June 13, 2024

The Loblaw boycott is just the beginning

By Matt Johnstone

Last month’s nationwide boycott of Loblaw stores and their affiliates made one thing abundantly clear: Canadian consumers are mad as hell, and I for one hope they’re not going to take it anymore.

Through direct action food shoppers have been doing what they can, where they can. Using the little leverage they have–their hard-earned dollars–to demand some kind of change.

Meanwhile, the boycott’s detractors have had two major criticisms, the first being that it simply wouldn’t work. Time will tell if that’s true or not. But whether the boycott ‘works’ in actually getting prices reduced, there’s still value in raging against the grocery machine.

Folks signaling the increasing inaccessibility of food are being heard more clearly than ever, communities are coming together with alternative options and the local shops that contribute so much to the fabric of our day-to-day lives seem to be smiling a little wider.

Another critique of May’s boycott is that it’s unfair to have singled out one major grocer when they’re all guilty of the same corporate greed. To that, I’d point folks to the boycotters’ demands and explainers on why Loblaw was targeted specifically. Plus, Galen Weston’s everyman persona served the Loblaw brand very well for a time, but that yellow sweater always came with the risk of taking the brunt of the public’s ire when times turned tough.

For many, the very existence of food business billionaires (Westons, Saputos, McCains, etc.) is an affront to people who are struggling to put a decent meal on the table. Almost 50 years ago the federal government ratified the UN Covenant on the Right to Food, yet at last count almost seven million people in so-called Canada are facing food insecurity—nearly a fifth of the population. Rates are highest for those already facing the joint harms of racism and colonialism. Black and Indigenous households are more than three times more likely to experience food insecurity than their white counterparts.

This boycott has come at a time when the high and ever-rising cost of food is hitting those of us in the middle class in the gut in a way that folks who experience poverty are all too familiar with. At FoodShare, the Toronto-based food justice non-profit I work with, the idea of basic needs being out of reach isn’t news. Our organization has been one of the voices crying out for years that the food system is untenable.

It’s been 43 years since the first food bank opened in so-called Canada. By now it should be crystal clear that food banks and philanthropy alone can’t right the enormous wrong of widespread, growing food insecurity. The most they can do is reduce some of the harm created by the deep inequities that lie at the heart of our food system, and our country.

I have the incredible honour of working alongside community members—most of them Black, Indigenous and people of colour, elders, folks with disabilities, renters and others living on a low income—who aren’t waiting around for governments, corporations or charities to get it together. These folks are rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to keep their neighbours fed. They are running community produce markets, growing food through urban agriculture projects, cooking together and sharing food in ways that take the sting out of having so little to go around. Just like the organizers of the Loblaw boycott, they’re doing what they can where they can.

So what do we do next with our anger at the status quo? Continue to boycott, sure. Support local shops, farms and markets instead of the big box stores, absolutely. Show up to support food projects in our neighbourhoods, 100 percent. It all makes a difference, reducing harm in the here and now, but we also need to be doing more. We need to be building community and coalitions across class lines. Together we can advocate for income-based supports like universal basic income, reparations for marginalized communities, and a social safety net that can actually catch someone when they face job loss or disability rather than the legislated poverty we know today.

We need to be listening, and learning, from the folks who have been leading the change and calling on us all to make societal shifts to recognize food as a right, not merely a commodity.

And we need to be grilling every political candidate who wants our vote about what they are going to do, not only to address the urgent state of food insecurity and poverty, but to make sure this country can meaningfully realize its commitment to the right to food for all.

Matt Johnstone is Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto.