Editorial: Food industry adjusting to changing consumer behaviour

Jambalaya will be one of the more pleasant memories I’ll associate with 2020.

Specifically, how I learned to make a spicy pasta version that closely replicates a dish we often ordered when we joined friends for Pasta Tuesdays at a local restaurant. That is, before COVID-19 changed our social life.

Hopefully, 2021 will mark a return to dining out once in a while. Although the home-cooked dish is a perfectly edible stand-in, I like my jambalaya best when it’s cooked by someone else and served with a heaping dose of camaraderie.

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Neither of those options was prudent this year and so, like many Canadians, I spent more time learning new culinary skills, tending a garden and stocking my pantry and freezers with local food.

The 11th annual Food Price Report released this week provides a glimpse of just how radically we’ve changed our collective behaviour, but it also points to a rapidly shifting landscape for the food business and the farmers who feed it.

Pre-pandemic, Canadians spent more than one-third of their food budget (38 per cent) on the food-service industry. That dropped to nine per cent during the first lockdown. Although food service had recovered to roughly one-quarter of the food budget prior to the second wave, the authors of this report don’t think it’s going back to where it was any time soon.

Instead, both the food-service and retail sectors are rapidly pivoting into e-commerce and recalibrating their portfolios in a way that blurs the lines between the two sectors.

Food-service supplier Sysco, for example, has adapted to the lack of restaurant trade by marketing and selling direct to the home consumer.

Through their click-and-collect program, known as Sysco at Home, it now offers online orders for pickup at 15 of its distribution centres. The website sells grocery items in bulk, such as produce, frozen products, meat and poultry, and other supplies.

“The most significant change as far as I am concerned is how the entire supply chain has become much more democratized. Any company in the food business can have access to the consumer,” Sylvain Charlebois, one of the lead authors of the report, said in an interview. “We’ve seen farmers and processors selling online and it’s been just incredible to watch.”

This year’s report was adjusted to acknowledge the growing diversity in family structures. In fact, with one in six Canadians now living alone, single-person households have become the most common household type for the first time in history. Servicing the single-person food economy implies significant changes in how food is packaged and sold.

Ingredient suppliers such as Corteva AgriScience are using the term “snackification” to capture the surge in snacking behaviour coupled with increased demands for healthier snack products.

Much of the media coverage of this year’s report understandably zeroed in on the forecasted three to five per cent increase in food prices in 2021 due to the rising commodity prices, the pandemic’s ongoing impact on the supply chain and climate change driving up the cost of vegetables.

While it’s unsettling to think that food prices have risen faster than the rate of inflation over the past two decades, a trend that is expected to continue, it’s important to note that Canadians have been misled into thinking that their food is cheap.

Relative to other parts of the world, food has never been cheap in Canada. It’s just that Canadian consumers are, generally speaking, wealthier than those in other countries. So, food’s proportion of our disposable income has declined.

While projected cost increases exacerbate the impact, the swelling ranks of people who are food insecure in Canada are primarily the result of the pandemic’s impact on jobs and income.

The report noted a 40 per cent uptick in grocery sales in March when the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments started to flow. Likewise, Canadian food banks saw surges in demand ranging from 20 to 50 per cent over pre-pandemic use.

One in five Canadians reported starting a garden this year, 60 per cent made more meals from scratch and 70 per cent spent more time cooking. Family meals became more common and children are spending more time in the kitchen cooking with their parents.

The report’s authors say the pandemic has been such a game changer that it’s hard to predict which of these behavioural changes will stick.

Some, like my jambalaya recipe, are here to stay. Others, however, will go the way of my sourdough bread starter — abandoned and forgotten.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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