Making Food Secure

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Currently 4.4 million Canadians are living in food-insecure households and 1 in 6 households in Nova Scotia are food insecure. In this episode we hear from experts leading the way in research and response to food insecurity in Nova Scotia. Listen as we explore the concept of food security, the benefits of developing a food autonomy strategy, and research underway that can help us better understand and improve food security for all.

Missions: Improved Quality of Life for Nova Scotians & Sustainable Bioeconomy

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (00:06)

The food economy is a hard thing to understand because you can actually go from one street to another, and consumers will have access to many different options. What is interesting about COVID is that the food economy went virtual a lot. So, we partnered with Angus Reid and in January, 23% of Nova Scotian’s have actually ordered food retail online. So that can actually help. It provides more options, but at the same time, we’re concerned about costs and fees.

Karen Theriault (00:43)

People aren’t food insecure because they don’t have enough food. They’re food insecure because they don’t have enough income. And that is such a simple statement and concept. But I need people to really listen to that and understand what it means. There’s no way that we could possibly provide enough food through charity to make sure that everyone has what they need.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (01:06)

Welcome to Beyond Research, a podcast brought to you by Research Nova Scotia.
Today we will be speaking with individuals leading the way in research and response to food insecurity in Nova Scotia. In this episode we will explore the concepts of food security, and in turn, food insecurity, as well as hearing from these experts on how we can better understand and improve food security for all.
So, what is food security and why should the public care?

Karen Theriault (01:40)

So, food security exists when all people at all times have both physical and economic access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food. The food that they need to ensure an active and healthy lifestyle and the food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences. There is a plethora of reasons for why Nova Scotians should care about food security. And I think it really starts with understanding the significance and prevalence of food insecurity in our province. Nova Scotia has the highest rate of food insecurity of all the provinces in Canada at 15.3% compared with the national average of 12.7%. So, put that in a little more visible terms. What does that mean? One in six households in Nova Scotia is food insecure? That is a huge number. If you just picture how many times do you drive by six homes, six apartments in your apartment building six families. So, when you’re out at a community event, one in six households doesn’t have reliable physical and economic access to the food that they need. So that is a huge crisis. I don’t know how any Nova Scotian could not care about that, quite honestly.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (02:55)

This is Karen Theriault, Director of Development and Communications at Feed Nova Scotia. Feed Nova Scotia distributes around one million dollars worth of food every month through their member network of 140 food banks and meal programs across the province. As an organization, their mission is to increase food security through food distribution, education and collaboration.

Karen Theriault (03:21)

It takes a lot. It takes a lot of guts and a lot of courage to walk into a food bank for the first time. And I just want everyone to know that if they need help and support that is okay. And that those community resources are there to help provide that support. And we’re really working to not just provide good quality food, more food, more nutritious food, but to make sure that it’s provided in a really respectful and dignified way. And that’s a big part of food security as well, is that it everyone should have access to the food they need in a dignified way so that they can thrive both emotionally and mentally, as well as through physical health.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (04:07)

Karen has been with Feed Nova Scotia for 12 years, and she sees considerable opportunity for impactful change to address food insecurity.

Karen Theriault (04:19)

It can be frustrating and disheartening at times because we focus so much of our work on helping to provide food for people today. And while it is rewarding to know that people’s lives are made a bit easier when we help to provide that food charity, it is a bit discouraging to know that we’re still here all these years later pushing for deeper change. And there’s truly no way that any amount of food charity will ever truly solve food insecurity. It will take a groundswell of political, and public will to address that through social policy. And I know that we can get there. We see the power of when community rallies together. And we have seen recently through the pandemic, what government can put in place, when they have the political will to address a real crisis, like we’ve seen with the pandemic. And the way that they came out with the Canadian emergency response benefits so quickly. The huge impact that that had for so many people, I get excited thinking about the impact we can have, and hopefully where we’ll be 10 years from now.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (05:28)

When we look at food security, it can be defined in many ways, but at its core, there are three key pillars: food safety, food accessibility, and food affordability. So, let’s explore each of these pillars and how they relate to Nova Scotia and beyond.
First, we have food safety. This, as it sounds, relates to the quality and safety of the foods we have readily available for consumption.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (05:51)

Food safety, obviously if food is not safe for population, that’s a concern. And Canada actually is often ranked a top country when it comes to food safety. As a lab, we’ve actually benchmarked Canada’s performance on food safety with other countries and Canada is a top tier country. In fact, The Economists just recently established a Global Food Security Index, and Canada ranked number one, when it comes to food safety. So great news there.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (06:25)

This is Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, Professor and Director of the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. With decades of experience researching food security, food distribution, food policy and food safety across Canada, his insights provide a unique perspective on where we stand today and how we reach our food security goals.
So, what does Dr. Charlebois have to say about the second pillar, food accessibility?

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (06:52)

Food access was discussed a lot during COVID. The empty shelves for example, if you have empty shelves in an economy, you clearly have an accessibility issue. It can be caused by supply chain woes, border related challenges, the weather, strikes, climate change. A lot of things can actually impact access. And that’s a really complicated one, I must say, because from farm to store, hundreds of factors can impact access.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (07:28)

Looking back to the Economist’s Global Food Security Index, Canada ranked third in food availability. So, it may be more tangible to see these gaps in availability when store shelves are empty, but from a global perspective, Canada remains in good standing. It is at the community level where we tend to see more substantial gaps in food availability.
The third pillar is food affordability. As we explored the issue of food security with our guests, food affordability proved to be one of the most pressing issues. Both at the food bank level and when exploring other areas like ‘buy local’ movements.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (08:08)

Probably the one that concerns me the most is food affordability. So, food affordability is really about how populations can afford to eat, essentially. So, you look at food prices, you look at wages, you look at several taxations, all of these things that could actually impact a consumer or a household’s ability to afford food.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (08:34)

Obviously, if we cannot consistently afford healthful foods, that is a major concern, but what makes it a more pressing issue here in Nova Scotia, for example, compared to other places in Canada or even around the world?

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (08:48)

To me right now, the biggest challenge for Canada and in particular for our region, is food affordability. And, and going back to the to the global food security index that was created by the Economist. In 2020, Canada ranked 18th in the world when it comes to food affordability. So, we’re not, 100 but we’re not first, we went down to 24th in 2021. And based on our analysis, when we publish Canada’s Food price report in December with Guelph, Saskatchewan and UBC, we actually believe that Canada could rank even lower in 2022, unfortunately. And so, for Nova Scotia, as a market is underserved compared to say, Toronto, or Montreal.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (09:40)

Nova Scotia is also faced with additional hurdles in combating food affordability due to the region’s geography. Compared to other provinces it is quite isolated to service, which leads to more expensive distribution costs, especially when fuel prices are elevated, like we have seen throughout the pandemic.
To support and encourage local food consumption, the government of Nova Scotia recently made a goal of having 20% of the money spent on food by Nova Scotians being spent on locally produced food by 2030. Dr. Charlebois sees great potential for us to improve our consumption of local foods, and he would actually consider our agri-food industry to be underappreciated.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (10:19)

In Nova Scotia, there’s so much potential, the province will export billions of dollars worth of food, I think it’s about two or three billion. So, it does, it does really do well, but when it comes to local foods, and I will say New Brunswick in the same isn’t the same position that we haven’t thought about feeding ourselves. And we are we are in Canada, and agriculture will take a break six months in a year. And I get that, but at the same time, we haven’t been strategic about the entire supply chain. We often talk about food, local foods, from a farmgate perspective. We need to produce food. I think if we want to achieve more, if we want Nova Scotians to eat more local foods, it would be to think about processing in particular. Putting an emphasis on processing will allow the food economy to be better controlled, and it’s often the anchor to an entire industry. That’s how you’re going to get to the 20%.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (11:22)

You may have heard Dr. Charlebois use the term farmgate. Simply put, ‘farmgate’ Farm gate a direct marketing method whereby farmers sell agricultural produce – mostly food – directly to the consumer, to restaurants and caterers, and to independent retailers. This excludes any billed transport or delivery charges. In the broader context of food security, it describes how farmers individually sell at the highest price, which is often to buyers outside of Nova Scotia. So, Dr. Charlebois proposes creating a food autonomy strategy, which among other things, would enable us to collectively develop the methodology needed to retain more of our locally produced foods. To produce, process and purchase more of these locally grown products may cost more on the front end, but ultimately, you retain more control over the final product that is being sold locally or abroad.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (12:11)

When I was in Saskatchewan, we did that with mustard, and bison as well. And so why? Because bison is produced mostly in Saskatchewan in Canada, and the biggest exporter of mustard grains in the world is Saskatchewan and we ship it to the US, they put it in a bottle, and we buy 20 times the price. So, we thought “why don’t we actually create a mustard in Saskatchewan, even though it’s more expensive, the grain is from Saskatchewan and sell high end Saskatchewan mustard to the rest of the world?” And that’s what they’re doing now. And they’ve created a co op for that.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (12:50)

The dairy industry in Nova Scotia provides a great example of where we can improve on retaining more of the processing stage locally.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (12:58)

We have about 200 dairy farms in Nova Scotia. Right? We had 800 in 1980. We had four processing plants in Nova Scotia in 1980. Today, we have 200 dairy farms and zero dairy processing plant except for that one in Bedford.
And so now we have 1000s of litres trucked outside the province to make cheese and yogurt we buy back. How sustainable is that?

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (13:28)

Although, he thinks it will take time to implement a food autonomy strategy before we truly see the rewards, Dr. Charlebois believes we must act now begin the process. The Nova Scotia government, like many others, is acknowledging the need to focus more on supporting local foods. He sees this as an opportunity to build off this momentum to shift how we support our local agri-food sector.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (13:50)

Now we need a strategy, a food autonomy strategy. And then that strategy will lead us to market conditions to get the industry to do its work, essentially. So, we’ve set the table, we’ve set the tone, now it’s time to get people to talk and share a common vision for Nova Scotia agriculture.
What we’re seeing right now are provinces looking at food autonomy, as a priority. And what I mean by that is that you’re seeing provinces focusing strategically on specific commodities to get consumers to eat more food, because at the end of the day, it’s about price. What’s gonna drive demand are affordable prices at retail. Right now, I can use an example in Quebec. They’ve actually made a conscious decision to support the production of strawberries all year round. Quebeckers were hardwired to think about strawberries in June and July, fresh strawberries in June and July. And they were tasty, they were good, but only for a couple of weeks a year. So, they decided to actually invest in greenhouses, invest in vertical farms to actually offer Quebeckers strawberries, fresh strawberries, local strawberries all year round, 12 months a year. So, you’re hardwiring consumer to think about strawberries from Quebec 12 months a year. And prices are stable throughout the year. And what’s going on in Quebec, is that you can go into a grocery store in October of February and have access to locally grown strawberries priced reasonably well up against California strawberries. You’re giving a chance to a sector to do very well all year round. I think Nova Scotia needs a food autonomy strategy in order to support its aspirations to get Nova Scotia to buy more local foods.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (15:45)

As we look at food affordability and Nova Scotian’s propensity to purchase local foods, Dr. Charlebois describes an interesting concept to encapsulate our spending habits – the local food paradox.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (16:00)

So, the local food paradox is the fact that everyone wants to buy local until life kicks in. We think that about 25% of Nova Scotians will buy local no matter what, no matter the quality, the freshness, where it’s sold and the price. They don’t care. They’ll buy local no matter what. That 75% is what we should go after. That’s the market we need to aim for. And if you don’t make price a priority, then you’re not going to move the needle. I’m sorry. And that’s it because when you survey Nova Scotians, they will always say that they want to buy local until they show up at the grocery store. They only have 10 minutes to shop, they have a list. They have to pick up their kids from the daycare, the have a tight budget and other things are happening all at once. They go to the produce section, and they’ll look for the better deal. And if it’s from Nova Scotia, great. If it’s not, oh well, next time.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (17:07)

It may seem counterintuitive, but for us to be able to consistently provide affordable foods locally, we need our agri-food sector to also target bigger international markets. Strategically scaling up production will help us maintain affordable locally produced foods for years to come.
If we are to set our scopes on creating a food autonomy strategy, what better way to determine the best approach than to build off successful frameworks currently in place across Canada? Dr. Charlebois sees Quebec and PEI as two provinces we could use as examples.
Quebec uses a three-axis model that includes production, consumption, and processing. Dr. Charlebois was particularly involved in the processing component, and he believes we could replicate a similar model in Nova Scotia.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (17:56)

We can be inspired by Quebec, but I must say, there’s a lot of great things going on in PEI too. Canada’s Food Island is a success story. I mean, it’s, I don’t know if you’ve actually been there. I’ve actually been invited to speak at Canada’s Food Island in Charlottetown and what I’m talking to you about, with the valley and the policy, that’s what PEI has done. You go to Toronto. You go to different food courts, you go to different high-end restaurants, you will sit down at and order steak, that steak will come from PEI. It doesn’t happen by accident. It needs marketing, it needs support, it needs a vision, and positioning as well. Canada’s Food Island is successful because of the innovation, because of the research happening on the island, and the fact that they are thinking about the consumer.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (18:47)

Dr. Charlebois also emphasizes the need for thinking more strategically than just growing as much as we can of certain produce that is successful in our climate. To become truly successful, we must think of the consumer first.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (19:00)

So, I call it demand chain management. Often in agriculture, you tend to believe let’s grow something and they will come. You know, we grow strawberries, we grow blueberries because we have a climate for it. And then we’ll figure out the rest. Today, 2022 You have to think about marketability the other way around. What do consumers want? What do they care about? Is it organic? Is it local? What is it? Then you work your way back and build an architecture around that demand fabric essentially. It’s a paradigm shift. So, the food autonomy strategy Nova Scotia needs has to adopt that paradigm as much as possible.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (19:45)

With an issue as nuanced as food security, research must play a critical role to help us understand our situation and strategically determine a direction forward. Dr. Charlebois explores this role that research plays and gaps where further research, and in turn, funding is needed.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (20:02)

When you look at funding, for example, in fact, our lab, we’ve been looking at research funding at universities across the country, in agriculture and food, and most of it is, is for farmgate stuff, you know? Increasing yields, dairy genetics, bovine genetics, there’s nothing really much about value chains. And there’s some stuff about consumer trends and things like that, but not a whole lot. And so, we need to think about how we look at the value chain, how we connect the dots within the value chain. So, I’m biased, because that’s my area of research, but I actually do think there’s not enough of that, which, which is what Denmark has done for many years, which is what Holland has done for many years, connecting the dots between demand and supply. So, if I were to look at research, I would certainly say that right now, social scientists that are looking at human behavior, food Innovation, how to basically create wealth with food innovation and processing as well. Those areas are not very well supported. They need the help. And that’s where I would invest my money.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (21:27)

Karen also acknowledges the valuable role research plays to help us understand and combat food insecurity.

Karen Theriault (21:34)

We do some of our own research. Every year Food Banks Canada launches the National Hunger account survey. And so that is an annual project, which measures Food Bank usage and asks a number of questions around demographics and income-based questions and so on for those who are accessing support through food banks. And research and data informs both our resource management in terms of how and where we distribute food, but it also helps to inform our education and advocacy policy directions as well. We have recently worked with the Wicked Problems Lab at St. Mary’s University.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (22:16)

This ongoing project uses GIS mapping to lay out where all of Feed Nova Scotia’s existing member food banks are across the province compared with census data around income levels.

Karen Theriault (22:26)

There is a wealth of research and data that’s out there around food insecurity. All that we have to do is pay attention to it. The solutions are there if we just read the numbers and look at the case for evidence that research has made. I would point to PROOF as one example. PROOF out of the University of Toronto.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (22:45)

PROOF is an interdisciplinary research team that investigates household food insecurity in Canada.

Karen Theriault (22:51)

Proof had a document that they came out with not too long ago, perhaps a year or so ago called their provincial policy levers. And if you just look at one example there, so they have pointed out through research that they have identified that an investment of $1,000 per year in the income assistance rates for someone will have 5% lower chance of experiencing severe food insecurity. So that is a very specific and tangible measure. If we know that that’s the case, great, there’s a very obvious solution. So, I really think that there is a wealth of research and data that’s out there. And we know the value of research and to make evidence-based decisions, we just need to sit up and pay attention to it.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (23:36)

Feed Nova Scotia continues to test new approaches and grow as an organization to find unique opportunities to address the needs of community members who rely on their services. This can be seen through their next venture.

Karen Theriault (23:47)

We’re really excited about a new innovation and learning lab that we’ll be working on in the next little while, where we are looking to say is the way that we are providing food support the most effective and dignified way to get that food to the people who need our support. Our board of directors for feed Nova Scotia recognizes that you can’t always maintain the status quo and expect to see different outcomes. We should never be bold enough or naive enough to think that the way that we are doing things now is the best way that we can be doing it. So, we will be launching a new process where we are specifically looking to identify and implement and test certain prototypes around different ways to provide equitable food support across the province. I don’t know yet what that’s exactly going to look like. But we are excited simply by the idea that we are exploring new things and working with communities.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (24:48)

So, with this clearer understanding of the need for a food autonomy strategy and the gaps that research has identified in how we can address food security, as well as areas that need further research, what could this future state of success look like?

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (25:02)

A successful scenario was drawn by Dominic Barton in the Barton Report a few years ago. And I would encourage anybody to look into the report. So, he’s the former ambassador of Canada in China. He wrote this report before he became an ambassador. And he actually looked at the Canadian economy. How do we grow the economy over the next 30 years? And he actually identified five sectors. One of them was agri-food. He believes that we could actually double our exports within the next five years. And I think Nova Scotia can easily do the same thing. And you may ask, “well, why should we care about exports?” well, I’m going back to the food autonomy strategy that I was talking about earlier. If you don’t focus on exports, you can’t possibly get Nova Scotians to eat more food coming from Nova Scotia. Both will go together. And so the vision as has been presented already, and it’s just a matter of coming up with a formula à la Nova Scotia essentially for us, that’s really what we need to think about.

Karen Theriault (26:18)

Success for food security is really built into the definition itself. Food security is when all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the food that they need. The food that is safe and nutritious and sufficient to meet their dietary needs and their food preferences. So that is success. And that’s what we absolutely should be pushing for.

Narrator: Rhys Waters (26:39)

There may be a large hill to climb to achieve food security for all Nova Scotians and Canadians, but the future looks bright with the help of individuals like Karen Theriault and Dr. Sylvain Charlebois. We have some clear opportunities on the provincial level to close the gap through policy change and the development of a food autonomy strategy. Successful models have been implemented in other provinces and internationally that can help inspire our own strategy to ensure we can consistently provide affordable healthful foods to our communities.
To properly address food security will require a sense of urgency to create tangible change and to meet the provincial government’s goal of having 20% of the money spent on food by Nova Scotians to be used on locally produced food by 2030. If we are successful in reaching this target, that would be a clear win for the province, but we must set our sights even further if we want to truly address food security on a provincial and national scale.
It seems as though we have some clear next steps for what we can and should do to address food insecurity. To implement a successful food autonomy strategy, we must start with the consumer and work backwards to identify our strengths, starting with exports. What can we produce year-round and what infrastructure is required to do so? Will these products be purchased by local and international consumers ? We need researchers, policy makers, community leaders, and industries to work together to identify evidence-based approaches to help inform how we move forward.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois (28:10)

We have to give ourselves at least a decade, perhaps even two decades. This is this is long term stuff. It won’t happen overnight. You know, Denmark, and Holland, they’ve been at this for dozens and dozens of years. It just didn’t happen by accident. So, we kind of have to give ourselves a chance to adjust and adopt, like I said, a different paradigm. So, we’ve set the table, we’ve set the tone, now it’s time to get people to talk and share a common vision for Nova Scotia agriculture.

Karen Theriault (28:46)

We can help provide support for our friends and neighbors across the province when we donate food, when we go out to volunteer, and all of the amazing work that is happening through the network of agencies that we’re so proud to support. But to truly address food insecurity that can only be achieved through bold government policy.

NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (29:09)

Thank you for listening to Beyond Research brought to you by Research Nova Scotia.
We wanted to say a special thanks to Dr. Sylvain Charlebois and Karen Theriault.
Are you interested in exploring more food research topics? Tune into The Food Professor podcast to hear Dr. Sylvain Charlebois discuss proprietary industry and consumer food related research, check out fresh new ideas and half-baked strategies.
To learn more about the research heard on this podcast visit
I’m Rhys Waters and I’ll see you next time.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is a Professor and Director of the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. He conducts research in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety.

Karen Theriault is the Director of Development and Communications at Feed Nova Scotia, based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.