Opportunities in a new food relationship

Not every pandemic-induced food trend will stick, but buying Canadian is one that should

The pace of change in Canada’s food system might have accelerated under pandemic pressure, but will alterations to our personal relationship to food really stick? 

In some ways yes, but likely not everything. 

According to a meta-analysis of purchasing trends grocers, farmers, and other purveyors will have to wrangle with a combination of new, lasting expectations, as well as a reversion to some old habits. There is ample opportunity regardless – if it can be capitalized on.

Why it matters: The public is primed to make Canadian and local products an even greater portion of their food bill. Retailers and farmers, however, need to be more aggressive in marketing their products to capitalize on the trend.

Building off a joint food and farm sector trend report released late in 2020, Nourish Food Marketing’s latest analysis predicts a critical split in how the Canadian public will respond to food – its acquisition, preparation, and consumption – in the long-awaited a post-pandemic world. 

Jo-Ann McArthur, president and chief strategist of Nourish, describes a “K-shaped recovery” based on how people’s finances have handled the global tumult. But with finite resources, divergent trends towards both higher value and lower value (discount) brands are likely.

In a metaphorical variation of day-to-day reality, the pandemic has likely masked this trend by disrupting where people can spend their money. Travel budgets, socializing cash, and other areas where financial resources would have otherwise been spent have been going to food and other at-home comforts. In a presentation reviewing her company’s analysis, McArthur referred to “splurge experiences” – that is, buying higher-end, novel, or generally more costly products – as a primary example. 

Comfort and joy

Stress and a hunkered-down existence had people worldwide reaching more frequently for comfort foods, specifically, products which are familiar or nostalgic to the individual or family. It also generated an apparently collective enthusiasm for home meal preparation and family mealtime. However, not all are expected to remain as strong as they appeared earlier in the COVID era. 

Assuming the budget to do so exists, McArthur says a lowering of stress levels will spur many to seek out novel experiences via new brands and products. This could be good news for smaller labels, which already made significant inroads into the market in 2020. A new understanding of diet and health – specifically the importance of self-care and comparative triviality of beach body desires – might contribute to this diversity as well. 

As described in the report from Nourish, the stress and anxiety of 2020 have created a new market for food and beverages that claim to promote a calm headspace, relaxation and sleep, or provide resilience. The importance of immunity health will continue as consumers see food and as a path to wellness. 

“The lines between the supplement and grocery aisles will continue to blur. That means superfoods, probiotics, broths, and sauerkrauts. Suppliers are incorporating functional ingredients like vitamin C and D, mushrooms, and adaptogens to foster calmness and support the immune system…While we may reject ‘new’ or ‘innovative’ now, we will be more open to it as our comfort levels go up.”

On-farm impacts

Many other changes are expected as buyers seek more interactive experiences with their food. This includes more engaging in-store experiences, higher demands for affordable products which make home meal preparation easier, and a rollback in the popularity of online shopping. Indeed, the report states 84 per cent of Canadians says they like doing their own grocery shopping, with only 59 per cent claiming they plan on continuing the online route.

Many such preference shifts could have positive impacts on the farm. In a subsequent interview, McArthur says local brands, and even “brand Canada,” will continue to grow in importance. However, she believes the preference for Canadian, and the power of the brand, has not been given the attention it deserves. 

Instead of limiting local marketing largely to seasonal produce, grocers and other food sellers should be showcasing all local products more aggressively – including meats, eggs, cheeses, frozen and other foodstuffs with year-round availability. McArthur adds the concept of “eatertainment,” where food is viewed as an event and novelty is desired, offers even more opportunity to highlight Canadian-grown and raised products. This could be done everywhere, from large grocers to those making farm-gate sales. 

“Farmers need to find a platform to direct market. They need aggregators to help,” says McArthur. 

“Consumers didn’t know basic things, like eggs and milk directly from their province…farmers are so close to it they assume everybody knows, but they don’t.”

Critical to it all, however, is transparency. McArthur reiterates the desire to know where food comes from, and the story behind the product, will continue to be a growing constant. Marketing efforts must account for this factor, whether convenient or not.

About the author

Contributor

Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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