New food guide raises questions around access to healthy options

Canada’s new Food Guide, released this week, is strikingly simple. Instead of regimenting food by portion size and by the number of items in each food group to eat daily, it offers general statements about what Canadians should try to do while eating. Eat a diet that’s high in vegetables and fruits. Drink more water. Avoid saturated fats and sugars. Strive for balance.

Though there may be some education required about the contrast in foods that contain those ingredients, and while some nutritionists will say that in every category of food, there are better choices than others, the directions are pretty easy to follow overall.

It’s also interesting that Health Canada is really trying to encourage Canadians to be mindful of their eating habits and to focus more on preparing fresh foods and cooking meals with family rather than grabbing processed options or eating out a restaurants on the run. It’s all sound, in theory, but it brings to mind the question of food distribution systems and the difficult choices many households are facing on a regular basis.

While one would think food that has been highly processed should cost more because of the various steps it goes through before getting to the supermarket, inevitably it is often cheaper and more accessible than fresh produce, meats, and dairy. For those people who are merely scraping by while grocery prices rise beyond the cost of inflation each year, it’s really easy to buy the convenient option that happens to be pre-assembled and likely cheaper.

If this country is serious about healthier food choices, it has to find ways to solve the problem of food insecurity by getting healthier choices to market at affordable prices. We know that Canadian farmers produce an abundance of food and we know they do their best to make it cost effective — often, to their own detriment — so, why is it that their good foods are sometimes out of reach?

Production and distribution costs can be a factor. Those cultivating fresh food elsewhere may have lower input costs, they could receive subsidies, and their distribution could be cut by economies of scale. It’s also hard to tell the initial quality of some mass-produced items. Waste can also enter the equation as spoilage is possible.

If Canadians are going to eat more healthy food, those factors have to be considered. Government investments in programs that share distribution costs like the Prince Edward-Lennox and Addington Community Futures Development Corporation’s partnership with the start-up Freshspoke last year and others than can add shelf life help. The development of value-added products might make growing a more lucrative option. Programs that see excess healthy food collected, processed, and made available for lower costs also eliminate spoilage. Simple education campaigns about buying local and efforts to bring farm gate goods directly to consumers are well worth the investment.

Healthier eating can be taught and it can be passed down through generations, offering many social benefits. The new food guide is a great start. It’s going to take a massive effort from government, producers and commodity groups, and retailers to deliver the right food to make that a success. Here’s hoping the fresh approach to nutrition advice becomes the catalyst to create an effective made-in-Canada food distribution system that will benefit all.

– Adam Bramburger