Stretched on both ends: Inflation’s impact on food programs and British Columbians
Grocery store prices rose 10.6 per cent in February compared to last year, marking the seventh consecutive month of double-digit increases
Over the past two years, British Columbians have had to deal with record-high inflation. From rent increases and mortgage rates to steep grocery prices, many are stretched thin with few solutions to turn to.
With the increasing cost of groceries, more and more people are heading to food banks to help them get by. Due to this, many food banks are seeing double the amount of requests than last year and it can be a struggle to keep up on both ends.
Violet Taylor, a 26 year-old living in Richmond and working part time as a barista, is one of the many who turn to food banks due to the rising cost of living.
Taylor has been going to food banks for the past four years, and goes to the Richmond Food Bank Society once a week. But now, they noticed it’s not enough food to last them till their next visit.
“There’s definitely been an increase in people needing the food bank, I’ve noticed,” Taylor says. “You used to be able to get enough food to last the week. Now you go and get enough food for maybe two or three meals.”
At the Richmond Food Bank Society, Taylor says they usually receive items like one choice of meat such as steak, a bag of flour, a couple canned goods like pasta sauce, some produce, a bread item, cheese, and milk. However, they live with their partner and this is not enough to last the entire week.
“It’s not the fault of the food banks because they only get so many donations and they only get what they get,” they say.
“It goes quickly. Luckily, me and my partner both work, so we can supplement with buying groceries as well. But with the cost of food rising, it makes it harder because we’re both working minimum wage jobs.”
Taylor can only work two to three days a week due to fibromyalgia and joint hypermobility, two chronic disorders that cause pain and discomfort throughout the body, making it challenging to work fulltime. Due to their work schedule, getting to the food bank on their days off can be difficult due to needing rest.
“With fibromyalgia, on my days off, I want to be in bed all day because I’m in pain and I don’t want to move. It definitely makes it more difficult to navigate and figure out how am I going to make meals, cook the things I get from the food bank, and how I am going to afford food and all my other bills.”
Last year, British Columbians saw food price increases 10.3 per cent in September when compared with 2021, which was higher than anticipated in Canada’s Food Price Report 2022 of up to seven per cent by province.
This year’s food price report from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University predicts Canadians will see a total increase in food prices between five to seven per cent, with vegetables seeing the highest increase of six to eight per cent. While lower than last year, it can be hard to know for sure how much groceries will increase in price over time.
The Greater Vancouver Food Bank (GVFB) is seeing 50 to 100 per cent increase in requests so far this year due to the rising costs in food. Cynthia Boulter, the chief operating officer at GVFB, says they are on track to see requests climb for the rest of this year.
“A year or so ago, we would have been signing up maybe 400 clients a month, and right now we are signing up 800 to 1,000 clients a month,” Boulter says. “We’re confident enough in saying we’re certainly not betting on it decreasing.”
“We’re hoping it levels off and that we don’t keep adding almost 1,000 lives every month, because at some point, that isn’t sustainable.”
The GVFB got its start in 1983 as temporary relief to the hunger crisis at that time, according to their website. Their support spreads across the Lower Mainland like in Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, and the North Shore.
The organization receives funding from the public through industry partners and grants in addition to accepting donations from farms, grocers, food wholesalers, and large chain distribution warehouses, which make up over 80 per cent of the food donated to GVFB.
Boulter says the donations they receive from farmers helps give people more access to fresh, healthy produce.
“Our food is now over 60 per cent fresh, and that was not the case a number of years ago. So lots of protein, produce, dairy, and dairy equivalents,” Boulter says. “Our mission is providing healthy food to those in need, and we really live by that.”
The GVFB has a list of vendors of where they purchase their food apart from donations. With those vendors, Boulter says its feeling the effects of inflation through price increases in which they purchase their food, gas, and wages, and gets notices for when prices in those vendors’ products increase.
“You have your vendors letting you know that this price is going up 12 per cent, and that price is going up 13 per cent, we feel that as well,” Boulter says. “And fuel because we have a fleet of refrigerated trucks, so the fuel costs hit us as well.”
This is a big deal, Boutler says, because they have to move food around. When the living wage increases, so do their costs.
Boulter has been at the organization since 2018. While requests have been increasing, Boulter has seen many different people use the food bank like retired nurses and teachers who are on pensions that aren’t keeping up with inflation.
“[They] never thought they’d be in a food bank, and here they are, because they can’t keep up,” Boulter says.
However, there are other organizations across the Lower Mainland that are trying to fill in the gaps food banks can’t always cover.
The Food Stash Foundation is a registered charity that offers a number of programs to help address food insecurity. It was created in 2016 by David Schein, a Vancouver-based teacher who wanted to improve the environment but also help those in need.
Food Recovery, the Rescued Food Box Program, Rescued Food Market, and the Community Fridge are the four programs they offer.
With the Food Recovery program, drivers pick up food that wasn’t sold due to over-stocking, cancelled orders, lack of storage space, or not meeting customer standards such as appearance or size from their food donors like Save on Foods, IGA, and Whole Foods Market.
After drivers collect the food, they transfer it to their community partners like the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, United Way of British Columbia, and the Union Gospel Mission. Roughly 80 per cent of the food they collect is taken to these organizations and then the remainder is taken back to use for their other programs.
The Rescued Food Box program is one of the initiatives which uses the leftover food taken from Food Recovery. It is a weekly food box that is packed with healthy perishable food and delivered for $10 to those living in Vancouver. It is also “intended for folks with low or no income who have a disability and/or chronic health condition that makes it difficult to access other food services,” reads their website.
However, due to high demand, they paused the program late last year and closed registration a couple months ago until further notice. Although registration is closed, Anna Gray, the communications coordinator at the Food Stash Foundation, says they get requests at least once a day from someone asking to join one of the programs they offer.
She says they don’t have plans to reopen yet as they have to ensure they have the capacity to add more deliveries and have enough staff scheduled to pack the boxes before adding more people to the program.
“With the price of food increasing, [and] the effects of COVID-19 catching up to people, it’s just been the perfect storm for some people falling through the cracks,” Gray says.
“We’re trying to serve people that have disabilities or chronic health issues and that makes it hard to leave the house and access traditional grocery stores or a traditional food bank,” she says. “That delivery component can be really life changing for people that have a hard time carrying groceries.”
The organization also paused the Rescued Food Market due to growing demand which made staff feel overwhelmed and not reaching enough food quality and quantity. Their community fridge program is also paused due to having to relocate.
Gray says she hopes to see these programs open again soon for not only people to have access to fresh, healthy food, but also to limit our food waste.
“Food is a super valuable asset and also labour intensive, and we don’t want to see it going to waste,” she says. “But also we live in a city where people are going hungry and struggling to afford food. So having organizations like us are crucial.”
While it can be hard to purchase groceries, Taylor says there are ways to navigate getting food at a cheaper price. Them and their partner often shop at stores where you can get Optimum Points like The Real Canadian Superstore and Shoppers Drug Mart.
Taylor and their partner will go when Optimum Points stores have sales like purchasing certain items for 20 times the points or other sales and stock up. They budget when they go to get the most out of their money. By doing this, they are able to get more points for their buck, and get a discount on their groceries.
“Sometimes they will have spent $60 and then you get $25 worth of points back,” Taylor says. “Then, when we do have times where we don’t have as much money, we can use those points at that time to get groceries.”
“We went [ a couple weeks ago], and we were able to get $120 worth of groceries for $3 because we had enough points to buy it,” Taylor adds. “The more you use it, the better deals they give you as well, which a lot of people don’t realize.”
In addition to using Optimum Points, Taylor says working at a cafe plays in their favour by being able to get a free meal included in their shifts.
“On a day that I’m working, I know for sure I’m going to have a hot meal,” they say.
Looking forward, Taylor hopes the cost of food comes down as it’s starting to become out of reach for many people.
They say some solutions could be more grocery stores donating their leftover food instead of throwing them out, having more access to food banks such as longer hours and more days, and governments focusing on programs that help young, single adults could go a long way.
“In an ideal world, the price of food would just come down, and it would stay down. And there would be more access to food and more access for the average person who needs help to get the help that they need.”