Food fright: Why the scary prices?


IT’SNOTYOUR imag­i­na­tion. The price of food is go­ing up – and up and up and up. Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent edi­tion of Canada’s Food Price Re­port from the uni­ver­si­ties of Dal­housie and Guelph, Cana­di­ans can ex­pect to pay be­tween one and three per cent more for grub in 2018. The big­gest hit will be on veg­eta­bles where prices are ex­pected to jump four to six per cent. Crunch the num­bers, and the an­nual food bill for a fam­ily of four is ex­pected to in­crease $348 to just un­der $12,000.

This will come as a blow to those liv­ing on fixed and lim­ited in­comes. Ac­cord­ing to a 2017 re­port pub­lished by Health­care of On­tario Pen­sion Plan omi­nously en­ti­tled Se­niors and Poverty – Canada’s Next Cri­sis?, the av­er­age Cana­dian spends less than 10 per cent of their in­come on food. How­ever, peo­ple liv­ing in poverty spend more – way more, as much as 50 to 75 per cent. When prices go up, th­ese peo­ple are forced to get by on less, and it is women who suf­fer more be­cause, ac­cord­ing to the Broad­bent In­sti­tute, 28 per cent of sin­gle fe­male se­niors and 24 per cent of males are liv­ing in poverty.

It’s even worse if you live in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties, which you al­ready know if you live in one. Con­sider Nu­navut where the av­er­age price of a four-litre jug of milk was more than $10 in 2017 ver­sus half that in Van­cou­ver. Ac­cord­ing to the Nu­navut Bureau of Statis­tics, ter­ri­tory res­i­dents pay on av­er­age two to three times more for their vict­uals than us bor­der-hug­gers. High trans­porta­tion costs usu­ally get the blame, but lack of com­pe­ti­tion in small towns any­where is also a fac­tor.

So what drives food prices? All kinds of things in our com­pli­cated global-vil­lage, itchy-trig­ger-fin­ger, trade-war world. Ac­cord­ing to Ox­fam Canada, there are five pri­maries.

1 The high price of oil used for trans­porta­tion and to run farm ma­chin­ery.

2 The di­ver­sion of food crops into the “bio­fuel” in­dus­try; about 40 per cent of the North Amer­i­can corn crop now goes into mo­tor ve­hi­cles in­stead of hu­mans.

3 Cli­mate change. Ex­am­ple: shift­ing rains are turn­ing on­ce­fruit­ful food-pro­duc­tion re­gions of New South Wales in Aus­tralia into a dust­bowl fol­low­ing a five-year drought. Cli­mate sci­en­tists say more fires, floods and dry spells are com­ing all over.

4 Some sug­gest the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008 caused many to in­vest in the ris­ing price of food, fur­ther com­modi­tiz­ing it.

5 The ex­pan­sion of food au­tarky, which es­sen­tially de­scribes gov­ern­ment mea­sures to en­sure the coun­try be­comes self-suf­fi­cient in food pro­duc­tion. This is done by: (a) re­duc­ing re­liance on for­eign food pro­duc­tion so peo­ple don’t go hun­gry in a trade war (thank you, Donald Trump); and (b) shield­ing lo­cal pro­duc­ers from in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, i.e., sup­port your lo­cal farm­ers, even when they’re charg­ing more for the same thing.

To this could be added hu­man greed – the re­cent bread price-fix­ing scan­dal where se­nior of­fi­cials at Canada’s two largest bread mak­ers (Canada Bread and We­ston Bak­eries) al­legedly agreed to in­crease their whole­sale prices in lock­step over more than 15 years. De­spi­ca­ble. Is it likely this kind of thing doesn’t hap­pen else­where in the food in­dus­try?

Ac­cord­ing to the food re­port, there’s another seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion that’s go­ing to be par­tic­u­larly hard hit, and that’s those of you who like to dine out; prices are

ex­pected to go up four to six per cent. No sur­prises there. Restau­rants also have to pay higher prices for food, not to men­tion en­ergy, wages and rent. Another driver here – and an ir­ri­tat­ing one – is the on­go­ing pres­sure by the in­dus­try to ratchet up tip rates be­yond the tra­di­tional 15 per cent; this to shift more of the bur­den of pay­ing wait staff onto the backs of din­ers in­stead of com­pen­sat­ing them fairly to start with and build­ing the cost into menu prices, a kind of full dis­clo­sure many of us would dearly ap­pre­ci­ate. (Can we please have a Euro­pean model for tip­ping?)

Of course, to those of us who es­chew din­ing out as a lux­ury re­tained for spe­cial oc­ca­sions, this is a friv­o­lous hit to the bal­ance sheet; most of us could dine in – we choose not to.

There are ways to re­duce the pain of ris­ing food prices. Be­sides the ob­vi­ous, my favourite is eat­ing what you al­ready have. I re­cently looked in the fridge to see what I might have to serve my wife and son for din­ner. There was one for­lorn-look­ing egg- plant, left over from last week­end’s egg­plant parmi­giana. Or­di­nar­ily I would let na­ture take its course and throw it out when mould started to show. Not any­more. When I Googled egg­plant recipes, I found Ja­panese Miso-Glazed Egg­plant Burg­ers with Fresh Pick­les. Guess what we had for din­ner that night? You can do this with any­thing. Punch what­ever in­gre­di­ents you have into Google, and I guar­an­tee you some­body has fig­ured out a way to make them work to­gether. Bon ap­pétit!

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