Applications are now open for the federal government’s newly renamed surplus food rescue program — and more has changed than just the program’s name.
When the $50 million program was announced last month, Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau wasn’t specific about which products were eligible for what was then billed as a “food surplus purchase program.”
But potatoes, chicken products and mushrooms were mentioned as foods at risk of going to waste while restaurants remain closed and the larger food service industry is still being disrupted by the pandemic.
Although the government still isn’t saying exactly which commodities will be “rescued” with the new funding, the money will be allocated in rough thirds — with one third being used to buy horticulture products (such as grains, fruits and vegetables), another third earmarked for buying surplus meat and poultry products and the final third set aside for purchasing fish and seafood.
The program also a new goal — of directing ten per cent of the program’s purchases to Northern communities, where food supplies are insecure at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.
“With restaurants and hotels closed for weeks, many producers were left with extra food they couldn’t sell,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters during his regular briefing outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa this morning. “Farmers work hard to raise their livestock and grow their crops. They shouldn’t be in a position where they have to see that wasted.
“This is a win-win. Farmers will have people to buy their goods and food will get to the plates of families who wouldn’t have enough otherwise.”
In the U.S., the federal government regularly purchases surplus food from its agriculture sector and redirects them to agencies that provide things like school lunch programs. In some places, these purchase programs have a vast government infrastructure behind them and deliver billions of dollars in subsidies to farmers who would not otherwise find a market for their products.
This new program is a first for Canada. But as its new name suggests, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada wants to position it as a way of avoiding food waste and feeding hungry people — not as a bailout for farmers or processors.
When the program was announced, the government suggested it would work with partner organizations from the charitable sector that had experience in food rescue and distribution, such as food banks, the Salvation Army and breakfast clubs. But the application process is also soliciting proposals from for-profit businesses and industry groups, or projects that have both non-profit and for-profit partners.
The program, which is now open, will be accepting applications until July 31 or until the funding runs out, whichever comes first.
The government is looking for proposals that are cost-efficient and capable of delivering significant volumes of food at either the cost of production or less.
Closed restaurants affect demand
Projects must offer a detailed proposal of the logistics for delivering food from where it’s produced to the community organizations that will use it. The costs of the program must also be shared between the federal government and the applicant(s): an industry or charity making a bid for the new money must also demonstrate a contribution of its own resources for the cause.
The funding allocated to this program isn’t enough to purchase all of Canada’s surplus food. Last month, potato growers alone estimated they had $200 million in surplus inventory because Canadians were staying home instead of indulging their French fry cravings at fast food restaurants or pubs.
It may, however, take some pressure off certain industries and give them room to adjust this year — especially if a return to normal business is still months or even years away for the restaurant industry.
Watch: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s full news conference for Monday June 15:
It remains to be seen whether the types of food currently at risk of going to waste in Canada are a good fit with the dietary needs of the community groups who will receive it.
While fish and seafood were not previously mentioned as program targets, consultations with those industries revealed they too were suffering because restaurants are no longer purchasing things like lobster, mussels or certain fish products in their usual volumes.
Some types of farming and food processing have been hit harder than others during the pandemic. In the case of meat processing, pandemic concerns so far have been mostly about the risk of meat shortages due to slaughterhouses being temporarily idled by employee illness, and not about surplus supplies going to waste.
However, foods processed and packaged for food service customers are not always suitable for resale in grocery stores. They could be used instead in soup kitchens, for example.
No regional spending quotas have been set for allocating the money, although all government spending programs aim for some kind of regional balance.
A province like Prince Edward Island is facing a double-whammy in two key industries right now: potato farming and the fishery. Successful proposals under this program could help either, or both.