Last week, researchers from Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph released a report that examined, among other things, the affordability of the dietary guidelines recommended in Canada’s Food Guide. For an academic analysis about food costs, it got major pickup in the media.
Unfortunately, it was mostly misrepresented by TV anchors, who told viewers that a new study had found that the Food Guide’s recommendations are too expensive for most Canadians to adopt. What the researchers actually concluded, though, was that following the guide would reduce household food costs by 6.8 per cent but that fruit and vegetable prices are expected to continue rising, making the suggested plant-based diet more expensive in the long term.
But the cost estimates in the report were calculated on paper, not in a kitchen. They do not, for example, account for “food loss” — and, according to the National Zero Waste Council, Canadian households throw away about $1,100 worth of food every year, 45 per cent of which is fruits and vegetables. So I think it's reasonable to expect there to be more food waste in a produce-focused diet.
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I could probably cut out expensive meat and dairy products and save 6.8 per cent of my food budget. I went to cooking school and worked in restaurants, where I learned menu planning, shopping, and inventory management. As soon as I get home from the store with green beans, kale, or broccoli, I trim, wash, and store them in containers, so that they’ll be ready to eat or cook. As a result, we waste very little food.
However, as I have been reminded in the 10 years since I transitioned out of my cooking career, most home cooks do not have the time, training, space, or lab conditions necessary for that type of meal prep.
Another issue: How can we reliably predict future agricultural prices when our largest trading partner is a country led by an unpredictable negotiator who’s fixated on tariffs and determined to start trade wars although the overwhelming majority of economists believe that’s a losing strategy?
I do agree with the researchers, though, that the new Food Guide (and, keep in mind, its primary audience is elementary-grade children) presents a challenge for Canadians. Eating better demands more of us as cooks, full stop.
The advice that we should eat more fruits and vegetables and less animal-based protein and that we don’t really need dairy except as a neo- and post-natal source of calcium has been accepted by nutrition experts for the last decade. But the admission from Health Canada, via this Food Guide, that our diets require more work (planning, shopping, cooking), training, and skills means that Canada needs to reexamine its public-school curriculum, which currently places no priority on this type of knowledge.
This conclusion is echoed by one of the paper’s authors, Simon Somogyi.
A few days after the release of the report, I heard him speak about plant-based diets as part of a panel at the University of Guelph’s Forward Food conference.
“We have to get them younger,” Somogyi told an audience of hospitality, management, and nutrition students. “Burger King and McDonald’s are brilliant at that — because they promote the idea of fun, while we lecture young people about what they should eat. And nobody likes to be lectured.”
Somogyi argues that companies that know how to use characters, animation, and puppets to connect with young children are able to create customers for life.
“We have a broken food system. Food has been commoditized and, for some time, multinational companies have exploited that system.”
In the United States, the Produce Marketing Association has attempted to counter that with a program called Eat Brighter!, which allows fruit and vegetable suppliers, distributors, and retailers to use Sesame Street characters to market their products without paying royalties. So when you see Cookie Monster on a bag of mandarin oranges, that’s why.
Somogyi also advocated for a source of lower-cost produce that’s hiding in plain sight.
“There’s a section of the grocery store that has tons of nutrients that cost less and are just as nutritious,” said Somogyi. “The frozen aisle. But you can’t get people in there.”
In recent years, we have fetishized fresh produce and the people who grow it. That’s wonderful. But it’s also caused us to shun frozen vegetables.
Shamed by my own fresh-produce snobbery, I bought some frozen peas at the supermarket. No, they are not like fresh shelled peas. But even the fancy organic frozen peas cost far less.
The Dalhousie report brings to mind another recent study, from researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, which found that supermarket shoppers who identified as ethical consumers tended also to identify as having higher socioeconomic status.
Eating better and caring about where your food comes from is likely to cost more — but it doesn’t have to. The missing part of the equation is knowledge. When you depend on restaurants and convenience food, your food bill goes up. When you know how to cook and how to avoid waste, your food bills go down.
If we didn’t teach math in school, we wouldn’t be surprised if students grew up not knowing how to save money, pay taxes, and be financially responsible. That’s what we’re doing when we tell students to eat healthy — but don’t tell them how.
Disclaimer: The author accepted a hotel room from the University of Guelph in order to attend the Forward Food conference.