Fast-rotting produce another strain on Canadians’ food budgets amid supply chain delays

A closed grocery store in Montreal on Jan. 9.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Bryton Keyes, 27, a Kitchener, Ont.-based accountant and father of two, has recently found himself throwing away up to a quarter of the fresh raspberries and strawberries he’d bought just a couple of days after the family’s weekly grocery run.

“In the back of your mind you’re like, ‘I feel like I’m just throwing away money right now,’ ” he says.

In midtown Toronto, 28-year-old marketing manager Thaomy Lam said she and her partner started noticing a notable deterioration in the quality of fresh produce at local grocery stores in October. Lettuce, for example, would be browning and wilting and seemed to come in smaller bunches, although the price was the same, she recalled.

Looking at the back of the shelves for produce that had been stocked more recently didn’t help, said Ms. Lam, adding that she has toured all grocers in her area to no avail.

How Canada’s fragile food supply chain is being disrupted

Over the pandemic, grocery shoppers have faced a compounding series of challenges. The past several months have brought on inflation and so-called shrinkflation, a strategy employed by some manufacturers of reducing product sizes while keeping prices the same. But as global supply chain woes persist, a third issue is increasingly straining some Canadians’ food budgets: fresh produce that rots much faster than usual.

Consumers are used to out-of-season, imported fruits and vegetables that may not quite taste like what’s growing locally during the warmer months. But amid supply chain delays and labor shortages, the challenge of keeping Canada stocked with fresh produce grown thousands of kilometers away has reached a whole new level this winter.

While there’s no risk of food shortages, “if you add three days, five days on a shipment out of California, it changes the timeline of freshness,” said Canadian Produce Marketing Association president Ron Lemaire.

Lower-quality produce isn’t a generalized problem, Mr. Lemaire added. Whether Canadians have experienced the issue likely depends on where they live, where they shop and what they buy. Rural areas may be more affected than large urban centres, independent grocers may struggle more than large chains, and different kinds of produce have different handling requirements, he added.

“Leafy green and berries are the ones most likely to be affected,” says Michael von Massow, a professor in the Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics department at the University of Guelph.

At the other end of the spectrum, Prof. von Massow said, are bananas, which are ripened in distribution centers domestically.

Grapes can also withstand logistics disruptions with little issue, thanks to temperature-controlled shipping containers, said Larry Davidson, president of North American Produce Buyers, a buyer and wholesaler of international produce.

But when it comes to stone fruits, such as cherries, plums and peaches, whose season just started in South America, “the delays are definitely affecting the condition of some of the arrivals,” he said.

Mr. Davidson worries about worsening delays after Ottawa’s decision to implement a vaccine mandate this month for truckers entering Canada at the US border.

“This trucking situation is just a new curveball,” he said.

Still, as Canadian consumers wait for logistical knots around the world to become untangled, some consumers say the food supply woes have turned into a learning opportunity about preserving perishables and buying in season.

Ms. Lam, for example, said she has adopted her mother’s habit of washing, slicing and storing celery and carrots in closed containers filled with cold water and kept in the fridge. She has also learned to line food-storage containers with paper towels to make spinach last longer, she said.

Dipping a head of romaine in icy water will help restore crispiness, said Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest, the food rescue organization. Second Harvest estimates avoidable food waste cost Canadian households more than $1,700 a year, on average, even before the pandemic.

Dropping an apple in a bag of potatoes helps avoid early sprouting and storing onions in a nylon stocking can significantly extend their shelf life, according to Ms. Nikkel.

In Bridgewater, NS, wealth manager Michael Anderssen, 48, said his subscription to HelloFresh, a meal-kit delivery company, has helped him avoid lower-quality produce from the store and reduce food waste. On its website, HelloFresh boasts about its shorter supply chain, which it says skips wholesalers and retailers, and its innovative food packaging.

And in Kitchener, Mr. Keyes says his toddler son, who is teething, has taken to sucking on frozen strawberries with gusto.

Another strategy is to buy less produce more often, says Sylvain Charlebois, the director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, who has been urging nervous consumers not to stock up.

Still, fresh produce with a shorter shelf-life remains a challenge for households with a limited budget and those who can’t shop frequently because they rely on public transportation, said Sarah Boomhower, 38, a teacher and mother of two in northeast Toronto, whose family is currently getting by on a single income.

“If I was taking the TTC, I know I’d be doing a one-shop.”

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