Federal plan to redirect $ 50 million in surplus food is not as straightforward as it sounds

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Last week, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $ 50 million surplus purchase program, it seemed to be win-win: instead of leaving the food that restaurants can’t use right now going to waste , the federal government would help redistribute excess stocks to organizations that help feed vulnerable populations.

But what the food industry wants to get rid of is not necessarily what charities need.

Even though Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada plans to start spending on the program by the end of this month, those who should benefit do not know how it will work.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau initially said that the government “would start the conversation” with community food security organizations to which it offered $ 100 million in early spring: Food Banks Canada, Second Harvest ( the largest food rescue organization in Canada), The Salvation Army and breakfast clubs.

The Minister of Agriculture, Marie-Claude Bibeau, said that he was discussing with food security organizations the acceptance of unsold agricultural surpluses and processors. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

The surplus products she suggested may be eligible for these purchases, including poultry, potatoes and mushrooms – the foods people tend to eat differently at home than they eat at restaurants.

Eligible products are still being evaluated, ministry spokesperson James Watson told CBC News this week. He added that purchases “will be made in a manner that respects the needs and health of vulnerable populations in Canada” and “fairly compensates agricultural producers and agrifood processors”.

On Wednesday, Mr. Bibeau told the Commons Agriculture Committee that officials consult both producers and charities to see what is available, where and in what format, in order to make “perfect matches” when possible. The initial $ 50 million is not limited to purchases and could also help with logistics such as transportation, she said.

Food Banks Canada told CBC News that it had no one to talk about the new program.

Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest, also declined an interview, saying she had only had preliminary discussions with federal officials. In March, his organization launched a national task force to save food and redirect it to vulnerable people during the pandemic. She said she hoped the program would be “streamlined, to keep this food out of the landfill and deliver it to vulnerable families as soon as possible.”

Do you want fries with that?

Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada, estimates that his industry currently has approximately $ 200 million in excess inventory. Even if the government buys only potato products (which it will not do), it will not be enough to empty this inventory.

“It is on the right track because we have to remove some … inventory from the system,” he said. “We have wasted so much time with people at home. It’s not going to be used. It’s not going anywhere. “

The first challenge will be transportation – potatoes are not necessarily where they are needed most. The largest surplus stocks are found in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Alberta and Manitoba.

Quebec has suffered somewhat from the temporary shelving of its famous chip trucks, but processors believe the potato inventory in the province is manageable, said MacIsaac. In Ontario, many potatoes are made into chips – and quarantine snacking has increased snack food sales by more than 20%.

French Atlantic fry giant McCain Foods was one of the first producers to applaud the new program, with President and CEO Max Koeune saying he was “encouraged” by the Prime Minister’s appreciation of the problem ” and its commitment to increase funding if and when necessary. ”

A farmer works a potato field in North Tryon, Prince Edward Island. The industry is sitting on a huge surplus of potatoes due to the pandemic-induced restaurant closings. (Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press)

But will this program buy frozen fries that pubs and fast food do not serve? These products keep longer than fresh potatoes, but they do require freezer storage that charities may not have. Food banks prefer to distribute raw potatoes – but even under ideal storage conditions, last year’s crop must be used for something by August.

If the government mainly buys raw potatoes, MacIsaac does not know who can package them. The demand for potatoes in grocery stores is increasing, so those who wash, bag and box the potatoes are busy.

Meanwhile, growers have to make planting decisions without knowing how long the pandemic is going to disrupt things. French fry processors cut their producer contracts by 15 to 30 percent, depending on the size of their excess stocks.

“The difficulty is timing,” said MacIsaac. “You get a hit at this. “

Who’s is this?

Canada’s initial foray into buying surplus food is overshadowed by the decades-long American practice of bailing out farmers with billions of dollars in food aid spending.

“American programs … tend to be more designed to support the industry,” said Jean-Michel Laurin, President and CEO of the Canadian Council of Processors of Eggs and Poultry. He said he was told that the Canadian program will focus on the needs of beneficiaries.

Laurin said he hoped government purchases would go not only to food banks that help individual households, but also to soup kitchens, shelters, and organizations like meals-on-wheels that prepare food for groups.

The excess inventory that its members are struggling with was for food services – things like giant packages of scrambled scrambled eggs. “It’s not suitable for an individual family, but a soup kitchen can do something about it,” said Laurin.

Quick service restaurants buy breaded chicken products like nuggets and patties that are not fully cooked, then fry them before serving. These uncooked poultry products cannot be distributed to individuals, but could be cooked by shelter, for example.

“The reality of our industry is that it takes a few months to adjust production to meet new market demand,” said Laurin. As the number of chickens raised began to drop this week, turkeys, chickens and early spring eggs have all been processed in one form or another – and may not find a market in the hospitality for months.

“Some of our members hold financially unsustainable positions,” said Laurin. ” Could [this program] be one of the many things that make a positive difference? Probably. May be. We will see. It depends on how they see it. ”

The United States, a bad model

“What there is a lot is not necessarily what we should eat a lot of,” said Sophia Murphy, senior agricultural specialist at the International Institute for Sustainable Development. “We don’t really want to see Canadian kids or food banks suddenly filled with McCain fries, honestly.

“If we do it on the basis of what we have produced too much, and not on the basis of what our own nutritional guidelines suggest … there is a disconnect there which in the long run is a problematic way for the government of ‘try to mediate. “

Unlike the American approach to helping low-income households – which supports the agricultural sector with things like school lunch programs but which sometimes sees excessive wacky food aid, like homeless cheese caves – l he Canadian approach has always been to put money in the hands of people. and let them decide what to eat.

If Canada is moving towards buying surplus food, said Murphy, there are two ways in which there is a risk of market distortion.

“You don’t give people [who consume the food] say, “she said – which would interfere with the demand side of the equation.

Meanwhile, she says, you are disrupting the otherwise rational corrections to market supply, telling producers “that it is okay to grow all these mushrooms … but I’m not sure that buying all of their mushrooms really is the answer. And the mushrooms of tomorrow? “

Producers and processors need some protection from the otherwise brutal effects of sudden market changes, but this protection must prepare for market developments, not just bail them out, she said.

“I suspect that we will not be returning to a $ 90 billion a year restaurant industry in Canada in a short time. “

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