about their ‘ability to obtain food, and have been forced to compromise on the quality and/or quantity of the food they consume.’”

“I think that this is what we are talking about when we think of the food insecurity experienced by underpaid employees like minimum wage earners.”

According to Food Secure Canada, the problem is not necessarily that food is too expensive, but that people do not have sufficient purchasing power and that the most affordable food is often unhealthy or unsustainably produced. In its policy recommendations for a National Food Policy, FSC called for policies grounded in the right to food that deliver adequate social supports but also a protection of living wages: “as poverty is an overwhelming contributing factor to food insecurity, policy solutions must address income levels.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, where food is the most expensive of all provinces—highest in Northern communities along coastal Labrador—Policy Alternatives states that “people are struggling to pay for their daily needs” here. One local participant in the research noted feeding their kids was an added stress, sharing that “I have gone two or three days without eating so my child can eat, and that is going to the food bank once a month.” The compromise on quality that Dr. Martin suggested is rampant among low wage earners was supported by another parent in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well: “All this nutritional advice, but you cannot afford to follow it. You have to fill the hole, kids have to eat.”

According to Food First NL, it costs an average of $1,143 per month for a family of four to eat a minimally nutritious diet in our province—and more than 26,000 people in the province rely on food banks.

Hawkins doesn’t dance around the issue. “Newfoundland and Labrador currently has the highest rate (15.9%) of food insecurity among Canadian provinces. At the same time, we have the second lowest minimum wage. There’s a connection there.”

The Cost of Low Wages

A disproportionate number of low-wage workers in Canada and the province are women, and single mothers are heavily represented among part-time, minimum wage positions. Youden and her husband both work full-time hours, but the precariousness of those hours is difficult.

“I know my schedule a week in advance, and I’m pretty well guaranteed 40 hours a week even though I’m part-time,” she tells the Indy. “There are one or two weeks in a month when I only get 37. I’m worried that will change. My husband and I are both working, but we’re barely making it with bills. If my hours get cut, it’s very stressful. Just lots of stress all around: we don’t know from one day to the next.”

Youden says a lot of staff use the Flashfood app, “especially our members with kids or seniors. We have a lot of older colleagues that use it a lot. It’s almost up to its expiry date but it’s still good. And it’s sold at a discount price.”

By contrast, the food available at food banks is often low quality. Advocacy groups and academics are decrying a federal and provincial failure to meet their obligation to protect citizens’ right to food, instead putting the responsibility on charities to address food insecurity. A common call among advocates is for governments to prioritize poverty reduction through living wages and enriched income security.

Although many companies across the country have adopted a voluntary living wage policy, Loblaw seems to be moving in a direction opposite: earning profit near and above one billion dollars each year has not enticed Loblaw to reward its employees with secure hours and higher wages. Instead, they are exploiting Newfoundland and Labrador’s low minimum wage while awarding a handful of executives with millions of dollars.

With everything we know about the connection between wage and food insecurity, this signifies enormous waste: wasted opportunity to help create healthier, more equitable communities; wasted potential to share prosperity which could benefit thousands; and wasted resources that could contribute to a just food system in our country which sees nobody going hungry.

If any one private entity is in a position to contribute positively to a more just food system in Canada, in the context of paying its employees a living wage, it is George Weston Ltd. and its subsidiary, Loblaw Companies Ltd. Weston, the conglomerate of Loblaw, Weston Foods, and Choice Properties, employs over 200,000 people and is Canada’s largest private sector employer. According to Loblaw, together with its franchisees and Associate-owners, it employs more than 192,000 staff, of which 134,000 fall into unsalaried full-time and part-time categories.

The company has also reassured shareholders in recent annual and quarterly reports that “Loblaw continues to execute on a multi-year plan, initiated in 2018, that focuses on improving processes and generating efficiencies across administrative, store, and distribution network infrastructure. Many initiatives are underway to reduce the complexity and cost of business operations, ensuring a low cost operating structure that allows for continued investments in Loblaw’s strategic growth areas.”

As evident in our province, ‘ensuring a low cost operating structure’ seems to focus brutally on human labour costs: cutting higher-paying positions in favour of fewer, more precarious hours, lower pay, and overworked employees.

“It’s very tough, especially with Christmas coming. We don’t know what they’re doing,” Youden admits. “The atmosphere at work is just not as positive as it should be. It’s very difficult to keep a positive attitude at work but you have to. If you don’t, you can’t get all your work done and it brings you down.”

“There’s a lot of people like it who feel the same way: the people aren’t happy to be there. It’s a completely different atmosphere.”

Raelene Cull says the “restructuring” in June resulted in her full-time Manager position expand from covering one department (Salad Bar) to four departments (now including Produce, Bulk Items, and Floral). “Everyone was worried about their job. My job was gone. I was forced into taking Produce. But that meant I was bumping someone else out.”

“It’s hectic. We’re all beat up, it takes a toll on your body,” she explains to the Independent. “[When the restructuring started] there were managers in their late 50s who couldn’t physically go on the floor so they took the severance. I couldn’t do that with a mortgage and a granddaughter to raise, and a son in university. It’s very difficult.”

“Trucks come in six nights a week, with six to eight pallets each. Cases of bananas, sacks of onion, sacks of carrot. I’m lifting 50-60 pounds constantly, and I still have 15-20 years until I can retire. I have part-time staff who will tell me ‘now Raelene don’t go lifting that, I’ll do it,’ but I need to show them I’m here to work with them, too. Plus, I need to be on the floor to see how it operates, it’s not enough to just oversee. I need to be hands-on, being on the floor teaches you about the product, you learn things. But it’s hard to stand back and manage too, when I have four departments. And I wasn’t given a cent more.”

Youden says the same thing has happened in Corner Brook. “My wages have stayed the same [since the restructuring] but the workload seems to be more. They expect the same production since they’ve done cuts. It’s very stressful. There are days when I’m there by myself and it’s very difficult to get everything done that they expect. Sometimes there’s the two of us, but the other person who works with me, she’s taking on the responsibility of Manager, even though she’s part time like me. She’s doing the scheduling and everything.”

“We do have a Department Manager, but he’s too busy now with Produce. We used to have a Manager over the Salad Bar, but now that Manager has four departments—and he doesn’t have time to spend on [the Salad Bar].”

Who Gets to Thrive and Flourish?

Loblaw’s sales in the 16 weeks ending October 5 of this year were $14.66 billion. Its operating income (i.e. revenue after wages and expenses are paid) was $690 million. Since the beginning of the year, the company has been operating with $1.7 billion.

Last year, Galen Weston Jr.’s salary for his positions as Weston’s Chairman and CEO, as well as the same positions for Loblaw, was $7,928,555 in aggregate from both companies according to Weston’s official proxy. Over half this salary came from Loblaw. In 2017, the year he took over at Weston from his father Galen Weston Sr., he was paid a total of $6,016,770. His 2015 salary, paid solely from Loblaw, was $8,485,197.

On November 19, Weston Sr.—Chairman Emeritus of George Weston Ltd. who spent decades as CEO—was identified as the third wealthiest individual in Canada with a net worth of over $9 billion. His son is consistently one of the highest paid CEOs in Canada.

If you ask Galen Weston Jr. about Loblaw’s role in ensuring its employees are paid a living wage, he will likely spin you a different story than those coming from on the floors inside his stores. In his version, he decries governments raising minimum wage but asserts that a living wage is a question of public policy—not his companies’ responsibility.

In July of 2017, Weston openly opposed the Ontario and Alberta governments’ respective proposed increases of each province’s minimum wage, warning that his company would have to come up with an additional $190 million to pay employees—which he dramatically stated would take “mobilizing all of its resources to see whether or not it can close that gap.” He threatened an increase in self-serve checkouts, and therefore job cuts, as one cost-saving solution.

In May 2018, he then urged Loblaw’s shareholders to reject a proposal to review the feasibility, cost, and benefits of implementing a living wage policy across all stores, brought forward by VanCity Investment Management Ltd., a wealth management firm which promotes socially responsible investing. The proposal cited one of the benefits of paying a living wage as “[allowing] families to thrive and human capital to flourish by contributing to a more supportive environment for positive childhood outcomes.”

Seemingly aligned with Loblaw’s own philanthropic values, this was a chance for Loblaw to be an industry leader affecting real change at the systemic root causes of food insecurity. But the twist came when Weston referred to living wage as a “public policy issue,” one that would not be a good use of the company’s resources, and which is “best considered by our public institutions as it is far wider in scope than one company, even one as large as Loblaw.”

As it turns out, he fully supports putting the onus on our governments to effect fair changes to the system—except when they actually make attempts at doing so. One of his shareholders questioned this, referring back to resources the company must already be using to figure out the effect of rising minimum wages in some provinces, but ultimately only 2.3% of shareholders voted in favour of the proposal. The rest voted in line with the Board and CEO.

This is not surprising. Loblaw has a storied past (and present) of exploiting Canadian workers, customers, and citizens—not to mention garment makers, even after thousands were killed or injured when a Bangladeshi garment factory collapsed in 2013.

A Storied History

In Ontario, Loblaw is trying to avoid back-paying overtime it owes hundreds of drivers in its home delivery system for work between 2010 and 2015—even after years of arbitration hearings determined the company violated labour laws.

Under a collective agreement with the drivers’ union, Loblaw was able to pay full-time and part-time employees straight time up to 60 hours per week, but the Employment Standards Act protects workers’ right to overtime after 44 hours per week. Rather than agree to a settlement with workers, Loblaw had the Arbitrator—who made his decision in September 2018 that Loblaw was required by law to pay back its workers—reconsider in February, citing the late filing of a document which they believed exempted them from claims in the union’s original grievance.

In July, the Sole Arbitrator stood by his original Award. There was no change to his decision, and he maintained that Loblaw continued to be in violation of the collective agreement and labour laws by not paying back its employees for past hours worked (and for continuing the practice). Loblaw has now made an application for judicial review rather than settle up with the drivers affected, some of whom have had to work second jobs simply to make ends meet. Not only has Loblaw been conveniently contradictory about its role in introducing new wage policy, they will adamantly challenge ones which already exist in order to exploit workers.

From late 2001 until March 2015, George Weston Ltd. and Loblaw Companies Ltd. played a central role in a bread price-fixing scheme for which they’ve received immunity from prosecution through the Competition Bureau. In 2015, the companies approached the Bureau with information that it had participated in an industry-wide coordinated practice of raising the price of bread products at least 15 times over the course of 15 years, with an average increase of 10 cents per loaf passed on to consumers. Other baked goods involved in the conspiracy included buns, bagels, naan, English muffins and tortillas, the retail prices of which increased in tandem across Loblaws, Sobeys, and Walmart stores, to name a few. But Weston Ltd. and Loblaw were involved both on the retail end and the supply end, since one of the suppliers involved (Weston Bakeries) is a Weston Foods company.

The investigation is still ongoing, but as a result of coming forward of their own volition, Loblaw will not face criminal charges or penalties for a scheme some estimate to have cost the average Canadian family $400 over the years. In its third quarter report last month, Weston Ltd. stated: “Neither [Weston] nor Loblaw believes that the ultimate resolution of such legal proceedings will have a material adverse impact on its financial condition or prospects. The Company’s cash balances far exceed any realistic damages scenario and therefore it does not anticipate any impacts…”

Also cited under Weston’s significant ongoing legal proceedings in its last quarterly report is a $400 million tax investigation into income earned by Glenhuron, “a wholly owned Barbadian subsidiary of Loblaw that was wound up in 2013.” Initially, the entity was registered as a regular offshore company called Loblaws Inc., until its name was changed to Glenhuron Bank Ltd. and a Barbados banking licence was obtained. Loblaw then funded the bank with money from other areas of its grocery businesses, using the money to earn hundreds of millions of dollars in investment income. Canadian-owned foreign banks normally avoid paying income tax in Canada legally under an exemption for those types of investment earnings, but Canada Revenue Agency reassessments determined that Glenhuron’s business didn’t constitute banking as it did not actually provide financial services. It therefore did not qualify for the exemption, and CRA accused Loblaw of orchestrating the creation of the bank to obtain those tax benefits. In 2018, a Toronto taxation court judge decided that income earned in the 2000 to 2010 tax years should be taxed, but Loblaw appealed the decision. The Federal Court of Appeal has since heard the appeal but a judgment has not yet been made.

Loblaw also primarily has its Joe Brand label clothing manufactured in Bangladesh. In 2013, the Rana Plaza manufacturing site in Dhaka where many Joe Fresh products were contracted collapsed, killing 1,127 workers and injuring more than 2,500. Since then, brands worldwide signed an agreement to make sourcing decisions that improve the working conditions of the factories in Bangladesh. But according to Fashion Revolution, the wages paid to these workers are still deplorable, and most live impoverished: “it’s been estimated that about an extra 25 cents on an item of clothing made in Bangladesh would pay a living wage to garment workers and ensure that all buildings met building safety standards.” Instead, companies like Loblaw are actually paying less each year for the garments.

The company did not answer our requests for comment.

Living Wage, Living Community

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Loblaw’s presence—and sometimes vacant absence—has not exactly been especially community-minded, either. In 2003, the year Dominion staff last held strikes, the company locked out 1600 employees and threatened permanently closing all the stores in the province if union members did not take a deal. In the past when Loblaw has closed individual Dominions in the city in favour of opening new superstores, the old stores—namely previous Churchill Square, Newfoundland Drive, and Ropewalk Lane locations—sit for years as large empty shells in the neighbourhoods where they were located. In 2012 at least, the leasing agents for Loblaw refused to entertain the idea of new businesses moving into the spaces on more than one occasion.

But the way Loblaw is hurting our communities the most is through the systemic exploitation of its own employees through low wages and precarious, part-time hours which keep them in poverty.

To be fair to Galen Jr., Loblaw, and Weston, paying a living wage more than $7 over the current minimum wage enforced by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador does seem like a stretch—though the average wage it pays full-time Dominion employees is $19.43, so the concept is not completely foreign to them. But the longevity and stability of these remaining full-time positions are still at risk, according to Unifor. And the average wage of all positions including those which are full-time is still only $13.88. This is where a higher minimum wage in our province would help close the gap between the low wages that profiteering corporations get away with, and a living wage which could lift people out of poverty.

One of the recommendations in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ report on a living wage for Newfoundland and Labrador was that a $15 minimum wage would be a good start to getting to a living wage of $18.85. On September 5, the provincial government announced that it was appointing an Independent Minimum Wage Review Committee “made up of an independent chair and representatives from the business and labour community” to garner input on the current adjustment process for setting the minimum wage and the rate itself.

Bernard Davis, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills, and Labour at the time, stated that “our government is committed to ensuring annual increases for minimum wage earners in Newfoundland and Labrador,” and that the establishment of such a committee demonstrated a commitment to ensuring legislation remains “relevant” and “responsive.” Last February, the province announced that future increases in the minimum wage would be annual percentages based on the National Consumer Price Index.

But critics of both the Review Committee’s ‘independent’ appointments and the current basis for future increases state that at this rate, minimum wage won’t reach the recommended $15 for another decade. The review included a public engagement component through an engageNL online questionnaire, one which didn’t take long to complete but which has raised questions about its accessibility as well as its neutrality and the validity of its question design. (The Newfoundland and Labrador NDP Caucus recently launched their own online survey aimed at gaining insights from those who actually make minimum or low wages.)

It’s worth repeating what a higher minimum wage truly means in the context of eradicating the inequality in our food system.

“Increasing minimum wage would be a significant first step towards decreasing food insecurity,” Suzanne Hawkins with Food First NL tells the Independent. Forming policy around wage can be productive for all when more consideration is given to those who make the least.

Raising minimum wage is also our chance to take back some power as a province from corporations like Loblaw who seem committed to leaving a legacy of impoverishment for those on the front lines of our food system. In Newfoundland and Labrador, our strength has often been our proclivity for genuine, heartfelt hospitality towards those who come from away. When we’re thinking of a secure food future, we must make sure those same gestures of warmth and kindness are inclusive of each other, too.

“People should ask to speak to store managers and express their dissatisfaction and concern with what they’re hearing about Loblaw’s treatment of employees,” Chris MacDonald from Unifor tells the Independent.

But he also stresses this is a larger issue than just one company. “It’s fair to talk about the competition that drives this behaviour by corporations. The whole system around how we shop as Canadians and the low wages that support this system are driving people into poverty. We can’t as a society continue to accept the low prices that drive a race to the bottom which Loblaw is leading.”

Food for Thought

Dr. Sarah Martin agrees.

“The effect on wages—minimum wage—is shown to have the most positive effect in highly concentrated markets where there are few players, [like] the retail grocery market in Canada. That is, research has shown that higher market concentration is associated with lower wages.”

“Loblaw (along with a few other national grocery chains) dominate the grocery retail market, which can be described as an oligopoly—that is there is very high market concentration,” she explains. “This has effects on both food access and wages.”

The same decision-makers who have allowed huge disparities to grow within their labour practices are the same decision-makers who decide what, and how, food is stocked in its stores for purchase by the rest of us.

“These retailers have very efficient supply chains that are designed to distribute groceries in the most profitable way,” Dr. Martin continues. “But the most efficient and profitable supply chain means that importing vegetables from California is often cheaper than accessing a closer grower. This move towards efficiency locks out alternatives, and defaults away from Newfoundland and Labrador’s local suppliers. This market concentration has direct effects on a province where the majority of food is imported.”

“We see the most severe effects in places where foodways have been violently disrupted due to colonial violence such as Labrador,” she concludes. “The combination of oligopolies, [and] disruption of local foodways can both contribute to different scales of food insecurity.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, we import 71% of our food. The island of Newfoundland is separated from the rest of Canada by the Cabot Strait, and Labrador is a vast expanse of isolated communities. We rely on ferries for the majority of food transportation to both parts of the province, and disruptions to food deliveries occur often due to weather or other delays. In Labrador, where a new ferry service has actually impacted the food system negatively in recent months, residents have expressed significant concerns about access to healthy food in their communities. They face a lack of wild food, traditionally harvested from the land and sea, plus a lack of nutritious, quality fresh and frozen foods available in stores. For people on low and fixed incomes, an extremely high cost of groceries has resulted in a lack of adequate food and nutrition.

The August 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on land highlighted the fact that climate change is already affecting all four pillars of food security globally: availability, access, utilization, and stability. They also warn that “food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines… increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions.” Indeed, last year, researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph called the IPCC’s October 2018 projections “dire” in the context of climate change and global agriculture, and in a brand new report forecasting Canada’s food prices for 2020, the researchers state that “food prices are unquestionably affected by climate change”.

As we are undoubtedly experiencing a climate crisis, the report goes on to cite changing weather such as droughts and forest fires, heavy precipitation, reduced freshwater access and rising sea levels as factors which will affect Canada’s food systems over the next year. Canada’s farmers will continue to deal with unpredictable crop yields, heat-wave livestock threats, pasture availability, as well as pest and disease outbreaks. Importantly, as global agriculture remains highly vulnerable to climate change, a reliance on importing foods is becoming increasingly volatile. In the context of food security, we’d be ignorant to believe that the Loblaws and Westons of the world won’t abandon their customers the same way they are abandoning staff the moment we, too, become unprofitable.

But as beneficial as a system based in local farming and production, culturally and traditionally sound foodways—with an emphasis on sustainable, wild hunting and fishing practices—will be, we can only consider a successful food system as one to which everyone has access.

As the 10th edition of Canada’s Food Price Report predicts a rise of $487 in food expenditure by the average family in 2020, it also reiterates that 4 million Canadians are food insecure and household food insecurity in Canada is tightly tied to income. “Income has not seen the growth needed to withstand increased costs of living” the report states, and repeats the broad consensus that income-based interventions are needed to ensure people can afford to eat according to the recommendations of Canada’s new Food Guide.

Good Food is a Human Right

True prosperity in Newfoundland and Labrador looks like autonomy over our food system and independence from a corporate model which dictates who can afford to eat and live well in our province. But it must become feasible that every single individual is afforded the opportunity to access healthy food. This will remain impossible until a living wage is enforced.

Our food system is incredibly complex, and we have barely scratched the varying layers at play from production and distribution to access, consumption, and disposal. Nor is it correct to lay blame on one sole entity for the gross disparities which do exist within that system. But one thing that is abundantly clear is this: food is a basic human need and fundamental human right. As UN Special Rapporteur on Food, Olivier de Schutter writes: “the right to food is primarily the right to feed oneself in dignity, and is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”

That companies and their executive proxies, and governments at both the federal and provincial levels, deny anyone access to this dignity is enormously wasteful of our true human potential.

Photo by Del Barrett on Unsplash.

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