Now that we know more about how the Surplus Food Rescue program will work, there should be a recognition for its need beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program was announced as part the federal pandemic response and comes with $50 million in funding to help move extra food to vulnerable Canadians.
Now that details are available, there is clear indication the program has the potential to be a significant force in combating food insecurity.
If successful, it will benefit at least some of the four million Canadians who are food insecure – the added plus is that it will also support producers, particularly those with nowhere to send their highly perishable commodities.
But even if the benefit to producers is minimal, its purpose of helping feed Canadians who would otherwise not be fed is admirable, needed and enough to push for it to be made permanent.
It is worth noting the benefit to producers here may be fairly minimal. Potato producers alone are sitting on $200 million worth of product, and the money now available to purchase at least some of those will only be spent if the cost is below retail value.
At best, producers involved in the program can expect to have their cost of production covered. More likely, they can expect to see their losses slightly mitigated as a result of selling their products through the program. This should not be seen, as the federal Liberals continue to promote it, as a major support for agriculture producers.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have positives. Retaining some money is better than nothing.
And of course, feeding Canadians who need it the most is about the most admirable way a producer can go about losing money.
So while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pitching the program as a “win win” because farmers will have people buy their goods while food is getting on the plates of families who need it, I’d consider it closer to a tie for producers than a win.
In any case, the idea of the government buying otherwise wasted food and giving it to those who need it is a great one – and it’s a bit of a shame it took a global pandemic to usher in a program that will do just that.
It’s not an original idea, either. The United States has a program where it buys surplus food and redirects it to organizations offering school lunch programs or meals to the homeless.
The idea is a bit of an industry in itself in the States, going so far as to offer things like loans to help with on-farm storage to reduce post-harvest losses and streamlining restrictions on mislabelled meat and poultry products to ensure that can be donated.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the latter measure has resulted in 84,310 pounds of misbranded sausages being rescued. The USDA also works to connect produce importers with charitable groups to guide damaged products away from the trash bins and towards people who need the food, no matter what it looks like.
The measures south of the border can be considered as a form of government subsidy for farmers, given the products are provided a market by the government in instances where there would otherwise be no market.
The Canadian program is in its infancy, of course – but here’s hoping it sticks around and can grow to further support food-insecure households.
Maybe one day it can support farmers in a substantial way, too.