DeMONTIS: I have never seen food prices as bad as they are today

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I eat from a foodie background. My mother was a professional cook at a time when the food industry in Canada was in her infancy. Through her I learned to appreciate how a handful of ingredients could create delicious, nutritious meals on tight budgets.

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I do believe that’s when my natural curiosity for all things culinary was born, including appreciating the relationships we had with our food purveyors – farmers who would drive trucks into neighborhoods to sell just-picked produce, or eating the bounty of our gardens, and stretching a pound of beef into meals that lasted all week

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And nothing was ever wasted in our home, as we shopped for food needs as opposed to wants.

I write all this because I’m absolutely gobsmacked by the price of groceries. And, as someone who has been writing about the food industry for decades, and having weathered several recessions – I have never seen things as bad as they are today.

Food prices are insanely out of control. I shop for food several times a week, looking for bargains and sourcing the best deals around. Just recently, I couldn’t bring myself to purchase three small, rather forlorn heads of romaine for almost $7. I saw cucumbers for $3.99 EACH. Some stores had grapes at a ridiculous $6.99 a pound. Add to that the alarming increase in everyday staples, like coffee, milk, dairy and canned goods and no wonder everyone is feeling the pinch.

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I went shopping on the weekend, and came out with $186 worth of food in three grocery bags. I returned two items immediately. I purchased a liter of milk that had been marked down 50% – but I didn’t catch in time that the cashier forgot to ring in the discount, and charged me full price.

As I just feed my husband and myself, I can afford to purchase more organic proteins, like chicken, and I make sure my eggs are pasture-raised – I look for labels that state certified humane or animal welfare approved. But I can also appreciate not every family can afford to do so.

Prices have been rising before the pandemic, but today, never at such a steep incline. People are going broke, and maxing out their credit cards in order to put food on the table.

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We are in the middle of a food inflation tsunami.

Just recently it was announced that Loblaw Companies Ltd. became the first Canadian grocer to voluntarily freeze prices for about 1,500 of the no-name food label products being sold across the country. Although noble, it’s still a pricey venture, as there are many Canadians who still can’t even afford this discount.

Why is something as basic as sustainability being so abused? Many are quick to point the finger of blame at the supermarket industry as a whole, accusing them for price gouging. But, according to respected food industry analyst Dr. Sylvain Charlebois in his recent toronto sun column, “financial numbers aren’t necessarily telling us that grocers are abusing their oligopolistic powers, even in the current inflationary environment.” Many want to believe it, writes Charlebois, but “gross margins have remained anywhere between 2% to 4%.”

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So if it’s not the grocery industry, what is it? Charlebois takes a hard look at the banking industry, where “last year, the Royal Bank of Canada alone made more money in one single quarter than what all Canadian grocers combined made during the entire fiscal year…many Canadians are paying more to have a roof over their heads, mainly due to higher interest rates.”

High interest rates supposedly are needed to stave off inflation, and the ominous “R” word – recession. Yet, how can anyone justify the astronomical interest rates on credit cards?

If I was to hazard a guess as to what we can do to curve the inflationary food prices, I would start by asking people to take a tough look at their own food spending habits. How can one cut costs? Stop ordering so much take-out for starters, I know people who will order a Big Mac and fries and send an Uber, and then wonder why their food budget is shot for the week.

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Or perhaps Canadians need to take a hard look at the horrendous food waste in this country – HelloFresh research shows “the average Canadian household generates 372 pounds of avoidable food waste each year. In Canada, almost 2.2 million tonnes of edible food are wasted each year,” costing Canadians in excess of $20 billion. (The company is planning on setting up a faux graveyard in Toronto this Friday to Oct. 31 highlighting details of Canada’s food waste.)

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Can the escalation of food prices be slowed down or even halted? With the prices of fuel skyrocketing, coupled with consumer demand for foods not in season or readily available, plus people looking for fast convenience over versatility, I do believe the answer lies within us: We need to take back control over the foods we eat. Stop listening to all the hype that convenience is better than culinary creativity, and just get back to basics – to me, it’s criminal that people are maxing out their credit cards in order to put food on the table.

People need to go back to basics, learn some fundamental kitchen essentials and truly be mindful of cooking practices. I’m hauling out the old adage that if you give someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day, but if you teach someone to fish, they’ll eat forever.

At least until the price of such items as a head of romaine, start to drop.

rdemontis@postmedia.com

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