[Julie Bourbonniere, executive director of Moisson Montreal, the largest food bank in Canada, looks over the dwindling supply of fruit at the distribution centre Thursday, January 28, 2016 in Montreal. Canadian food banks hope that the pinch they're feeling from rising food prices isn't snowballing into a full-fledged crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz]
While cauliflower has become the poster vegetable for rising food prices, people all over Canada are feeling the pinch as groceries become more expensive. Hardest hit are food banks and the people who use on them.
“We’re hearing right across the country that food banks are experiencing challenges as a result of increasing food prices,” says Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada. “Food prices have risen by 4.1 per cent, which is above the inflation rate, and people living on very low incomes are impacted at even greater levels than Canadians with middle or higher incomes.”
Last year was a record year for food banks in terms of traffic and number of Canadians visiting food banks for the first time, according to Sylvain Charlebois, professor at the Food Institute at the University of Guelph.
“That’s worrisome obviously, particularly for regions where the labour market is softening like Alberta and parts of Maritimes and Quebec,” Charlebois says. “Food banks do provide a safety net for people families in need.”
Food Banks Canada’s HungerCount 2015 report showed that 852,137 people – 305,366 of them children – accessed a food bank in March of that year, up is 1.3 per cent from 2014 and a troubling 26 per cent from 2008, when the economic downturn started. The national increase was strongly influenced by Alberta, where food bank use rose by 23 per cent from 2014 to 2015.
The average Canadian household spent an additional $325 on food in 2015 and is expected see an additional increase of about $345 this year because of the low dollar, according to the University of Guelph's Food Institute. It’s not just produce that’s getting more expensive; so are processed foods and pasta.
Consider some examples from Statistics Canada: the average cost of a kilogram of celery in December 2011 was $2.48; in December 2015 it was $3.79. A kilo of grapefruit was $2.83 in 2001 but $3.43 last year. A 300-gram tin of roasted coffee cost $5.96 in 2011 and $6.47 last year. Canned sockeye salmon was $4.51 last year, up from $3.44 in 2011. A kilo of ground beef jumped to $12.80 from $8.70.
And here’s the problem: as food costs rise, demand for food banks’ services go up while donations go down.
Multiple factors in rising food cost
With Canada importing 80 per cent of its produce, the weak Canadian dollar is one reason the price of what’s on our plates is climbing, says Evan Fraser, a global expert in food security and Canada Research Chair in the University of Guelph’s geography department. So is the fact that California continues to experience drought; it has become more expensive there to produce fruits and vegetables, a cost that’s passed on to consumers.
Then there are the effects of the international trade agreement. Although it has yielded many positive outcomes over the last 20 years, it has had a negative effect on the Canadian food-processing industry, in particular the processing of fruits and vegetables.
“There has been a real decline in the Canadian food processing industry,” Fraser says. “We have lost capacity to produce and process fruit and vegetables domestically, which means we’re particularly vulnerable to international market shocks such as a drop in currency.
“There has been a significant decline in food processing jobs and factories and in the number of acres our farmers plant fruit and vegetables on,” he adds. “Canadian consumers are exposed like never before to problems on international food markets.”
What’s more, global food prices have actually been coming down over the last five years, yet Canada continues to see the opposite happening.
“Food is cheaper at a global level now than 2011, yet Canada has had significant rises in food prices way higher than the baseline rate of inflation,” Fraser says. “Canadian consumers are losing out given today’s circumstances to an extent that very few other countries are. We have to acknowledge that some of strategies we have taken as country in the last 20 years have put us in the unenviable situation where food prices have never been cheaper and we have never paid more for it.”
Solving the problem
Across the country, food banks are responding to the rising demand in different ways. Some are publicly appealing for donations of both food and cash. Others are focusing on a broader shift in thinking.
“We commit to buying local, seasonal produce,” says Greater Vancouver Food Bank CEO Aart Schuurman Hess. “One of our strategies is not to buy anything abroad. From an increased-cost perspective, we really try to stay away from ridiculous prices and work with local, seasonal ingredients.
“We do understand that seasonal ingredients are limited at the moment, which reminds me of preserving foods in the summer the way our grandparents used to do,” he adds. “They did it for a reason. This whole discussion is about growing our own products again. I truly believe that as Canadians we need to reconsider our food system. You go back to the basics. Shouldn’t we go back to local and seasonal products and enjoy strawberries in May like we used to and not in January when they’re from California and white on the inside?”
The Greater Vancouver Food Bank is also committed to food literacy, something experts throughout Canada agree is desperately needed.
“We focus on connecting people with basic ingredients and showing them what to do with them,” Schuurman Hess says. “People think food, cooking from scratch takes a lot of time, but it doesn’t. With just a few ingredients, you can still make affordable meals that are very nutritious and healthy.
“A little bit of meat, a few potatoes, and some carrots is already a great meal, like I used to eat when I was a little boy,” he adds. “That’s how I grew up in the Netherlands. Kale with potato and sausage was a hearty meal. There was only one store in the village that had a vegetable of the day, and that’s what we would eat.
Food banks are also helping educate their members about lower-cost ingredients—lentils instead of meat for instance—and about smart shopping, looking above or below products at eye level on store shelves for cheaper options.
Fresh fish and seafood prices have stayed relatively stable over the last few years, Charlebois notes, as have those for dairy, with the exception of cheese. But consumers still need to know how to properly prepare what they put in their basket.
“Lentils and pulses are one-tenth of the prices of meat, and you can have access to same amount of protein, but you need to know how to make a lentil soup,” Charlebois says. “Food banks are trying to build that bridge between food knowledge and the nutrition you need in order to survive.”
Schmidt reminds that food banks do not receive government funding and that they need support more than ever.
“We would ask people to think about their own situations, and as they feel the pinch with food prices increasing, imagine what that means for families, individuals, and seniors who are living on even more of a limited income,” she says.
“For those who have a few more resources, it’s even challenging for them; if they can reach out more, if they can provide more food donations or financial donations or hold a food drive for a local food bank, which food banks can help set up through a service club or sports club… just think about how they can get involved and help those who are really struggling.”