A single person in the Thunder Bay district eating a healthy diet consistent with Canada Food Guide recommendations has seen grocery prices rise by nearly 20 per cent over the past year.
The cost of feeding a family of four has risen slightly more than 10 per cent.
Those are the findings of the Thunder Bay District Health Unit’s 2022 nutritious food basket survey.
Each year, the health unit records the price of 61 staple food items — such as bread, milk, cheese, chicken, beef, frozen fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, tofu, canned beans and fruit, and frozen vegetables — at six stores across the region.
This year, it carried out the survey in May.
It’s giving CBC an exclusive preview of the findings for Sounds of the Season.
The cost to purchase the food basket items for a single person for a month was $314.98 in 2022. That’s up from $264.56 in 2021, an increase of 19 per cent, or slightly more than $50.
The cost to purchase the items for a family of four for a month was $1,045.88, up from $949 in 2021, an increase of just over 10 per cent or nearly $100.
“Most people don’t buy in bulk unless it’s for a larger family, so you don’t have the economies of scale living alone,” said Ivan Ho, a public health nutritionist with the health unit.
Prices feel like they’ve gone up 25 per cent
Earthling Art Collective founder Ben Murray, who is raising four children with his partner, artist Cheynna Gardner, said to him, it feels like the price of groceries has gone up 25 per cent.
“I think the biggest thing that I noticed was the price of produce, because we eat a lot of vegetables,” he said.
“I think a head of lettuce probably doubled this year, maybe more than doubled. It’s crazy. I still don’t really know what happened there but it went from like $2 for a head of lettuce to at one point it was like six bucks .”
Murray’s family is eating less fresh food and more processed food and lower-end meat products, he said, notably ground beef, pork chops and boxes of chicken nuggets.
They buy fresh produce on sale and rely more on frozen products.
“A watermelon went from like four dollars for a mini watermelon, to like eight … nine bucks,” Murray said. “A whole one is like 12 bucks or something.”
Part of the health unit’s nutritious food basket project involves assessing the impact of grocery prices on low-income people, particularly those on social assistance.
This year, it found that a single person on Ontario Works would spend 36 per cent of their monthly income — including their GST credit — on the food basket items, Ho said.
That’s up from 31 per cent last year.
The cost for a family of four on Ontario Works rose from 35 per cent to 38 per cent of their income.
More than 30 per cent of income going to food
“Typically from a public health perspective, the ideal kind of range we’re looking for, for people to be able to afford food is 10 to 15 per cent of your monthly income,” Ho said.
“So you can see that it’s far exceeding that. And a downfall is, unfortunately, food becomes that flexible cost or expense, where you pay your rent first, you cover your other bills, and then usually what’s left over is then spent on food “But because you’re left with so little, oftentimes you kind of make do with the best that you can. So you buy foods that are more satiating as opposed to more nutritious.”
Each year, the health unit uses the price of the nutritious food basket to determine how much money a person on social assistance would have left over for essentials such as clothing, utilities, insurance, medication and cleaning products after paying their rent and buying food.
Based on the average rent price for a studio apartment in Thunder Bay, a single person on Ontario Works would currently face a debt of $190 a month after paying rent and buying nutritious food.
A family of four would have just $426.12 per month left over to cover everyone’s additional needs.
Kyle Wrightson, who works part-time while getting support from the Ontario Disability Support Program, said he’s left with between $100 and $150 to spend on food each month.
And that money is buying a lot less than it used to.
“Staple diet things like milk, eggs or even cans of tuna have almost doubled or tripled,” he said.
“I used to buy the 99-cent flavored tuna for fullness in meals but even they’ve become $3 to $4.”
Dairy products like butter and milk seem to have seen some of the highest increases, Wrightson said, increasing by a dollar or two per item.
“I haven’t noticed anything that hasn’t gone up in price,” he said. “Even the Arizona 99 cent ice tea cans. I think they’ve even gone up to $1.50 or $2.”
Wrightson frequently uses food banks to make up for what he can’t afford to buy, he said.
“However, those also have started thinning out, and now a single person only receives about two days worth of food, and it may not even be a full meal.”
‘A strain on mental health’
He’s lucky to have friends who help him out, he added. Without them, he could easily see himself going hungry.
“It’s a strain on mental health,” he said. “Especially when a lot of stuff in the world is food or money oriented.”
Ho said the health unit uses the results of its food basket survey to advocate for policy changes that would relieve pressure on people like Wrightson.
“So whenever there’s an opportunity to, for example, support a bill that examines … universal basic income or income solutions to reducing poverty, which, as a result, will also reduce household food insecurity, that’s something we advocate for and promote and support,” he said.