Navigating the soaring costs of groceries

Got milk? Yeah, me neither

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produce stand in a grocery store isle
PHOTO: Jin Song / The Peak

By: Yasmin Hassan, Staff Writer

If you’ve recently gone grocery shopping, you’ve likely noticed concerning rises in food prices. Why has everything gone up a couple of bucks, but the portions have gotten smaller (also known as shrinkflation)? Why have the prices for staple items skyrocketed in the past few years with little consensus on why? Why are our wages so low, and our produce prices incredibly high? These are just some questions many people like me are asking. I’m no economist, I’ll admit that right now. But, that doesn’t mean these terms aren’t worth trying to understand, nor does this mean we shouldn’t hold powerful parties accountable.

Many people are speculating why grocery giants have done little to change the costly nature of buying food. Back in March 2023, CEOs of the largest grocery store corporations (Loblaw, Metro, and Empire) met before Parliament to defend against accusations of profit-mongering, or, as the NDP might call it, “greedflation.” I’m not the only one who thinks these costs that affect food inflation aren’t entirely up to supply-chain mishaps or the carbon tax. It’s a bit unrealistic for company CEOs to expect people to afford basic necessities like food, hygienic products, and other commodities when they’re economically unobtainable. 

The NDP passed a bill to lower grocery prices and increase the extent to which the Competition Bureau has the power to prevent large corporations from abusing their dominant positions in the market. On top of that, organizations like the community union ACORN have also taken action in the form of protests and calling for increased taxes on corporate grocery profits, but some are saying that that’s not the answer to our problems. Another thing you might’ve seen is the recent Loblaw boycott — Loblaws is Out of Control — that started as a sub-Reddit, grew to 70,000 members and is now happening across Canada. The reasons driving these grocery prices up are like a trifle cake: too many layers. We can sit here and blame greed (a valid point) or the general rise of inflation, but the bottom line is that there are so many interchanging factors that have an unforeseen effect on consumers. 

This isn’t just about how food prices have risen —  this all boils down to a reflection of the overall high cost of living in Canada right now.

And how do our farmers feel about this? How have they been affected? Executive director of the BC Association of Farmers Markets, Heather O’Hara said farmers who sell at farmers markets are “not necessarily interested in volume and better margins” and that “the goal of a conventional mass grocer is different than the goal of a farmers market.” As much as no one’s immune to food inflation, farmers are impacted in a similar way. Although many say it’s better to shop locally and support your farmers, which I totally agree with, sometimes it can be pricey! It’s all fair game, though, because oftentimes, the heightened cost of production is reflected in the cost of the product. 

So, what can we do? Will fixed-price ceilings or prize freezes work? I doubt it. Prize freezes, according to some (and me), seem like a bit of a publicity stunt coming from the major grocery corporations in order to please the public for a while. Price controls won’t do anyone any good in the long run, because one way or another, the corporation’s expenses will be cut so they can continue to pocket outrageous profits — and that might mean actions like layoffs. Canada also relies heavily on imported food, especially during winter, so limiting exports won’t be beneficial either. But it’s not completely miserable. Some say that if we can increase food resilience —  which means diversifying food sources to reduce the risk of shortages due to importation or weather — and reduce domestic trade barriers, it might help bring costs down. Wage push inflation might also help in propelling the momentum for wages to catch up to high prices, but that will definitely take time. 

Although it is getting better, wages are low and slow to catch up to the rate of inflation at this point. Even if we might be getting paid more, prices are still rising beyond pay increases, which makes the overall cost of living really uncomfortable. Raising wages is important, but this doesn’t guarantee prices stop surging. If inflation is slowing down, and people get higher wages, that could lead to more spending which only makes inflation worse! Ultimately, wages need to keep up with inflation rates. Many of us will never be able to buy a home in the Lower Mainland at this rate, and that’s not to mention find an affordable apartment to rent — so why not at least make basic necessities something that’s accessible? Why should a family of four expect to spend an average of $16,297.20 on food this year? That’s not even accounting for people who have to choose between putting food on the table or paying rent for the month; how is it fair to them? This isn’t just about how food prices have risen — this all boils down to a reflection of the overall high cost of living in Canada right now. We should hold grocery giants responsible when guarantee price gouging, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only solution to this mess. What is clear is that the government needs to make affordability a top priority.

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