Chicken, eggs both go first as feds roll out COVID-19 food surplus program

OTTAWA — More than 12 million eggs will be redistributed via an emergency federal program designed to help farmers faced with too much food and nowhere to sell it due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced Thursday that the government has signed eight agreements worth nearly $50 million to help align the needs of food banks and other community groups with what farmers and producers can supply.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Bibeau called the program a "win-win-win."

"It's reaching three objectives," she said.

"The first one to feed the people in need, second to support our farmers by buying some of their surplus at the cost of production and the third one was avoiding food waste."

The organizations receiving the money include Food Banks Canada, Second Harvest and the Quebec group La Tablee des Chefs.

Altogether, approximately 12 million kilograms of everything from fish to fowl will be purchased from food producers and then redistributed under the $50-million food surplus program announced by the Liberals earlier this year.

The near shutdown of the hospitality industry has meant a sharp decline in the number of places to sell perishable foods.

That has led to litres of milk being dumped down drains, potatoes going bad in storage and farmers facing higher costs to hold on to animals they had nowhere to sell if slaughtered.

At the same time, food banks have reported sharp increases in the number of people seeking assistance, having lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and there were calls for the federal government to find a way to match up the two.

Lori Nikkel, the chief executive officer at Second Harvest, said pre-pandemic, an estimated 58 per cent of all the food produced for Canadians was going to waste.

That number was definitely pushed higher by COVID-19, she said, and she applauded the federal government's leadership in spooling up the program.

Second Harvest uses an online platform, FoodRescue.ca, to link up organizations that need food for their programs with farmers and producers who have surplus goods.

They received $11 million from the government to expand that program to include paying producers directly for their food, and ensure the groups on the receiving end have what they need to process, distribute and store it.

Nikkel said the money will go fast, and she hopes the federal government will consider a new round of funding at a later date as the need will not go away.

"The commodities are going to change," she said.

"Who we are helping now may not be the people we are helping tomorrow."

Bibeau said the government will keep an eye on whether the demand from organizations, and oversupply from producers, remains in the coming months.

"We'll keep the door open in the sense that for now, we feel it's a very worthwhile program, and we look forward to seeing how it will evolve in the coming weeks."

Ten per cent of the product being purchased by the surplus program is being sent to northern communities.

Among the projects focused on those is one with Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba, which received $10.8 million to catch millions of kilograms of walleye and redistribute the fish to more than 75 Indigenous communities.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 13, 2020.

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