Food and Health

Sustainably produced food: Everybody wants it, but few have access to it

By : Maryse Guénette
Photo credit: Markus Spiske (Unsplash)

High prices, difficulty of access, scarcity of information. These are just a few of the obstacles you can expect if you want to buy sustainably produced food.

Would you prefer most of what you consume to be produced sustainably, i.e. “locally-grown food that is produced without pesticides or genetically modified organisms, uses fair labour practices for farm workers, and treats farm animals humanely”?  You’re not alone.

According to the study entitled Sustainable Consumption for All: Improving the accessibility of sustainably-produced foods in Canada, published by Food Secure Canada, most consumers would like to have access to sustainably produced food, whether they can afford it or not.

For Gisèle Yasmeen, the organization’s executive director, this fact is important, as it shatters the stereotype that only a certain type of middle-class people are concerned about their diet.

Our study shows that low-income households would also prefer to buy sustainable food. Unfortunately, they don’t always have the means to do so.”

Gisèle Yasmeen, executive director of Food Secure

Putting workers and animals first

Organic food, good conditions for workers, well-treated animals. It seems that Canadians do not give equal importance to all these factors. For example, what was most important to the 1,500 individuals surveyed in the study was that food be produced “in a way that treats farm animals humanely” or “without exploiting farm workers.”  The fact that this was “extremely or very important” for about 60% of respondents was one of the biggest surprises of the study! “The problems experienced by farm workers became very visible with Covid-19,” Yasmeen says, “but they had existed long before.”

Participants also found pesticide-free production to be extremely or very important” (50%) as well as being GMO-free and produced locally (just over 40%). On the other hand, they were less concerned about organic certification of fruits and vegetables—less than 20% felt this to be just as important. Noting our astonishment, Yasmeen explained, “If it’s not certified organic, it doesn’t mean it’s not organic. There are a lot of small producers who can’t afford to get certified. But when consumers know the farmers, they trust them.”

This may explain why the percentage of participants who always or often purchase sustainable food remains stable at 30 per cent among both lower-income and higher-income respondents. Poorer households sometimes have to choose between rent and food,” Yasmeen said. “But among those who live in subsidized, affordable housing, there may be some who have enough money to eat well. Especially if they get their fruits and vegetables directly from the producer through an organization such as Équiterre (in Montreal) or Food Share (in Toronto).”


Obstacles to buying

Despite this, the study indicates that the price of sustainably produced food is the major obstacle to buying, followed closely by accessibility—participants chose these responses in 50 and 31 percent of cases respectively.

Low-income participants in the focus group, as well as those subject to food insecurity or living in poorer neighbourhoods, reported reduced access to small specialty grocery stores and farmers’ markets. These are often the places where sustainably produced food can be found. According to the survey, 83% of low-income participants had access to specialty grocery stores (compared to 93% for more affluent participants) and 75% had access to farmers’ markets (compared to 87%).

Added to this are mobility problems: for 33% of participants, the grocery store is too far from their home or it takes too long to get there.

Transportation is an important factor. For a low-income household, buses are expensive.”

Gisèle Yasmeen

While some people can walk, there are others who can’t. Note that 50 per cent of low-income participants reported having difficulty getting around or walking.

Another obstacle to buying is lack of information. In order to be able to purchase sustainably produced food, one still needs to be able to identify it as such. However, only 24% of participants surveyed said that it was extremely, very or somewhat easy to find food that is produced in a way that ensures the proper treatment of farm animals, and only 19% responded in the same way about food produced without exploiting farm workers.

Focus group participants said that these labelling deficiencies would likely undermine the confidence of newcomers, who are used to “buying meat and produce directly from farmers.” Others stated that apprehensions about racism or discrimination could lead them to restrict their food choices. Finally, some made the point that people living in very remote communities or in food deserts are confronted with particular challenges.


Towards a solution

The participants were presented with proposed solutions. For example, public policies could be set in place to provide support to local farmers (to enable them to develop markets for local and sustainable food) and also to public institutions (to enable them to procure such products). More funding could also be provided for community gardens and farmers’ markets. Finally, a guaranteed minimum income for all Canadians and subsidies for low-income people would help them purchase sustainably produced fruits and vegetables. The participants largely endorsed these proposals. Ms. Yasmeen said that action is needed in order to attain United Nations Goal 12 on Responsible Consumption and Production  and the Government of Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy.” There is an urgent need to do something; both for human health and the health of the planet itself.”


The Study

The study Sustainable Consumption for All: Improving the accessibility of sustainably-produced foods in Canada (Food Secure Canada, May 2019) examines whether low-income consumers value sustainably produced food and, if so, whether they are able to afford it. It also explores the obstacles they face and the policies that could be instituted to improve the situation.

To achieve these goals, the authors conducted a literature search, held roundtable discussions with 50 low-income individuals in six Canadian cities, and conducted an online survey of 1,500 Canadians representative of the country’s population. They also interviewed 30 leaders in the domain of food security, who helped to prepare the research tools and propose potential solutions that could translate into public policy recommendations.