Keeping the fridge stocked is a weekly chore for many of us, but how much will the average Canadian spend each week? That is, forgive the pun, a million-dollar question.
While Statistics Canada carefully tracks how food prices change from month to month and year to year, it does not reveal the actual price of the foods it monitors.
So Global News turned to Health Canada’s so-called Nutritious Food Basket, the blueprint that government agencies and non-profits use to assess the affordability of a healthy diet.
Our calculations — which involved combing through provincial and county-level data — show that groceries for a family of four cost an average of $220 a week. The math is based on a sample family that usually includes a man and a woman between the ages of 31 and 50, one teenage boy and a girl between the ages of four and eight. (Some of the datasets we used reference slightly different age brackets, but you get the idea.)
Global News’ grocery estimate includes food costs in northern and rural communities, which generally face much higher prices than in cities.
On the other hand, Health Canada’s food basket is meant to represent a diet that, while meeting nutritional requirements, is based on thrifty food choices, noted Kate Comeau of Dietitians of Canada, a professional association that represents 6,000 members across the country.
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So how much do you have to make to be able to afford $220 a week in groceries?
Generally, an affordable food budget should take up no more than 15 per cent of a household’s net income. In our example, that would mean, roughly, $1,450 per week after tax. A Canadian family would need to take home around $100,000 annually in order to have that much left over after taxes every week.
And whether you can afford your groceries also depends on what else is eating up your disposable income — with rent or mortgage payments usually taking the biggest bite. Shelter costs would ideally shave off no more than 30 per cent of your total income, but a whopping 24 per cent of households in Canada currently spend more than that, according to the latest census data.
You don’t have to be living in Vancouver or Toronto to feel the squeeze, either.
For example, in Ontario’s Waterloo region, the sample grocery basket costs just under $200, as measured by the local health unit. After paying for that and rent, a family of four supported by one adult working full-time and earning minimum wage would have only $924 left to pay for transportation, phone bills, dish soap and everything else needed to run a household, according to 2016 data.
In the southern half of rural Saskatchewan, a week’s worth of groceries for a couple with children cost a whopping $247 in 2015.
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In Nova Scotia, a single mother with two boys working full time for minimum wage would find herself over $500 in the hole every month if she shopped based on Health Canada’s food basket.
The reality, though, is that most people tend to cut back on groceries rather than miss paying their bills, said Comeau.
“Food is the most flexible part of a family’s budget.”
And Canadians living in rural areas or so-called urban food deserts would struggle to replicate Health Canada’s food basket not just because of prices but because of availability, said Michael von Massow, associate professor in the food, agriculture and resource economics department at the University of Guelph.
When the only food store within reach is a convenience store, for example, “it’s much harder to get a healthy food basket for that price,” said Massow.
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To protect your wallet from food-price swings, switch things up and stock your freezer
Canadians on a tight budget also have to contend with significant food price swings on a regular basis, said Massow. While the pace of food inflation has been holding rather steady over the long run, some products will inevitably see price spikes every year.
Food prices can be as fickle as the weather, which affects crop yields. But in Canada, which imports a lot of its food, the exchange rate is another source of uncertainty.
Earlier this year, Canadians were wringing their hands over the price of lettuce and celery, which jumped in April as torrential rains spoiled crops in California.
Now eyes have turned to orange juice after Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida’s citrus plantations.
“Consumers feel those price increases more significantly because we are creatures of habit,” said Massow.
So if you are used to drinking OJ at breakfast and juice prices soar, you are likely to get dinged, at least at first.
The best way to shelter your wallet from such ups and downs is to be flexible with your grocery list and stack your freezer full of healthy, unprocessed frozen food.
Being open to eating a variety of foods means you can easily substitute items that have become pricier. And frozen vegetables are a great way to insulate your grocery budget from both “the exchange rate and the long truck ride from California,” said Massow.
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Why your grocery bill is probably climbing – if food prices aren’t
Dropping $220 a week on groceries may seem like a lot. But as far as food prices go, 2017 has been a good year so far — at least on paper.
Food prices often rise faster than overall inflation in Canada, but this year they’ve been subdued. They even fell in August and September compared to the previous month.
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t notice, however. Most Canadians probably haven’t, either.
That’s because while food costs have been stagnating, the price of restaurant-bought food climbed by 2.7 per cent over last year, nearly twice the rise in retail food prices, noted Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University.
Around 30 per cent of Canadians’ spending on food goes toward eating out these days, and that percentage keeps climbing.
As more and more time-starved Canadians gobble down meals that don’t require any cooking, the food service industry is booming, said Charlebois. And growing demand means menu prices can soar, even if the cost of food doesn’t.
In 2016, restaurant industry sales were up by almost 4 per cent, while sales at food retailers stagnated, according to Charlebois.
“Meals in the traditional sense are slowly disappearing in Canada,” he wrote recently.
Notably, measurements of what it costs to feed a family based on official dietary guidelines don’t capture that trend. Health Canada’s food basket only includes ingredients that require cooking.
Keeping food costs as low as they can be while eating a balanced diet, after all, generally requires a decent investment of time in the kitchen.
So if you occasionally slip up and order out for the whole family, you might be spending more than $220 a week — especially if you’re opting for, say, salads rather than pizza.