Will COVID change consumer interest in local?

Some experts say the pandemic has put a spotlight on fundamental changes that need to be made to Canada’s food chain

Shutterstock/Arina P. HabichShutterstock/Arina P. Habich

The past three months or so have undeniably been a time of unprecedented change and upheaval across the entire grocery industry.

What is less certain is how much of that change will be permanent and how much will be temporary. Some experts have pointed out the COVID-19 pandemic has been an accelerant of already existing trends—most notably online shopping. But others have noted consumer behaviours now reveal a need for more fundamental changes to the entire food system. That this is a moment in time when some of the most entrenched elements of the entire food system can be questioned. One example: Increased interest in the supply of locally sourced product and, along with shortened supply chains, more transparency across the food system.

A recent Food Secure Canada report identified a number of shortcomings in Canada’s food supply chain exposed by the COVID crisis, including “an overreliance on import/export systems, especially for fruit and vegetables,” and “the dramatic centralization of abattoirs and food processing.”

The report’s authors call for a sweeping overhaul of the “broken industrial food system” that would prioritize a more sustainable local food system leading to economic renewal in rural communities, greater access to healthier and fresher foods, reduced emission food systems and greater resiliency to shocks.

For example, citing a 2015 study, FSC said “replacing only 10% of the top 10 fruit and vegetable imports in Ontario with locally grown produce would result in a $250 million increase in provincial gross domestic product and the creation of 3,400 new jobs.”

Calls for dramatic changes are in keeping with Food Secure Canada’s goals to eliminate hunger and develop a more sustainable food system in Canada.

But beyond that, the press has also had plenty of stories about consumers exploring more local options and greater demand for transparency in the food system because of the crisis.

“More than ever, shoppers want to understand the supply chain, with complete transparency from farm to factory to distribution, and they want details of the measures being taken to assure their safety,” said Carman Allison in the May issue of Canadian Grocer.

“By necessity, we are seeing the return of production and manufacturing of food and consumer goods to our country and we welcome this change,” Save-On-Foods president Darrell Jones recently told Canadian Grocer. “As Canada’s largest Western-based grocery retailer, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have an already strong network of trusted local and national partnerships. We believe that now is the time to put all of our collective weight and effort into supporting businesses that do business in Canada, and we look forward to working with our partners to advance this effort.”

Last month, the Calgary Herald posted a story about people shopping direct from farm to avoid grocery stores during the pandemic.

“In recent years, consumers have become increasingly interested in supporting ‘local’ and knowing where their food is coming from, said Laurel Winter, farm manager at Winter’s Turkeys southeast of Calgary. Rather than sparking a new trend, the pandemic appears to have simply accelerated a trend that was already happening, she said.”

Data research and analytics firm IRI calls the consumer demand for greater food transparency a “megatrend” over the last five years or so. “We define transparency as the consumer expectation and demand for more information on how their food is grown/made,” said Chris DuBois, senior vice-president of IRI’s protein practice. “That can include everything from where it’s grown, the ingredients used, processing, and more.”

But in the last few months IRI data suggests consumer interest in transparency and products that are organic and sustainable, has been less significant as consumers felt compelled to simply stock up, evidenced by the 30% increase in stock-up, or large basket shopping trips from a year ago.

“Once the current situation settles back into some kind of routine, I’d fully expect transparency to continue to matter as the younger generations (millennials, gen Z) continue to gain buying power, and transparency matters more to these groups,” said Dubois.

But Simon Somogyi has heard those stories about Canadians wanting more local and greater transparency and he’s not so sure they’re true. A professor at the University of Guelph and Arrell Chair in the Business of Food, Somogyi said people may be interested in shopping local but it’s not a simple proposition in Canada.

“The issue with local food is that it tends to be more expensive,” he said. “A lot of people can’t afford to go to a farmers market and spend $5 on two or three heirloom tomatoes, as an extreme example.”

He’s similarly skeptical about traceability and transparency. “There are a group of consumers who are willing to buy local food … who want to know where it’s made, how it’s produced,” he said. “But I think that’s a very small segment of the marketplace who really want to know the fine details of where their food is produced.”

There’s no doubt that some consumers want more local and more transparency, and maybe even a larger number who say that now, during the crisis. But in time, the two biggest trends in grocery that have existed for years will be more important in the grander scheme. “Canadians are looking for high quality at low price,” he says. Canadians don’t want to spend a lot on food. “Back in the 70s, Canadians spent up to 25% of their income on food, and now it is less than 10%.”

That behaviour may become more acute in the month ahead if the economy goes into protracted downturn. People may be taking the time to make elaborate home cooked meals (and fresh bread) now with high quality ingredients, but will that continue once the pandemic is over? ”I’m a little skeptical,” he said. “If both parents are back at work they’ll be time-poor and back to looking for convenience and price.”