Sky-high food prices were one of many negative impacts that Canadians felt during the pandemic-plagued year of 2021. And a new report suggests that problem is only going to get worse next year.
Canada’s Food Price Report, released today, is an annual report published by Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph that’s the most comprehensive set of data currently available about a subject that all Canadians are impacted by: food.
As with everything else, supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on food prices and availability. Weather events such as the heat dome also didn’t help put food on the table.
“The meat counter was a big deal this year,” said Sylvain Charlebois, the chief researcher on the report and a professor studying food distribution and security at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“It really pushed food inflation much higher.”
This time last year, the report was forecasting an increase of between three and five per cent for food prices, with a theoretical family of four consisting of one man, one woman, one boy, and one girl, on track to pay about $13,907 to feed themselves in 2021.
As it turns out, they were only over by $106. The report tabulates that theoretical family ended up spending $13,801 to feed themselves this year.
Grocery bills set to rise even more
In the coming year, Charlebois says food price inflation is on track to be higher with a likely increase of between five and seven per cent — or an extra $966 a year for the typical family grocery bill.
“It’s the highest increase that we’re predicting in 12 years, both in terms of dollars and percentage,” Charlebois said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
As usual, different types of food are expected to go up in price at different rates, with dairy and baked goods expected to be comparatively much more pricey, while past culprits like meat and seafood will look comparatively flat.
The report says dairy is set to get more expensive because of higher input costs for things like feed, energy and fertilizer, along with higher transportation and labour costs. The Canadian Dairy Commission warned as much in a report last month, saying retail milk prices are set to rise by 8.4 per cent next year to account for those added costs on the production side.
Baked goods, meanwhile, are in for sharp price increases largely because the hot summer on the prairies was devastating to wheat and other crops, the report says.
The other reasons for the uptick are varied, but an increasingly large factor is the growing cost of food waste. More than half of all the food produced in Canada gets thrown out, research suggests, and that inefficiency is finally starting to show up at the cash register at a time when Canadians are counting their pennies more than ever.
Which is why some Canadians are trying to do something about it.
Jagger Gordon is the founder of Feed It Forward, a non-profit program that has set up nearly a dozen pay-what-you-can grocery stores across Canada to give people access to nutritious and affordable food.
Gordon, a chef, says he was inspired to develop the idea when he did catered events and was horrified by the amount of food that went to waste.
“I wanted to showcase how we can eliminate that food waste, be socially responsible and give dignity back to people by utilizing it and putting it back into meals and onto their tables,” Jagger said in an interview at his location on Dundas St. in downtown Toronto.
The food on the shelves at the store comes from various grocery stores, bakeries, processing plants, restaurants and other agencies in and around the city. Shoppers can come in and browse the selection of food on offer to cook themselves, or get recipes and a pre-made selections of meals on site, without having to necessarily worry if they can afford it when it comes time to leave the store. For every $5 a customer chooses to pay, they can get about $20 worth of food, Gordon says.
The system works in large part because it takes advantage of food that other food businesses can’t sell but is otherwise perfectly fine — food that’s about to expire, for example, or fresh vegetables that aren’t the right shape.
“A lot of grocery stores also, if there’s one grape that’s gone fuzzy in a package, they’ll destroy the whole package rather than taking the time just to pull it out,” Gordon said. “What shocks me is the resources that are put into all that production for that plant or product to be developed to [then] be destroyed so easily.”
Big discounts possible
Charlebois says there’s a growing trend from some stores and consumers to try to bring down that waste by finding ways to sell it to those who want it.
“Grocers are empowering consumers to rescue food more [by] showcasing products that are about to expire at a discount 25 to 50 per cent off,” he said. “People are starting to realize that the aesthetics that we see in the grocery store is costing us money.”
While many consumers have embraced a new trend for organic food, Gordon says it’s made food waste even worse in some ways. “They blemish fast,” he said. “They’ll be just discarded or destroyed sooner.”
It’s not hard to find Canadians who are changing their habits and making different choices in their grocery cart or restaurant menus to try to offset rising costs.
Browsing the aisles of the grocery store in St. John’s, Myrtle Mitchell says she’s had to change how she shops because of higher costs. “Prices are almost double,” she said in an interview, which puts stress on her fixed income.
She tries to shop on sale where she can, but she can only do so much. Which is why at the grocery store, she goes straight to the essentials first “then I circle around and then I go up and down the extra rows. If I know I’ve got money left, I go and pick up extra groceries that I have extra stock for.”
It’s a similar story for Nicola Moore in Hamilton. When the pandemic started, she worried about access to food, so she got into gardening to feed her family. “I ended up harvesting … spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes … a garden variety of vegetables,” she said in an interview. “That helped me financially because …I got it for free basically just by going and watering every day.”
Growing a garden was helpful but ultimately she still needs to go to the store for food, and she, too, says she’s changing how she does that. “I’m hunting for bargains. I’m looking for coupons online. I have an app on my phone that tells me when the sales are.”
Back in Toronto, at the pay-what-you-can grocery store, Jerry Oshomah has nothing but rave reviews for what his neighbour Gordon is doing to help Canadians who need a hand with sky-high food prices
“In the pandemic, it’s a little bit difficult because people work from home, and the pain is a little bit high, but it’s okay,” he said, while buying some soup for himself and drinks for his staff at his nearby office.
“It’s a very good store for the neighbourhood,” he said. “This guy is good — he helps everybody.”