Canada faces ‘terrible’ food crisis, says Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain

Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain says the food crisis is about “systemic problems.”Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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

Due to financial constraints, they do not have adequate access to food and the total has steadily increased over the past 15 years. That figure fell slightly at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak with the government’s roll-out of pandemic benefits, but is rising again, according to Statistics Canada.

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences and leading a food security research team at the University of Toronto, estimates that about 16 percent of Canadians live in food-insecure households.

Among the food companies that cast their vote on the ongoing crisis, the response has been to focus on supply – and how to increase it. Other companies have responded by collecting their donations for food banks and other charities.

But in an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. McCain — who announced earlier this month that he will step down as Chief Executive of Maple Leaf 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] no food. Canada has a wide range of food.”

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

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

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In 2016, Mr. McCain started the Maple Leaf Center for Action on Food Security, with the goal of reducing food insecurity by 50 percent by 2030. The center conducts research and funds programs and charities aimed at reducing food insecurity.

Last month, Maple Leaf Foods pledged another $10 million for the center, bringing the company’s contributions to the charity to $20 million. In addition, Mr. McCain has personally donated $5 million to the charity.

Experts have long emphasized that food insecurity is a problem of access, not supply. They have often advocated policy changes aimed at reducing inequality. Such policies include universal basic income, increased social security measures such as child support and disability benefits, and improved working conditions.

Prof. dr. Tarasuk of the University of Toronto echoed Mr. McCain about income as the root cause of the problem. She said organizations such as the Maple Leaf center are raising awareness about the matter.

Given record-high food inflation, she said that in the future, people with already limited incomes will likely have to compromise the quality of their food even more. But she stressed that it is still income that causes food insecurity, not inflation.

“What food price inflation does for me is shed light on the inadequacy of some income support programs,” said Prof. Tarasuk, “and the need for better adequacy and indexation focus.”

But she also has complicated feelings about a major food company taking charge of such issues.

“Before the pandemic, we know that two-thirds of people with food insecurity were employed, which means we have a lot of businesses where people work and are unable to make ends meet,” said Prof Tarasuk. said.

“And to a large extent, I’d say companies need to own that problem.”

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

Prof. dr. Tarasuk said chief executives could have an even greater impact by focusing their efforts on benefits, wages and benefits — and by lobbying policymakers and other business leaders to do the same.

“We need people who are food-safe employers,” she said. “And we need industry leadership on what it looks like to be a food-safe employer.”

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

“The problem has many dimensions. There are multiple layers in the solution,” he said.

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

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