Survey finds COVID-19 has Canadians asking for better food systems and food access

Mon, Dec 14, 2020

Shopping anxiety, higher food prices and individual income limitations are some of the factors making access to food challenging for Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study suggests.


Researchers conducted an online inter-provincial survey with residents of B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces during the first wave of COVID-19. The survey assessed how the pandemic affected food access and behaviour in each region and how perceptions regarding the food systems may have been altered.


The study revealed that while most Canadians have not found it difficult to access food during the pandemic, many consumers are worried about shopping in grocery stores. In Quebec, about one in five respondents said their income was too limited or food was too expensive, and 15 per cent said they were too worried or anxious to go out and purchase food. For respondents in Ontario and Alberta, anxiety about going out to purchase food was the biggest limiting factor (28 per cent), while limited income or food being too expensive was an issue for 21 per cent of Albertan and 18 per cent of Ontarian respondents.


The results also indicate that Canadians adjusted their food shopping practices during the pandemic. The percentage of respondents using online pickup or delivery from grocery stores tripled in Quebec to 27 per cent. In BC, 20% or respondents who did not engage in online grocery shopping in 2019 now did so during the pandemic.


Respondents reported changes in their food consumption behaviours during the pandemic with many Canadians opting for more sweet or salty snacks and more fruit and vegetables. In Ontario, among respondents who reported a change to their diet, 43 per cent reported eating more sweet or salty snacks and 30 per cent said they were eating far more fruit and vegetables. In B.C. the percentages for those two categories were 40 and 36 respectively.   


The Food access, Concerns and Perceptions during the COVID-19 First Wave survey was a collaboration of five institutions across Canada: the Institute of Sustainable Food Systems (ISFS) at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the School of Public Health and Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta, the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, the School of Human Nutrition at McGill University, and the Food Policy Lab at Dalhousie University.


Across Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C., 89 per cent or more of respondents in each province agreed or strongly agreed that substantially developed local and regional food systems would be more reliable during the pandemic.


“Unsettled times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic emphasize the importance of local and regional food system development,” says ISFS director Dr. Kent Mullinix. “Our communities need food systems which not only provide wholesome nutritious food to consumers but also equal opportunity in food access to all.”


British Columbia


“In B.C., we found evidence that certain population groups are more vulnerable than others, having a harder time accessing food. This includes Indigenous populations, people with children living at home, households with lower income and those at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 infection. We plan to conduct further analysis across all provinces in the coming weeks,” says ISFS senior research associate Dr. Wallapak Polasub.


“The knowledge of having a stable food supply with short travel distances reassures people of their food access capacity during the pandemic. Canadians would like to see the development of robust local-regional food systems that directly support their communities. Flourishing of local food producers will also mitigate other barriers to food access such as lack of transportation or food retail options within local communities.”




“In Alberta, 61 per cent of participants noted a perceived increase in food prices, 45 per cent indicated difficulty in accessing food due to anxiety, limited income and high price,” says Dr. Mary Beckie, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.


“What surprised me the most in Alberta, where industrial, export-oriented agriculture dominates, was the relatively high level of concern over the global food system, and that the majority of people agreed that a local/regional food system could be more reliable, safer and also generate employment and income opportunities and that the provincial government should support its development.”




"In Quebec, which had experienced the highest COVID-19 case number in the country at the time of this investigation, we observed a tripling of the proportion of respondents who reported using online grocery methods during the pandemic period at 27 per cent, compared to 9 per cent in 2019,” says Dr. Daiva Nielsen, an assistant professor in the School of Human Nutrition at McGill University.


“This observation corresponded with an 11 per cent decrease in the proportion of respondents who reported accessing food via in-store grocery shopping during the pandemic, which was 85 per cent compared to 96 per cent in 2019.


“Most respondents in Quebec reported little difficulty in accessing food during the first wave of the pandemic; however, among those who reported difficulties the most common factors were income/cost considerations, worry about in-store grocery shopping and transportation. Self-isolation and quarantine was also reported as a factor by seven per cent of respondents.


"Nearly half of Quebec respondents, 44 per cent, reported that their diet had changed since the start of the pandemic. Lower consumption of meat protein was the most commonly reported change. Our observations suggest that food impacts related to the pandemic may have occurred for a few different reasons, with shopping anxiety and self-isolation representing novel, pandemic-specific factors. The increased uptake of online grocery methods during the pandemic period is an area that should be further monitored to ensure that demands for online shopping are met.”




"Over half, or 54 per cent, of the Ontario participants reported changes to their diets. This is an important finding given that the majority of participants, 71 per cent, indicated no change to their employment status, so a change in what they eat is likely not income-related. The most prominent reported change was an increase in the consumption of sweet and/or salty snacks," says Dr. Irena Knezevic, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.


"Ontarians seem acutely aware of the vulnerabilities in the food system. Three-quarters of the respondents expressed moderate to high concern with the reliability of food supply, 92 per cent reported moderate to high belief that local/regional systems would be more reliable, and 96 per cent expressed moderate to high desire to see the province better support local food systems.”


Atlantic Canada


Survey results for Atlantic Canada are being collated.


“COVID-19 is a looming nutrition problem and policy problem for the Atlantic provinces, where diet-related health risks are among the highest in Canada. A key positive has been the strong public health response in the region to date. However, many families and food system sectors are facing economic precarity of unexpected scale and duration,” says Dr. Catherine Mah, Canada Research Chair in Promoting Healthy Populations. Dr. Mah is an associate professor in the Faculty of Health at Dalhousie University and director of the Food Policy Lab.


“Our survey collaboration with KPU offers insights into food access concerns during the COVID-19 first wave in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. This type of regionally-focused co-operation with national coherence in mind is essential to food and nutrition research as well as policy in Canada, as we move forward in the COVID-19 response and recovery.”


About the Food access, Concerns and Perceptions during the COVID-19 First Wave survey


Five nearly identical online surveys were administered separately in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador) from April to August 2020. A total of 4,928 responses were received.


The information highlighted how geography and regional culture influence people’s behaviour and contributes to discussions regarding food equity, as well as the importance and urgency of creating reliable and resilient regional food systems. While the data provides novel insight into Canadian consumer food experiences during the pandemic, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of the study, including the open online recruitment method that may limit its generalizability to all Canadians and the self-reported nature of the data.


The studies are supported by VanCity Credit Union, University of Alberta – Faculty of Extension, Carleton's University Rapid Response Research program, McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity Emergency COVID-19 Research Funding, the Canada Research Chairs program and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. For more information, visit