TORONTO – Canadians who have grown spoiled by having year-round access to exotic fresh kiwi fruit, mangoes, asparagus and salad greens are experiencing sticker shock as the spiralling loonie and weather woes drive up prices of imports — with no relief in sight.
Food budgets will continue to be gobbled up by imports until produce from this country starts becoming available, says Michael von Massow, co-author of December’s Food Price Report from the Food Institute at the University of Guelph, which predicted Canadians would spend $345 more for groceries this year.
“Right now we don’t have a lot of alternatives. And the alternatives to California and places where we’re buying in American dollars also have strong currencies — and we have to ship farther,” says von Massow, an associate professor.
Some consumers assumed produce from Mexico would be cheaper because of lower gas prices and lower transportation costs but that hasn’t always been the case.
“The things we’re buying in Mexico we’re also buying in U.S. dollars, because we’re competing with U.S. buyers, and so we still have those currency effects for buying those products,” von Massow says.
But consumers can reap rewards by shopping savvy.
“If you’re willing to be flexible and experiment a little bit you can control these cost increases by taking advantage of things that haven’t gone up as much,” says von Massow.
“Many Canadian apples are stored, as an example, so we’re getting harvested apples at this time of year and they’re not going up because they were stored in Canadian dollars,” he adds.
“Cabbage is another one that stores reasonably well and so we can pick those products because they were produced in Canadian dollars, they’re stored in Canadian dollars and while they get more expensive the longer you store them — because we have storage losses and the cost of storage — they’re not going up as much.”
You’ll save money if you eat seasonally, adds Mairlyn Smith, a professional home economist in Toronto.
“We just need to change the way we think about what we eat and what we’re buying and also what you’re throwing away.”
And put spending in perspective.
Celery might be $1.99 a bunch, but “when you think about it there’s usually at least 10 stalks, 19 cents a stalk, it’s nutritionally dense — and how much do you pay for a takeout coffee?” says Smith, author of the cookbook “Homegrown.”
“Then also if you cut the ends off and use it for stock you don’t have a lot of waste.”
Registered dietitian Christy Brissette suggests consumers switch to “old-fashioned” vegetables like leeks, carrots, parsnips, onion, cabbage and squash, which are nutritious, bountiful, filling and less expensive.
Another way to “eat local” is to purchase frozen fruits and vegetables grown in Canada. They maintain a significantly high level of the nutrients because they’re flash frozen. And prices haven’t gone up as much because they haven’t been subject to the exchange rate, says von Massow.
WATCH: How to eat local and healthy in the winter months – more tips from Mairlyn Smith
Here are 7 other tips from Brissette to reduce the cost of fruits and vegetables:
1. Plan menus.
But be flexible when produce prices fluctuate. You can generally substitute vegetables on sale in chili, stew or soup or use frozen or canned.
2. Don’t pay for convenience.
Bagged salads and cut-up fruit are more expensive. Soak dried beans or chickpeas overnight instead of buying canned. Add chopped vegetables, herbs and other seasonings to no-salt-added canned tomatoes to make your own pasta sauce.
3. Consider discounted blemished fruit and vegetables.
Turn bruised apples into applesauce and freeze browned bananas to use in smoothies or muffins.
4. Avoid waste.
Freeze unused portions of spinach and arugula for use in hot recipes (which you couldn’t do with lettuce) or smoothies.
5. Buy large bags of oranges, apples and potatoes.
“If you actually weigh that bag you’re usually getting more than if you put your own bag together.”
6. Buy store brands and stock up on canned and frozen items when they’re on sale.
Compare prices at dollar stores or discount grocery outlets.
7. Join a co-op or community-supported agriculture farm.
You can get local seasonal food directly from farms this way.