Even though the cauliflower crisis has abated, food prices will still eat up a greater portion of the household budget for the foreseeable future.
Outcry over $8 cauliflower plus improved growing conditions south of the border led grocers to drop retail prices.
Although cauliflower only briefly became a luxury item, the price of other fruits and vegetables are still higher than normal. Consider the $2.99 bundle of green onions or pale iceberg lettuce. Paying $4.99 for limp celery and $8 for strawberries is now a reality, and likely to stay that way until the dollar rebounds or locally grown foods start appearing in stores.
Only the price of cabbage seems stable, said Alexandra Ostaniewicz. Since there’s only so much cabbage a family can eat, this Toronto mother of two had to get creative. Last week, foraging for sales, she discovered 99-cent packages of fresh mushrooms. She bought 15.
“Stuffed mushrooms, fried mushrooms, grilled mushrooms, mushroom pizza, puffed pastry mushroom bites, something different every day,” said Ostaniewicz, on maternity leave from a job in the public service. She does the shopping and cooking for her 6-month-old, 4-year-old, husband and parents, who live together in midtown Toronto.
Like many, Ostaniewicz has also become a voracious reader of flyers. Still, she estimates her grocery bill has increased by about $15 per week, starting in the late summer/early fall of last year, as local produce dwindled and reliance on imports grew.
“We were joking we’re going to have to start growing some of our own food, but at this time of year, everything’s covered in snow,” she said.
While that’s typical in Canada — to eat local all winter means a lot of root vegetables — this year has been particularly tough on consumers due to unpredictability in both weather abroad and the value of the loonie at home.
Overall, Canadians are likely to spend an extra $345 on groceries in 2016, according to a report from the University of Guelph’s annual Food Price Report released in December. They spent an additional $325 in 2015 over the previous year, and it’s not as if incomes are rising in tandem: food prices are expected to rise four per cent this year, more than double the current 1.6 per cent inflation rate.
Toronto families spend about nine per cent of their budget on food, slightly lower than the national average of 10 per cent, but that’s expected to creep up, said lead author Sylvain Charlebois. When the cost of food outstrips any gains in income, families are forced to compromise, he said.
“They have to sacrifice something in their budget to feed themselves.”
Multiple factors have converged to create a food system susceptible to external forces, such as the price of a barrel of oil and how much rain has fallen halfway around the world.
“If you go into any grocery store, you should expect to pay a premium for anything grown outside of our country,” Charlebois said.
Ontario is a net exporter only in some grains and soybeans, and imports $4.9 billion in fruits and vegetables while exporting only $1.1 billion. That leaves a massive trade deficit in fruit and vegetables alone. Nearly two-thirds of all imported food comes from the U.S.
And about 80 per cent of the food sold in Canadian stores is sourced internationally, according to David Wilkes, senior vice-president of the Retail Council of Canada’s government relations and grocery division. And even when bell peppers are flown in from Israel, the exchange is done in U.S. greenbacks.
California exported $1.7 billion in fruits and nuts, including $271 million in strawberries alone to Canada in 2014. That state has struggled with drought, unusually cool weather and the El Niño weather system. In Mexico, cold weather has impacted hothouse vegetables such as zucchini and in Guatemala, heavy rain affected the quality of melons.
For now, what might look like shortages in the produce aisle is more likely retailers’ hesitancy to stock large quantities of vegetables at highly inflated prices, like the infamous $8 cauliflower, Wilkes said.
A market update released by importer Fresh Start Foods Canada Ltd. on Monday noted supply deficiencies of many fruits and vegetables. Green onions and green peppers, zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant from Mexico were limited due to cold and rain. Berries from California were “very limited.” Lettuce from Arizona was damaged from lack of rain.
That translates to a $3.69 head of lettuce at one downtown store.
“Honestly, I’ve never seen a sustained market like we’ve had,” said John Bishop, director of purchasing for the Milton-based importer, who’s been in the business for almost three decades. “That’s what we call it in the business, where prices stay unreasonably high simply because of growing conditions.”
Prices rise all the way down the chain: growers want the same income per acre, shippers are moving less and charging more and retailers operating on thin profit margins start charging higher prices.
This year El Niño has created changeable weather patterns from the Pacific to Atlantic coasts. Although the worst might be over, NASA scientists said this week that a “second peak” was still possible.
Though not much can be done to alter the forces of Mother Nature or the free fall of the loonie — which could still drop to an all-time low of 59 cents, according to David Doyle of Macquarie Capital Markets Canada Ltd. — reducing our reliance on imports could help consumers, as well as eating like our grandparents did: sticking to frozen vegetables and food that is grown within Canada during winter months.
Bringing food processing back to Canada could also stabilize prices in the long run. Since 2006, 143 plants have closed, mostly in the meat, dairy and bakery sectors. Only 63 new plants have started operations. That means even though grain is grown in Canada, the cost of pasta has also increased, because the grain is processed elsewhere.
And when it comes to fruits and vegetables, Canada should increase its agricultural capacity in winter with greenhouses or hydroponics, said the University of Guelph’s Charlebois, adding recent high prices might encourage investment if farmers see consumers willing to pay more.
Meanwhile, Canadians still spend slightly less than 10 per cent of their household budget on food in stores, according to Statistics Canada. In the 1960s, it was nearly twice that. In the U.S., spending on food at home dropped to just over five per cent, down from 14 per cent in 1960. Kenyans, in contrast, spend half their household budget on food.
According to the latest United States Department of Agriculture Changes in Food Price Indexes report, food spending at home as a proportion of income actually fell 0.5 per cent from December 2014 to December 2015.
Though some critics responding to the cauliflower crisis have alleged the recent outcry over high food prices amount to food “gentrification” and “a sense of entitlement,” some food banks have also seen a decrease in donations and expect an increase in demand.
Eat this, not that
Higher prices for some items can actually be a good thing, said Toronto dietician Abby Langer, because it forces home cooks to think beyond the same old standards.
“People tend to buy the same stuff every time they go to the grocery store,” she said. Instead, think seasonal and local: sweet potatoes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and winter squash can all be found at affordable prices.
Strawberries: Buy frozen if you must have strawberries. If you’re just looking for a hit of vitamin C, choose oranges or grapefruit, which are bountiful right now in the southern U.S.
Celery: There’s no real substitute for celery, which is famously high in fibre but low in calories. For a bit of crunch in your tuna salad, try radishes or onion.
Green onion: This one’s easy — white onion will do.
Lettuce: Make cabbage coleslaw, carrot and raisin salad, or roast root veggies instead of serving leafy greens. Kale lovers will rejoice because the hardy green remains affordable.
Hothouse tomatoes: Although local tomatoes are months away, canned tomatoes are also nutritious and often taste better than the ones trucked in from Mexico.
Zucchini: It’s known as summer squash for a reason, but winter squashes with harder shells such as acorn and butternut are readily available.
Nuts: Choose seeds, which have a similar fat and protein content. Nut butter, such as natural peanut butters, remain at stable prices for now.
Pasta: If pasta seems pricey, try other grains such as rice, wheat berries, barley, Farro or spiralize beets, kohlrabi or carrots.