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Thursday, December 08, 2022

Canada is facing a ‘terrible’ food crisis, says Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain

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Maple Leaf Foods chief executive Michael McCain says the food crisis is about ‘systemic issues.’Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A “terrible tragedy” is unfolding across Canada, where 5.8 million people are living in food insecurity, says Maple Leaf Foods MFI-T chief executive Michael McCain.

They do not have adequate access to food due to financial constraints, and the total has increased steadily over the past 15 years. That figure dropped slightly at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak with the rollout of government pandemic benefits, but is again on the rise, according to Statistics Canada.

Valerie Tarasuk, a nutritional sciences professor who leads a food security research team at the University of Toronto, estimates about 16 per cent of Canadians live in food-insecure households.

Among food companies that have been vocal about the continuing crisis, the response has been to focus on supply – and how to increase it. Other companies have responded by raising their donations to food banks and other charities.

But, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. McCain – who announced earlier this month he will step down as Maple Leaf’s chief executive next year – explained why those approaches are based on “myths.”

“Food insecurity is not about food,” he said. “The fundamental drivers of food insecurity [are] not food. Canada has an ample supply of food.”

Instead, “it really is about the systemic issues,” Mr. McCain said. He pointed to multiple factors tied to food insecurity: income inequality, poverty, mental illness, access to skills (including financial and nutritional skills) and racism.

“It’s all of those systemic issues that are at the core of food insecurity,” he said.

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In 2016, Mr. McCain started the Maple Leaf Center for Action on Food Security, with a stated goal of reducing food insecurity by 50 per cent by 2030. The center conducts research and provides funding to programs and charities aimed at reducing food insecurity.

Last month, Maple Leaf Foods pledged an additional $10-million toward the centre, bringing the company’s contributions to the charity to $20-million. In addition, Mr. McCain has personally donated $5-million to the cause.

Experts have long focused that food insecurity is a problem of access, not supply. They have frequently advocated for policy changes aimed at reducing inequality. Such policies include a universal basic income, increased social safety measures such as child benefit and disability payments, and better labor conditions.

Prof. Tarasuk at the University of Toronto echoed Mr. McCain on income as the root cause of the problem. She said organizations such as the Maple Leaf center help bring attention to the cause.

Given record-high food inflation rates, she said that, in future, people with already limited incomes will likely have to compromise the quality of their food even further. But she emphasized that it’s still income that’s causing food insecurity, not the inflation.

“For me, what food price inflation does do is shine a light on the inadequacy of some income support programs,” Prof. Tarasuk said, “and the need for better attention for the adequacy and indexation.”

But she also has complicated feelings about a major food company taking leadership on such issues.

“Prior to the pandemic, we know that two-thirds of food insecure people were in the work force, which means we’ve got a whole lot of businesses where people are working, and not able to make ends meet,” Prof. Tarasuk said.

“And, in large measure, I’d say businesses have to own that problem.”

Mr. McCain told The Globe that the “vast, the vast majority” of Maple Leaf’s employees are paid above a living wage. “We’re proud of that as a starting point,” he said.

Prof. Tarasuk said chief executives could have an even greater impact by focusing their efforts around employment conditions, wages and benefits – and lobbying policy makers and other leaders in the business community to do the same.

“We need people to be food secure employers,” she said. “And we need leadership from the business community on what it looks like to be a food secure employer.”

But according to Mr. McCain, while wages might be part of the solution, many solutions are needed – especially given the “excruciatingly complex” nature of the crisis.

“There are many dimensions to the problem. There’s multiple layers in the solution,” he said.

“And we do feel like we have something to bring to the table, but only in the context of collaboration with other partners.”

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