Feeding Canada

There is no quick policy fix that could help to bring down fresh produce prices in Canada, a University of Saskatchewan Community Health professor says.

Since late 2015, prices for fresh produce and meat across Canada have increased sharply – most notoriously with cauliflower soaring to prices around $12 per head in Ottawa early in the winter. The increase in price is attributed to the weakness of the Canadian dollar, against the U.S. dollar, coupled with the drought in California, a major agricultural producer.

Such price hikes are likely to leave more and more lower-income people unable to afford fresh produce at grocery stores across the country. Yet there are almost no policy options available for the federal government to push grocery prices back down to a level that poorer Canadians can afford.

Rachel Engler-Stringer, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s department of community health, says the federal government’s inability to offer relief is a result of the globalized systems that deliver food to our shelves.

“As long as we are tied to global commodities systems, it’s very difficult to do in a short term kind of way…it’s going to be based upon our dollar, based upon the price of oil,” said Engler-Stringer.

If Canada doesn’t produce food, it can’t control prices

Food prices in an Ottawa grocery store

High produce prices found in an Ottawa grocery store.
Photo © Tim Forster

Canada’s heavy reliance on importing fresh produce means that control over prices is effectively surrendered to producers in the United States or elsewhere.

“Here in Saskatchewan, we produce only five per cent of what we consume in terms of vegetables and fruit,” Engler-Stringer highlighted.

“The only thing we produce enough to feed ourselves of is potatoes. Most other provinces do have some policy in place… provincial governments have the ability to support different types of agriculture.”

But there are alternatives to fresh produce, says professor Sylvain Charlebois from the University of Guelph’s Food Institute.

“If you’re fond of fresh produce in the wintertime, get more acquainted with the freezer aisle because you can get the same amount of nutrients at a much lower price.”

Such frozen food might be American produced but at a time when produce was cheaper, or produced in Canada when that food was in season.

Otherwise, if the U.S. dollar is forcing produce prices up, it might seem logical to just turn to importing from countries with more favourable exchange rates – but Charlebois explained that this isn’t possible.

“Anywhere around the world, everything is negotiated in American dollars,” said Charlebois.

He does however admit that it’s possible that produce grown beyond the USA could offer Canadians more affordable pricing. But it cannot be done speedily: he pointed out that grocery retailers need to ensure that any new sources of produce comply with Canadian food laws, a slow process that many suppliers choose to avoid.

Offering Canadians ways to afford produce

Even if there’s no way to force prices down, some organizations are working to keep fresh produce financially accessible. Jim Sweetman, the coordinator of the Good Food Box program in Hamilton, Ont., says he strives to make produce accessible to low-income Canadians. The Good Food Box program is a subscription-like service which offers boxes of mixed fruit and vegetables for a fixed price and operates in many cities across Canada.

“We’ve not raised prices in the five years we’ve been running,” Sweetman says. “We are keeping the same number of items in the boxes – at least ten [vegetables or fruits] in the $15 box, and seven in the ten dollar box.”

“Here in Saskatchewan, we produce only five per cent of what we consume in terms of vegetables and fruit.”

Sweetman says that since this winter’s produce price hikes, he’s received more inquiries from what he called “people on the margins, just a few bucks away from going to a food bank.”

The growing number of calls from Canada’s low income families indicate a longer-term problem – one that the government should attempt to tackle, he suggests.

“Social assistance just has not kept pace with any form of inflation whatsoever. So if these people had the proper amount of social assistance…our program wouldn’t be necessary.”

For Engler-Stringer, while the government might not be able to rein in food prices, they can work to give Canadians the means to buy produce even when prices soar.

That income could come in the form of living wages, or guaranteed minimum incomes for all Canadians, Engler-Stringer said.

“The most important factor in food security at the household level is household income.”

Front page/header photo © Tim Forster

Tim Forster is in the second year of the Master of Journalism at Carleton University. Hailing from Australia but ensconced in Canada since 2012, he has previously produced work for CBC in Ottawa and Montreal, Global News Montreal, CFRA Radio and POP Montreal.

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