Food inflation: Rising prices make eating healthy a struggle for low-income Canadians
Over a six-week period, as part of the ‘Out of Pocket’ series, Global News is examining how inflation is impacting Canadians from coast to coast.
Canadians are feeling the pressure at the checkout lane as grocery prices continue to sharply rise – especially lower-income individuals, whose pocketbooks and diets are noticing impacts the most.
Food inflation is hitting some of the most nourishing foods the hardest, which makes them harder to access by people who are on lower incomes.
“Those who are in the lowest income, on a fixed income, are feeling food inflation the most, and that’s because they have not seen their salary or the income that they make from their benefits increase. But, everything around them has gone up in price,” personal finance expert Rubina Ahmed-Haq said.
In fact, according to the 2023 Canada Food Price report by Dalhousie University, consumers can expect a rise in food prices across the board, with vegetables increasing the most at six to eight per cent, dairy increasing five to seven per cent, and bakery items rising five to seven per cent.
However, processed food prices remain fairly stable, Ahmed-Haq said. This is because the raw ingredients represent a smaller portion of the total price.
The consequences of overpriced foods
But as the most nutritious of food items ring up the highest prices, they become inaccessible to Canadians with less to spend, which disproportionately impacts their health and well-being.
Rosie Mensah, a dietician who advocates for food justice and health equity, said if people are unable to purchase and consume the foods “critical” to a nutritious diet, like fruits and vegetables, it could lead to the development of chronic illnesses later in life, or even to stress, anxiety, or depression.
She added that ailments like hypertension or diabetes could develop later in life if people are forced to opt for lower-quality foods that are cheaper and can be shelf-stable.
Rural vs Urban: Where are food prices higher?
In addition, Mensah said this could burden the country’s already-buckling health-care system, with more people needing to seek care from these illnesses developed as a result of not being able to eat a nutrient-dense diet.
“People will likely need to attend emergency rooms more frequently, and it will become a treatment-based health-care system instead of a preventative health-care system,” Mensah said.
Why food inflation is happening at an alarming rate
According to University of Guelph food economist Mike von Massow, there are several factors contributing to such rampant food inflation.
He said the war in Ukraine is contributing to the rising costs of wheat, fertilizer and vegetable oil prices. This is reflected in rising bread costs and production costs.
Meanwhile, extreme weather events around the world are also leading to short-term and long-term price disruptions, like the drought that scorched western Canada in summer 2021 and some parts of the U.S.
The Canadian dollar has also gone down because of interest rates and U.S. monetary policy, he added.
And in Canada, with icy winters disrupting the growing season, many goods must be imported.
In past decades, even going as far back as 30 years, food inflation has ranged between one and 3.5 per cent, depending on the year. But in this past year, Canadians saw food inflation at almost a whopping 12 per cent.
“It’s almost a perfect storm,” von Massow said. “It’s because all of these separate factors are happening at the same time, which means there’s no magic bullet to reduce the rate because there are multiple causes.”
Tips to navigate food inflation
Even with no “magic bullet” to stop food inflation, there are ways to deal with the rising costs.
However, this may be harder for low-income individuals to do since many work multiple jobs to stay afloat, thus facing time constraints, or already lack wiggle room in their budgets.
Low-income people have been and are already shopping at the low end of the price scale.
“You can’t say, ‘Well, I’m not going to buy a roast this week. I’ll buy ground beef’ because you’ve been buying ground beef. You’ve been buying what’s on special,” von Massow said.
Even so, Ahmed-Haq advised consumers to go “back to basics” when it comes to navigating the grocery aisles at this very costly time.
She said people should try to shop like past generations – with a grocery list – to stay on track and follow a budget, adding surveys show when shopping with a list, people will spend about 23 per cent less.
Out of Pocket: Inflation having big impact on Nova Scotia business owner, investment advisor
Another tip is to shop week by week to be more targeted in what’s purchased versus bulk-buying too much, leading to food waste.
“I just threw out a soggy cucumber because my husband brought home two cucumbers. So then, we had four cucumbers and there’s just no way we could have eaten that many in that amount of time – and one inevitably went bad,” she said.
“This is a story that plays out all the time across fridges in Canada where food gets to the back, and it goes bad because you’ve bought too much, and you’ve forgotten it was in there… It’s like I’m throwing $3 out into the garbage.”
Shopping and comparing store flyers, or even using an app, like “Flipp,” is also a great way to not miss sales and to price match.
“I would say my biggest advice would be the proper planning because I think that could really be a game changer for low income folks,” Mensah said, acknowledging that low-income individuals face added barriers.
Food banks help, but aren’t always the answer
Another option for low-income Canadians is to access food banks, but this solution is far from perfect, as they often aren’t used by people who need them and don’t address the root causes of income disparity.
There are frequently barriers, such as a lack of information or knowing that they even exist in your area.
But the biggest barrier is that people frequently feel guilt or shame when accessing a food bank, Mensah said.
“I think accessing food banks may force folks to see that they need help. So perhaps there’s a lot of shame and guilt associated with them,” she said.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Currently, food inflation shows few signs of slowing down anytime soon, meaning it’s unlikely we’ll see the old prices again.
The good news? Higher interest rates will eventually work into the economy, and inflation can become more manageable at two per cent year over year as it stabilizes, said Ahmed-Haq.
For the time being, Mensah’s words of advice to Canadians are: “Be kind to yourself and understand that it’s a difficult position that you’re in, and you’re doing the best you can because this scenario is quite stressful.”