Granola and Greek yogurt. Protein bars when she can get them in bulk.
These are the constants on Clara Eaton’s weekly grocery shopping list. Fruits and vegetables are mailed biweekly to her door at Pitman Hall using an organic food delivery service. Eggs, chicken and cream of mushroom soup appear frequently too.
But whether she’s spending money on meals for breakfast, lunch or dinner, most of which she prepares using her slow cooker, the first thing on Eaton’s mind is the number on her receipt.
“Price is definitely the first thing I look at. If there’s a bunch of eggs, $7 for a carton and the other one is $3, I’m not really huge on the type of brand, (so) I just go for price,” the third-year Ryerson student explains.
Eaton’s conscientious approach to supermarket shopping isn’t an accident. The dance student, who works two jobs in-between academic classes and rehearsals for her program, estimates that she spends 70 to 80 per cent of her monthly income on groceries. She sacrifices eating at restaurants, going out to clubs and shopping for clothes to afford buying healthy food, and lots of it.
For many students who move away from home, the weekly bill at a local grocery store can come as a shock. And the high cost of food isn’t going away, along with the trade-offs people make when budgets get tight.
A University of Guelph’s Food Institute report has predicted that food prices would rise between 5.5 and 7.5 per cent by the end of this year, due in part to the sinking value of the Canadian dollar.
By August of this year, costs for food as measured by the consumer price index had increased 3.6 per cent, with meat rising 6.3 per cent. Meanwhile, the inflation rate decreased from July’s 2.4 per cent to 2.1.
Those percentages might seem small. But applying the Food Institute’s numbers to Ryerson’s current Fees and Finances form, which states students should expect to spend between $250 and $500 a month on food, this can look like an extra $13.75 at the low end or $37.50 at the high end of a food budget (inflation not included; see infographic below).
“For people on low incomes, it will make a difference,” says Mike von Massow, one of the authors of the Food Institute report.
A student working at a part-time job for minimum wage might go from filling a plastic bag with apples (one kilogram on average costs $4) to grabbing a box of macaroni, which at $1.64 for 500 grams looks much more affordable.
The trade-offs we make when the price of a product becomes out of our reach is known at the substitution effect. A cheaper cut of beef might go into the shopping cart, or maybe a non-meat protein is now on the grocery list, explains von Massow. Those on a budget, like the indebted student, will start buying less fruits and vegetables.
“Students, it’s hard,” says the University of Guelph professor. “Your grocery bill goes up, you don’t have as much of a choice where that money goes.”
Lisa Garrod, a disability studies student, already feels the pinch. She says she tries to get healthier food, though she also looks for what’s on sale, like frozen pizzas. She’ll buy fruits and vegetables, but nuts and organic food are just too expensive.
There isn’t necessarily one variable that’s affecting Canadian food prices. The Food Institute lists 12 factors, from weather to consumer awareness, that can have an impact on costs. This year, climate and trade were two of the deciding factors.
Canada imports fresh fruit and vegetables from California during off-season so we’re susceptible to the effects of the drought, one of the most severe on record. Less produce because of the parched conditions combined with the Canadian dollar’s low value means buying produce from the state is more expensive.
People who like a juicy steak will also be disappointed. Beef is a product we trade, but also one that was affected by a drought in Western Canada and the U.S. around four years ago. As a result, there was fewer feed for beef cows so farmers kept less of them, explains von Massow.
“Because of the biological cycle of a beef animal, it takes several years for us to rebuild a herd,” he adds.
Our own preferences for farmers markets also have an effect on food prices, albeit a more positive one than you might expect. As Canadians spend their grocery budgets at these and other new retailers, like online grocery sites, competition increases. Already existing grocery stores have to fight to keep their share by stocking specialty items and offering competitive pricing.
Students might not be participating in this competitive market as readily as other Canadians, especially those who live downtown and don’t own a car. To get the best price on a pack of mushrooms or a loaf of bread takes time and energy. Most students are lucky if they have the time to sleep in an extra hour or the energy to get more work done, but rarely both and at the same time.
Dance student Eaton used to use an app on her phone to get money back on her groceries, but this year she just doesn’t have the time to scour online for the best deal.
“When it comes to finding the best deals, that takes time,” she says. “All those couponing shows, they sit for hours and cut coupons. If that was accessible to me, I would do that.”
Von Massow says his 80-year-old mother will drive 15 minutes to save pennies on an item. “That becomes much more difficult if you don’t have your own car,” he says. “Or, if you have other things you have to do and can’t go to three or four different grocery stores because you have an assignment.”
Lugging groceries back home is another obstacle. Laura Hensley, a graduate student in journalism, says commuting across Toronto with groceries is a struggle.
“Carrying bags home can be hard and if you have to travel to the grocery store, it limits how much you can buy,” she says.
Hayley Mills, a first-year midwifery student, is familiar with the pain of towing hefty bags. She’ll buy six to seven cartons of almond milk at a time if it’s on sale and admits that it’s easier to transport them all with a car.
And since a lot of competitive deals are offered at big box stores that are hard to find in downtown Toronto, grocery shopping in the city can seem pricey. Computer science student Armen Palvetzian says the price of groceries downtown is “way too expensive” compared to the price in the suburbs. One of the stores he gets his food from is Walmart in Markham.
Yet many students don’t have an option. Food is not optional, just like rent, tuition and textbooks. Budgeting can help, to an extent. Toronto Public Health offers suggestions on how much Torontonians should spend on groceries each week, based on age, sex and the number of people in a household. For a 19- to 30-year-old male living alone, that’s $72.28, but in a household of four people who share food, that can go down to $60.23 per person.
Don’t go planning a strict budget based on these calculations though. Ellen MacLean, a nutrition promotion consultant for Toronto Public Health, says the recommendations only reflect minimum costs.
“The pricing and food list are designed so that they are gauging the least expensive way a household could feed themselves over the course of a month,” she says. “But it may not be representative of how anyone personally lives.”
Preparing meals at home almost completely from scratch is one of the assumptions Toronto Public Health makes in its annual report.
Luckily, Eaton is a savvy slow cooker user. But she also lives on her own, which adds more financial stress to her food budget. And because the physical demands of her program require her to dance from six to 10 hours a day, five days a week, she needs to fuel her body with nutritious food that lightens her wallet.
“A lot of people would say that (I) spend so much on food and groceries,” she says, “but that’s just something I think of as a necessity.”
With files from Kiah Berkeley and A.A Ali.
So, by how much is your grocery bill going to increase? And how much should you be spending on groceries per week? We break down the numbers in the infographic below.