Schoepp: Pandemic an opportunity to rethink food distribution

A highly centralized food system isn't the only option; there's a place for local, too

First- and second-fiscal-quarter earnings for those selling groceries exceeded expectations as consumers stocked up during the pandemic. From small specialty stores to supermarkets, all have reported excellent profits.

The idea of centralized retail grocery is relatively recent and yet most societies, regardless of global address, can now relate to shopping at a supermarket.

In North America the centralized retailing of food and beverage escalated after the Second World War.

This model took hold in Europe in the 1960s. In the 1980s, South America, Asia (including China) and Mexico followed suit. Africa introduced centralized grocery under one roof in the 1990s.

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This shifted pricing, control and profits from local hands to corporate ones. In 2020, almost all of the world’s food will be controlled by Nestle, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, Danone, Kellogg’s, Mondelez, Kraft-Heinz, Anheuser-Busch, Archer Daniels Midland, Heineken and Associated British Foods.

Those food and beverages will sell globally through Aeon, 7-Eleven Holdings, Carrefour, Aldi, Walmart, Costco, Schwarz Gruppe, Kroger and now Amazon with estimated sales of US$12.24 trillion in 2020.

That’s more than double the value of the global food and agriculture business (farming), which is currently estimated at US$5 trillion. In 2017, Canadians spent $95.8 billion in supermarkets with the majority of the revenue going to centralized supermarket chains.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights both the functionality and the gaps in a centralized food system.

Urban supermarkets kept buying food but were quickly depleted in many items as consumers stocked up for the weeks ahead. This shorted consumers who were on limited incomes or had issues with access to food or transportation services, those with mobility issues or in remote areas. In Canada, the period of empty shelves was short lived, but there were intervals.

Food is not stored at the retail outlet. Continuous daily delivery is what keeps shelves full — but there must be food to deliver. In food manufacturing, companies faced reduced production lines and the re-establishment of health protocols, which shorted product availability.

Ferries and ships, rail lines, trucks and planes were rescheduled and rerouted. This was complicated by regulations that could be interpreted as reflective of protectionism as countries tried to corner their food supply. Adding to the exhausted system was the inability to access the seasonal world labour force, especially temporary foreign workers, on whom the food system depends.

It was the perfect storm.

Food suddenly became important to folks as they contemplated the food journey, the freshness of food and the availability of it.

Canadians waited in line and by that action were universally connected to men and women around the world who do this each and every day because they do not have access to food.

Consumers aggressively explored the local landscape and found ready, delicious, fresh and available food closer to home on farms and in small stores. This sparked a resurgence in local and domestic buying and the creation of food hubs. The end result was a dual food economy.

This, however, still does not guarantee food access. The infrastructure in both local and centralized systems is broken and has been for a long time as the mindset of producing more for less is hard to change. This volume, despite often being inaccessible, translates into enough food to feed every person on Earth the appropriate calories every day.

In March, Andre Laperriere, executive director of Global Food Data for Agriculture, reminded the world that, “Empty shelves in supermarkets should not be much of a concern. It is not a supply problem; it is a logistics problem. There is enough supply for all.”

The empty seats at the global table are not from the lack of effort from the local farming community, nor are they vacant because of a shortage of applied science or technology. The broken infrastructure reflects a world that revolved around globalization and centralized food access and is too large to turn. The stakeholders find it hard to adapt to wide swings in consumer preference and to consider profit distribution.

The landscape has been rearranged for a dual food economy, both centralized and local. Both are equally important and to be fair, supermarkets kept buying product when food service and export closed, yet the system fails until we appreciate the possible and fix the issue of infrastructure and address agricultural prosperity.

It is an opportune time in history to get away from the supermarket and superpower, the monologue and monoculture, centralized power and profit, the linear contractual agreements and the singular focus on volume.

It is time to stretch our imagination, and the conversation, to the possible: Those flexible and robust systems that are respectful and empathetic, diverse and empowering to their greatest asset — people. Food systems are reliant on this dynamic of talent and on the collaboration of farms, processors and customers to not only survive but thrive. The duality of the food system holds promise for a regenerative future.

It is a good time for agriculture to foster a deep and purposeful connection between food and the consumer. This we can do.

— Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website. All rights reserved. Brenda Schoepp 2020

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved.

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