Lower-income families most likely to be pinched by rising food prices, supply-chain problems

Consumer can expect to face fewer choices in grocery stores, but supply chain problems are not a crisis, experts say

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Families in need will be hit the hardest as consumers face rising prices for groceries caused by supply-chain problems, according to Quest Food Exchange.

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The Exchange is a grocery store that relies on donations and sells food at reduced cost to people in need.

“The situation is dire,” said executive director Theodora Lamb, who was first alerted to shortages a few months ago when Quest started sourcing food items in advance for holiday orders.

Quest supports 250,000 marginalized families in the Lower Mainland, and orders on average 1,000 small turkeys for the holiday season.

“Not only had the cost gone up, we learned there wouldn’t be enough of them,” said Lamb.

The cost of staples, like eggs, has also risen sharply.

“I suspect that in the next one to two months more shortages will begin to surface. The cost of food will be the story of 2022,” said Lamb.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and author of Canada’s Food Price Report, predicted a five per cent rise in annual food cost for a family of four in 2021, or around $695 compared to 2020, and said world supply chain bottlenecks are not the only factor contributing to inflation.

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“What concerns me is energy costs — we are slowly marching towards oil hitting $100 US a barrel by the holidays. If you look at oil prices, it’s getting more and more expensive, so land logistics could become an issue pushing prices higher,” said Charlebois.

Charlebois said global supply chains are feeling the impact of the pandemic, and although food supply chains remain “robust” in Canada, “they are just slower and a little bit less efficient.”

“We are restarting a global economy. The analogy I use is it is like steering cruise ship with paddle. But it’s not the Titanic,” said Charlebois.

Charlebois said North America benefits from producing much of its own food, and has done well in keeping goods moving across the land borders. What is less predictable is the flow of goods from countries like China and Vietnam that rely on marine transport and where port closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks have affected container movements.

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“We can expect occasional empty shelves and less variety for a while,” said Charlebois. “Consumers will need to adjust their expectations.”

Michelle Wasylyshen, national spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada said there is plenty of food on Canadian store shelves. “A crimp in the supply chain is not a crisis. If you see an empty shelf, don’t panic. It will be restored.”

Retailers have been preparing for supply chain problems since the beginning of the pandemic by increasing inventory, ordering earlier and diversifying suppliers, said Wasylyshen.

That may not be enough to reassure Canadians worried about providing for their families. A new Angus Reid Institute poll found that because of rising costs, 45 per cent of Canadians report they find it difficult or very difficult to feed their family, a number that rises to 92 per cent of lower-income households.

Quest’s Lamb said that while some families will be able to adjust, others will not.

“Food becomes much more discretionary when rent and heat need to be prioritized and what we see is nutritional food, healthy and organic products all of that is put aside until those first two needs are met,” said Lamb.

“Taking care of our own households always comes first, but I hope people’s minds go to thinking about those that are most vulnerable, and consider contributing to Quest or their local food banks.”


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