New Brunswick

COVID-19 creates food supply 'challenges' in New Brunswick, raises food security concerns

With limits on some food items, such as milk, and a scarcity of others, such as flour, becoming common in grocery stores across the province since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, some New Brunswickers are worried about food security in the months ahead.

Province is 'very vulnerable,' and industry is facing 'bizarro world' consumer-buying patterns

Food distribution and policy expert Sylvain Charlebois says New Brunswick won't run out of food but might have less selection as the pandemic drags on. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Looking for flour at your local grocer? You might be out of luck.

Need milk? There could be a limit on how much you can buy.

This is the new reality across the province since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March and some New Brunswickers are starting to worry about what the months ahead will bring.

Will staples like bananas still be available?

Could store shelves end up empty?

Might people have to stand in line for rations like they did in Russia in the mid-1980s?

The Atlantic region's food security is "very vulnerable," according to Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

It's farther away from key supply chains and more difficult to service, compared to other, more densely populated jurisdictions, such as Ontario and Quebec, he said.

And about 90 per cent of New Brunswick's produce is imported.

But Charlebois doesn't believe the province will run out of food.

He points to the Sobeys same-store sales figures released last week, which showed a 37 per cent jump in a month.

"That is unheard of," said Charlebois, who has studied the industry for 25 years.

"It would be like the grocer going through a Dec. 23 — which is the busiest day of the year — three times a day, for a month."

"I mean, that metric in and of itself is a clear indicator of the pressure the entire system is under and how it's able to deliver."

Empty store shelves have some New Brunswickers feeling nervous about food supplies. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

He expects to see the same kind of figures from other grocers, such as Loblaw, which owns Atlantic Superstores. 

Charlebois suspects panic buying and hoarding might account for part of the surge.

The majority, however, was likely due to the closure of dine-in restaurants, he said.

"That sector became non-existent overnight. That's $90 billion worth of business that got transferred over to retail" because people are now cooking at home instead of eating out.

Jim Cormier, Atlantic director for the Retail Council of Canada, said those kinds of shifts associated with the pandemic have created supply challenges.

A renewed interest in baking bread over the past month while people have been stuck at home and looking for a pastime has made yeast and flour hard to find, he said.

With everyone trapped at home with time to kill, many people have started baking, creating an unusually high demand for yeast and flour, leaving them in short supply. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

It doesn't mean that yeast and flour aren't being produced. It just means there's a higher demand for them and it might take more time and effort for grocers to find a supplier.

"It's been really uncharted territory for a lot of our supply chain folks," Cormier said.

Normally, they know how much of a certain product to order and how long it takes to deliver so they can ensure it's as fresh as possible and sells before it spoils.

It's bizarro world right now when it comes to buying patterns.- Jim Cormier Retail Council of Canada

"A lot of that has been turned on its head in recent months because there's very little predictability to people's buying habits now."

Grocery retail sales on a Monday — traditionally one of the slower days — might be up by 85 per cent, decrease 15 per cent the next day, increase by 40 per cent a day later, and then drop into the negative territory, said Cormier.

"It's bizarro world right now when it comes to buying patterns."

So while the supply chain is "still strong," there may be times when certain products are unavailable, he said.

It's up to individual store managers whether to put limits on the number of a certain product a person can buy, based on what is scheduled to be delivered and the anticipated demand, according to Cormier. There are no chain-wide policies.

"Outside of that, I don't anticipate, at least at the current time, there being any decisions to ration products."

Understand the frustration

Loblaw understands the "frustration of an empty shelf," said Mark Boudreau, director of corporate affairs for Loblaw Atlantic.

But he pointed to a recent note Loblaw executive chair Galen Weston wrote to customers that said: "We are not running out of food or essential supplies. Our supply chain and store teams are responding to the spikes in volume and quickly getting the most important items back on the shelf."

Loblaw has teams of employees dedicated to making sure store shelves are filled with the products people want, Boudreau said.

"Our distribution centres are moving food and products through quickly, and governments are making the necessary policy changes to ensure more trucks can get on the road, which means more frequent deliveries to our distribution centres and stores," he said.

Will take time to adjust

Sobeys has been navigating "Christmas-like volumes" every day since the middle of March, said spokesperson Megan Buston. 

"Canadians are eating at home and getting creative in the kitchen. Families are baking together and the demand for products like flour, yeast and sugar have skyrocketed."

The company's distribution and logistics team, merchandisers and buyers, as well as store operations staff are working around the clock, with thousands of vendors, to meet the needs of customers, said Buston.

It has increased its inventory orders and is working with local, Canadian, U.S. and even restaurant suppliers to refill its shelves.

"But it is going to take time for the supply chain to adjust to this demand and our suppliers are finding ways to operate differently in these challenging times.

"This said, we have every confidence in Canada's strong and secure food supply chain."

Jim Cormier, Atlantic director of the Retail Council of Canada, said that in normal times, stores know how much of a certain product to order and how long it takes to deliver so they can ensure it's as fresh as possible. (Submitted by Jim Cormier)

The retail council, which represents "multiple hundreds" of grocery storefronts in New Brunswick, is encouraging people to be as understanding and as patient as possible. 

"In 21st-century society people have become very accustomed to being able to get exactly what they want and when they want it," Cormier said.

"And when you have a pandemic like this, it really does show that there's a lot of complications and a lot of work that's involved in ensuring that you can get some product that's never been grown in Canada" to people in the middle of March.

"You don't just snap your fingers and have a kiwi fruit show up in downtown Fredericton."

If Canada-U.S. border crossings like this one at St. Stephen-Calais had been closed to food transport, New Brunswick would have been in trouble, Cormier said. (CBC/Connell Smith)

Cormier doesn't anticipate the extended U.S. border closure to pose any problems for trucking products into New Brunswick.

Since the border was originally closed on March 21, restricting non-essential travel between Canada and the U.S., it has remained open for trade and commerce "to ensure that a lot of those products that Canadians rely on are still able to be brought across the border to be sold here in Canada."

If the border had been closed to everything, that would have been among the "worst-case scenarios" for New Brunswick, said Cormier.

"It would be different if it was in the middle of the summer and, you know, we were in full growing season here in Canada, where we could feed ourselves.

"But when you get into the winter months, you know, rightly or wrongly, we do rely heavily on importing our food products from all over the world."

Move to grow local

Premier Blaine Higgs has been promoting the need for more locally grown food, especially vegetables, to boost food security.

"If we can ramp up our our ability to grow more here in the province and have a greater level of food security then let's start down that path," he said during his daily COVID-19 briefing Monday.

"One thing we have in this province is certainly lots of land and we need to make better use of it so we can start to reduce our dependence."

The retail council, which has been in daily contact with all four Atlantic governments throughout the pandemic, has one "caution," said Cormier: "That if governments ever decided to look at doing more within their own province for supplying food, that they work with grocery retailers … in advance to ensure that they have all of the information before they start making those types of decisions.

"It wouldn't be just a matter of simply saying, 'Well, let's start buying from somebody else tomorrow.' You'd have to make sure you have a good supply, a consistent supply, a supply that meets safety standards."

Grocery retailers also have contracts with existing producers all over the world to consider, he added.

P.E.I. Sen. Diane Griffin is calling for the federal government to allow Canadians laid off due to the pandemic to receive the $2,000 in support, but also keep any farm earnings as an incentive to address a potential agriculture industry labour shortage. (The Canadian Press)

Charlebois, the Dalhousie University professor, said New Brunswick's supply of produce is "fine, for now."

It's largely products that are already in the ground and growing on trees in the United States.

The real challenge he said, will be this summer and fall when New Brunswick farmers won't have their usual number of temporary foreign workers to help them in the fields.

Those who do make it to Canada will have to self-isolate for two weeks when they arrive and won't be able to work, which will cause delays in planting and harvesting.

Domestic recruitment has always been difficult because many Canadians aren't willing to leave cities to work in rural areas for a short period for low pay, said Charlebois.

In addition, he contends a lot of government programs are "overly generous" and are keeping a lot of workers at home.

"In the end you may see some products put into the ground, some seeds planted. And those plants will be harvested, but there'll be a delay, and yields will be affected as well, so we may not see as much in the fall, unfortunately."

Good time to garden

If people want to "take control" of their own supply chain, Charlebois recommends they start gardening.

"It's good for the soul. You can feel proud too.

"The problem is that there are shortages of seeds being reported because a lot of people are doing it, so you want to get out early."

As it stands, about 17 per cent of Canadians have a garden to grow food, while 57 per cent have flower gardens, said Charlebois.

The lowest gardening rate among cities in the country is in New Brunswick — Moncton at 37 per cent, he said.

On April 16, the provincial government announced gardening and agricultural retailers would be allowed to reopen as "an important part of the food supply." 

Charlebois commends the move. He believes gardening should be an essential service.

Government assessing opportunities

The New Brunswick government is in contact with food producers, wholesalers, transportation networks and retailers and "they all have plans to meet normal societal needs," Department of Public Safety spokesperson Shawn Berry said in an emailed statement.

The Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries and Department of Public Safety are working closely together "to stay on top of the situation and continue to assess current domestic food supply and opportunities to improve supply chains within New Brunswick," he said.

"While we did see signs several weeks ago of people purchasing excessive quantities of certain household goods — including food, cleaning materials and over-the-counter medications — that is now less prevalent.

"Excessive purchasing is counterproductive," Berry said. "It also creates problems for your neighbours by creating temporary shortages. By being mindful of each other, we will all manage this period with a sense of community and dignity."

There were 14 active cases of COVID-19 in New Brunswick as of Thursday, when no new cases were detected for the fifth straight day.