Shelling out an additional $420 for groceries next year could put the country’s most vulnerable populations at greater risk for malnutrition, experts warn.
Diana Bronson, executive director at Food Secure Canada, said if food prices go up between three and five per cent in 2017 as identified in a report earlier this week, low-income families and those living in northern communities will suffer the most.
“We already have 4 million Canadians that have trouble putting a healthy diet in front of their families,” Bronson said. “It’s just going to get worse.”
Canada’s Food Price Report, released Monday from Dalhousie University, found that climate events, trade policies — including a potential effect of carbon pricing — and a weak loonie could contribute to the price hikes.
Researchers at Dalhousie found prices for meat, vegetables, fish and other seafood are projected to jump by four to six per cent and the cost for dairy, eggs, bakery products and cereals could see a two per cent bump.
“The real question is affordability. Can people afford price hikes?” asked Sylvain Charlebois, lead author of the report. “If the economy is not providing more to workers then of course we will have a problem.”
The report found that Ontario and British Columbia could see the highest food price increases. It also noted how Donald Trump’s presidency could have a major effect on food prices in Canada because of his immigration views.
A separate survey last month found that nearly a quarter of Canadians were worried about how to pay for groceries. And Global News has previously reported on how the country’s economic woes – particularly a slowdown in Alberta’s oil patch – has contributed to a growing food security crisis.
The findings of the report also mean added pressure for food banks across Canada that are already struggling to keep up with demand.
In March 2016, 863,492 people received help from a food bank in Canada, up 1.3 per cent from the same time last year, and 28 per cent from March 2008, according to the Hunger Count 2016 report from Food Banks Canada.
While the three territories saw the biggest spike at 25 per cent in food bank use, Alberta and Saskatchewan both had increases of nearly 18 per cent and Nova Scotia saw a rise of 21 per cent.
The report noted that anecdotal evidence suggests an influx of Syrian refugees has contributed to the “drastic” surge in food bank use.
Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada, said that when food costs go up, low-income Canadians pay the price, especially with the holidays approaching.
“We are concerned. There are already over 800,000 Canadians every month coming for support from food banks,” she said. “Many are already struggling to provide themselves and their families with adequate food.”
Schmidt says low-income families spend a larger amount of their paycheque on basic necessities – rent, bills, transportation – and have little left over to pay for a sudden increase in food.
What can governments do?
Both Food Bank Canada and Food Secure Canada have called for the creation of a national “basic income” to tackle the root cause of food insecurity in the country — poverty.
Sometimes referred to as a guaranteed minimum income, basic income is a social policy that would supplant various welfare programs by providing a baseline amount of money to all citizens, regardless of whether they work.
“The problem is that people’s incomes, especially the working poor, have not kept pace with inflation,” Bronson said.
She noted that Ontario has already announced a basic income pilot program, while Quebec has expressed interest in looking at a similar program.
The Liberal government has promised to create Canada’s first-ever national food policy to tackle issues such as food insecurity in Canada’s North and the rising cost of food.
In a mandate letter last year Trudeau asked Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay to “develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country.”
Global News reached out to Minister MacAulay for comment but has not yet not received a response.