British Columbia

Food security, safety at the grocery store a top priority for shoppers

For many British Columbians, the food shopping experience has changed considerably due to COVID-19

From physical changes at the grocery store to a greater interest in growing food, eating has changed

Food professor Sylvain Charlebois says more than half of Canadians are reluctant to go grocery shopping since the advent of COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

For many British Columbians, the food shopping experience has changed considerably due to COVID-19 — whether it's the implementation of physical plexiglass barriers, store employees wearing masks or customers sometimes being given a temperature check before being allowed in. 

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says the way in which we shop has also changed. 

"Six weeks ago, it was about the quick fix. It was about the next two days, maybe. It was all about short-term needs … we were nomads. We were just roaming here and there," Charlebois said. 

"We're not thinking about quick fixes anymore. We're thinking about the next two weeks ... We're not talking or thinking about ready-to-eat products. We're thinking about ingredients."

It's one of the reasons basics like flour, yeast, sugar and eggs have flown off the shelves.

Workers restock grocery store shelves with canned goods early in the morning in Toronto on Friday March 13, 2020. In the early days of the pandemic, many shoppers overbought goods. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

But this shift also provoked some panic buying, some to the extreme of hoarding supplies.

Charlebois says data shows that compared to last year, sales at grocery stores increased by 37 per cent over the last three weeks of March and first week of April. 

"I think a lot of people overbought. But I think the reality is that a lot of people still buy more than what they need, and the reason is very simple," he said. 

"They don't want to go back. They don't want to visit the grocery store as often as they used to."

In fact, Charlebois was in the middle of collecting data around grocery store visits before the pandemic hit. 

"We were actually very lucky to have data," he said.

Before COVID-19, around 18 per cent of Canadians were trying to avoid the grocery store for one reason or another, but since last week, that has gone up to 52 per cent. 

Jan Slakov, a resident of Salt Spring Island, says she has been avoiding going to the store as much as possible. She's turned to growing her own food by saving seeds, something she says many on the island have enthusiastically taken up.

"Seeds are being sold out," Slakov said. "That's actually a really good sign." 

Caitlin Bryant, a resident in Powell River, says the COVID-19 crisis has made her more aware of how her community — which is ferry access only — is vulnerable to issues of food security and distribution.

"COVID has really highlighted what are our urgent needs for food access are," she said, saying that there have been some incredible community initiatives, like neighbours sharing food and food box delivery springing up in the interim. 

"It's really exciting."

With files from BC Today