There are so many impacts the pandemic is having on our food systems; from agriculture to restaurants to groceries to our own cooking.
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Pandemic food – impacts to agriculture
- With reduced demand for cheese (closed restaurants and less international trade) there are calls for people to eat more cheese. Especially cheese that has a shorter shelf life.
- It’s planting season in Canada and that’s a bit of a challenge. We need tens of thousands of temporary workers to help with our farms every year. Even though they’re allowed to come here (as long as they self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival and, afterwards while working, practice physical distancing) it’s not as easy for them to come over and work. This can result in farmers having to scale back on the amount of food they plant and/or harvest this year.
- Farmers around the world are used to dealing with unexpected issues like droughts and freezes—but the pandemic is having an even bigger impact. Not only because the demand for some of their products has changed dramatically, but also the difficulty in getting seasonal foreign workers isn’t just a Canadian challenge.
- It’s probably no surprise that when the demand for pasta goes up, so does the demand for grain and flour.
- Everyone still needs to eat, right? The food distribution system is having problems getting food to the right places. Food that would normally go to restaurants, schools, and workplace cafeterias need to go somewhere now. The food can’t all be redistributed to grocery stores, so some US farmers are having to abandon or ditch their products. This is also affecting food banks who normally get their supplies from retailers because retail grocery stores are selling out of products and don’t have as much to provide those in need.
- In the Netherlands, there are a billion potatoes that are going to go bad because restaurants aren’t making as many fries. So, they’re selling them to dairy farmers at a tiny fraction of the cost.
- People are starting to ramp up their own food production with their gardens. Yay for lots of reasons: it’s a welcome distraction that will help people get more exercise at home, fresh air, and sunshine. The big question is how much food should we realistically expect from this?
Pandemic food – impacts to restaurants
- According to Restaurants Canada, the industry has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs since March 1st due to the pandemic. More than half of Canadian restaurants are temporarily closed and 10 percent are permanently closed. Some of the ones that are still open have switched to takeout and/or reduced their hours, but not all are able to make these changes to adapt to the current situation. Plus, I suspect there are far fewer people considering restaurant food now than before, so the demand has plummeted significantly in the past month or so.
- Before the mass closures (just a month or two ago), many restaurants experienced reduced business and outright racism by people who got caught in rumours and misinformation and didn’t know how the virus is transmitted and that it doesn’t discriminate (here’s what we know about the novel coronavirus so far). #DontBeThatPerson Other restaurants reduced their seating capacity to start accommodating physical distancing requirements.
- Now, with further public health measures in place and many places not allowed to host guests, some takeout restaurants have been disparaged for not allowing their employees to have paid leave if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or are required to self-isolate or care for someone else who needs to self-isolate. #NotCool Others are advertising that they are providing paid sick leave for their employees. #Cool
- Many that are still open are not allowing customers to bring in their own reusable mugs in an effort to minimize spread of the virus by touching fewer things that other people have touched.
How my restaurant experiences have changed
It’s all about takeout now, isn’t it?
I’m in a fairly big tri-city area about 1.5h west of Toronto. There are over half-a-million people around me, along with two universities and a community college. We’re also home to Canada’s largest year-round farmers’ market, which is temporarily closed. Overall, that makes me pretty lucky in terms of food options.
However, some of our local favourite restaurants aren’t even open for takeout. We used to eat out or get takeout about once per week and have a handful of fav restaurants that we’d choose from: Thai, sushi, shawarma, pizza, dim sum, and schnitzel. Last week, we wanted the Thai food that we love and they weren’t open at all. Neither was their neighbour, the sushi restaurant. Luckily, we have been able to get shawarma and pizza from local shops in the past two weeks. I suspect we’ll try getting takeout from the dim sum and schnitzel places soon, too. Here’s hoping.
Pandemic food – impacts to grocery stores and shopping
- How to shop and unpack groceries safely.
- The main way you can pick up the virus grocery shopping is by coming close to other people, not from the food itself. This is part of the reason why many public health agencies recommend staying home and going out for essentials like groceries just once per week. So, when you do go, bring a list of everything you’re going to need for the next week or two (not 17!) and go when it’s less busy so there will be fewer shoppers. Don’t forget to keep a 2m/6′ distance from others, refrain from touching your face (why do I find this so difficult?), and wash your hands when you get home. For these and other pro tips about grocery shopping now, check out Your coronavirus grocery questions, answered by experts: Vox
- Nutritious, inexpensive, and long-lasting beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas have suddenly gotten very popular!
- Have you noticed that some grocery store shelves are empty (where’s the toilet paper?) while others are still quite full? It’s almost like people are buying things that are familiar and brings them comfort.
- It’s not just dried food that’s being bought up, but meat and fruits and veggies (especially frozen and canned) have been big winners, too.
- Advice from Ottawa Public Health on meal planning, budgeting, grocery shopping, and storing, preparing, and cooking food.
How my grocery shopping has changed
It’s my first time shopping in two weeks. Kinda surreal, but looks like @costcocanada is doing things right (shopping carts are sanitized between uses, too).#SocialDistancing #PhysicalDistancing #COVID19Ontario pic.twitter.com/p9UyCRujml
— Leesa ‘soapy clean hands’ Klich (@LeesaKlich) March 30, 2020
With all of the agricultural and supply chain issues, it seems that buying local is more important now than ever. I’m supporting my local farmers by buying local produce and items as much as possible. I often do this, but now I’m even more diligent about it. Let’s all help build our own local food systems whenever possible so they’re sustainable and we can continue to rely on them. For me, I’m choosing Ontario foods first, Canadian second, and international food third.
Yes, I’ve been experiencing empty grocery store shelves, too. Things sold out near me lately have been: toilet paper, frozen berries, bananas, butter, and flour. All of these are common and familiar to most, but they’re also easy-to-eat, and/or long-lasting. I’m beginning to wonder which items are unavailable because of increased demand and which are (or will be, in the long-term) unavailable due to decreased supply.
For now, I’m trying to buy a 1-2 week supply of groceries each week. This is my balance between bridging weeks where things aren’t available, while leaving items for my community members, too. Here’s how:
- Regular weekly items I buy that are always on my list (e.g., perishables like fruits, veggies, dairy, etc.), if they’re in the store, I get 1-2 weeks supply.
- Other sporadic grocery items (e.g., cereal, pasta, sauce, meat, red wine, etc.) go on my list as we’re starting to get low on them, not waiting until we truly need them.
For example, right now we have enough toilet paper for about 2 weeks. So, I put a 2-weeks supply on my list now so if there isn’t any in the stores this week, I’ll still have enough at home to last another week when I pop out to the grocery store again. (And a big “thank you” to stores that have put a limit on the number each person can purchase! If not for these, I’d be out of toilet paper by now!)
It takes a bit of planning, but this can be done by doing a quick check of your fridge, freezer, and cupboards before you head out. Look for items that you’ve already opened the last package of and be sure to put those on your list now, before you run out.
Oh, and I haven’t tried online grocery shopping yet. I’ve heard pros and cons in that it reduces the number of people out and about by having someone purchase and deliver groceries to you (and others). It also helps with their job security, which is great for them, too. On the other hand, I’ve heard that the demand for these services has outpaced supply, and until that’s rectified, it should be saved mostly for those who are a higher risk for complications if they get COVID-19 (older people and those with preexisting conditions) and also those who are symptomatic and/or are self-isolating and therefore cannot get their own groceries.
Pandemic food – impacts to meal planning and cooking
- More people seem to be planning meals and cooking. Not only is this out of necessity (fewer restaurants are open and frequent grocery store visits are discouraged or not even allowed), but maybe cooking is a source of emotional comfort and entertainment. Maybe it’s also a way to develop our creativity, try new recipes, and/or feel productive when we’re stuck at home. It’s also a way for us to tune out some of the media frenzy and have a sense of control in our lives while nourishing ourselves and those around us.
How my meal planning and cooking has changed
When I’m planning my meals, I have one or more perishable items in it every time. It’s a good idea to prioritize fridge food over anything that’s frozen, dried, or canned, eh? So, instead of adding frozen peas to a dish, I use fresh sugar snap peas instead. Or, I look for recipes that use avocado so we don’t miss eating them in that 1-2 day window when they’re fantastic.
Have you noticed that baking and slow-cooking seem to be calming in these unprecedented and uncontrollable times? I do! Last week I made slow-cooker chicken soup using bones and leftovers from a pre-cooked chicken I bought at Costco. Now that my kids are home every day, they’re cooking and baking more, too. Last week they made carrot cake and yesterday, blueberry muffins (all from scratch).
These remind me of an article I wrote for a client in 2018 on ways to reduce food waste. While not all of the bullets in #1 apply now that we’re encouraged to shop just once per week, just about all of the other tips are uber-useful now (e.g., like food storage, best before dates, using up the food you have, etc.).
Our food systems are facing challenges due to the pandemic. This has already profoundly affected restaurants, and is also affecting agriculture, grocery stores, and our own eating habits. Let’s make the most of what we have and support our food systems and the people around us in the best ways we can. No one knows what the future holds, but if we all work together, we’ll have the best possible outcomes.
Signing off and toasting: To supporting our agriculture, restaurants, grocery stores, and families’ food and nutritional needs throughout the pandemic!
Over to you
How have you seen impacts on your local agriculture, restaurant, groceries, and meals? Do you have any pro tips to share?
I’d love to know (in the comments below)!
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