Halifax professor says our appetite for convenient food comes with many costs

Halifax professor says our appetite for convenient food comes with many costs

HALIFAX—As the Canadian consumer’s love for convenient food options keeps growing, a Dalhousie University professor is warning that farmers could be footing a large part of the bill.

Sylvain Charlebois specializes in food distribution and policy. He said a recent Dalhousie survey suggests younger generations are choosing to dine out more frequently. Almost 40 per cent of Canadian consumers 38 years old and under do so at least once or twice a week.

Charlebois said other surveys have suggested about 35 per cent of the average Canadian food budget is spent on what people consume away from home. That includes restaurants, grab-and-go options and other portable food offerings. Charlebois said that, by 2030, or likely earlier, Canadians will be spending 50 per cent of their food budget on dining out and those other portable options.

Charlebois said one of the consequences of our appetite for fast food options and dining out is the fact it’s eating into farmers’ profits.

“My takeaway is that the more people spend time away from the kitchen, the less farmers get back. Those are fundamental economics.”

Charlebois said there is good news, as technology is making it easier for farmers to connect with consumers.

“It’s important for farmers to recognize that they are actually good opportunities for them to provide ready-to-eat solutions. I would say five to 10 years from now we could see farmers using drones to deliver products to consumers as well. Who knows? The sky’s the limit,” he said.

“I know of many farmers that are doing it already. It’s not for everyone of course. There are some farmers who do want to stick to primary production because that’s what they’re good at, but their model’s going to have to change to become a little more efficient and more competitive.”

And the costs borne by farmers are not the only ones to consider, Charlebois said.

“Time spent in the kitchen is losing currency,” he said. “It seems as though more and more people are losing the art of preparing their own food, which is of course quite problematic because when you think about food you have to think about culture and how you transfer that onto your friends, family, children, and so on.”

“There’s a lot to it beyond just the food itself. That’s one thing. Another thing of course is that it does cost more to eat out and so food security is certainly an issue. If you spend money going out, paying tips, paying that extra, you’ll eventually have less money to feed yourself and your loved ones. That’s pure economics.”

One growing trend feeding into the changing food landscape is the “eating out at home” option. Meal kits offer quick, pre-prepared solutions for those who don’t have the time or inclination to plan meals. The Dalhousie University survey found consumers who fall within the categories of Gen Z and millennials are most attracted to the meal kit option, which can run anywhere between $9 and $12 per meal.

Charlebois said in some countries and big cities where space is at a premium, it’s now become commonplace to construct dwellings without a kitchen.

“Space is a luxury in many parts of the world and so for real estate developers to attract young professionals, the first thing to go often is the kitchen,” he said. “You need a bed, you need a bedroom. So if you actually have access to meal kit providers and people go out more, why bother having a kitchen?”

Charlebois said they consulted more than 1,000 Canadians for the Dalhousie University survey. The sample design was randomized but controlled, with a margin of error of 3.1 per cent 19 times out of 20.

Yvette d’Entremont is a Halifax-based reporter focusing on health and environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ydentremont

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