Mustafa Koc, Ryerson sociology professor.

Photo: Annie Arnone

Money vs. Students

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By Justin Chandler

Brooke Gilbert strolls through the grocery store calculating the total value of the groceries she’s picked. Standing in the produce aisle, which is always her last stop, Gilbert picks up a cucumber and a couple of apples — they’re all she can afford this week. It’s hard not to notice the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables; her basket is weighed down by crackers, juice and junk food. Even after crunching the numbers, she worries she may not be able to afford the bill. As food prices have surged upwards in response to the Canadian loonie’s recent drop in value — cauliflower was selling for $8 in downtown Toronto in mid December — Gilbert has been priced out of the produce aisle.

“You can get two bags of chips for $5, but a small bowl of fruit is $6,” says the arts and contemporary student, adding that she wants to get the best value for her money, so she’s more likely to buy unhealthy food if it’s cheaper.

In December 2015, food prices in Canada were 3.7 per cent higher than they were in December 2014, Statistics Canada reports. The price of fresh vegetables went up 13.3 per cent and the price of fresh fruit went up 13.2 per cent, compared to the previous year; apples, for example, went up by 11.9 per cent, potatoes by 13.7 per cent, and celery by a stunning 46.3 per cent.

Gilbert says rising food prices are affecting her health — she feels better both mentally and physically when she eats apples or carrots rather than crackers or chips.

“Higher food prices always limit people’s food choices, especially among those with limited income,” says Ryerson sociology professor Mustafa Koc in an email. Students, “like most others living in precarious situations,” often eat cheaper, high-calorie and high-fat foods that have low nutritional content. Koc, who co-founded the Ryerson Centre for Studies in Food Security, added that eating unhealthy foods has long-term impacts on a student’s success in school and on their health.

Students, “like most others living in precarious situations,” often eat cheaper, high-calorie and high-fat foods

In their latest Food Price Report, the Food Institute of the University of Guelph reported that the average Canadian household likely paid about $325 more for food in 2015 than in 2014. The report looks at Canadian food prices between October 2014 and October 2015. The institute predicts that in 2016, the average Canadian household could spend an extra $345 on food compared to the year before.

The report also explains that food prices increased for a variety of reasons — one of them being the low value of the Canadian dollar, which slid to a 12-year low on Jan. 20 — in the same week that the price of oil plummeted to its own 12-year record. The dollar, which was above US$0.85 throughout all of 2014, hovered at around US$0.75 in 2015 before rapidly decreasing in value in December. In late January, the Canadian dollar fell to US$0.68 — a low not seen in over a decade. A few weeks later, the value hovers at around US$0.72.

The Food Institute reports that 81 per cent of all fruits and vegetables consumed in Canada are imported, meaning that this exchange rate matters. For every cent drop in the dollar’s value over a short period of time, vegetables, fruits and nuts are likely to increase in price by more than one per cent, the institute reports. The U.S. climate also plays a significant role in food prices: poor growing conditions, spurred by climate change and the higher temperatures caused by the El Niño weather pattern have made it more difficult to grow food in the American southwest, driving prices up.

Overall, food prices in December increased at more than twice the rate of inflation, Statistics Canada reports.

The dollar’s fluctuations are affecting Ryerson students differently — for student Shadan “Shay” Ahmadi, who is here on exchange from the Netherlands, the exchange rate with the Euro (€1 is about $1.53) has been a bonus.

Since her money is worth more, Ahmadi — who is studying environment and urban sustainability at Ryerson — has not found living in Canada to be too expensive. Though she does pay more for her groceries — a pack of peppers would cost her €1 at home instead of the $6 she has to pay here — luxury items are easier to justify. A new pair of Timberlands cost her about $120, or about €80. Back home, she would have paid nearly €200 (roughly C$305).

For Ryerson student Gabriella Romm, things couldn’t be more different.

The third-year business management student is on exchange in Lille, France. She arrived in Europe on Jan. 5, and plans to leave in May. Originally, she wanted to go to Paris but was warned by exchange organizers that the exchange rate would make it extremely expensive. Before going on her trip, Romm handed over her Canadian money for euros and U.S. dollars — when she exchanged about $5,000, she got around €3,000 back. The dollar’s value has sunk even further since.

Romm says some of her friends will have to end their trips early because they’re paying more than they’d anticipated. With the current exchange rate, she estimates that rent would cost her C$600 per month, which is $100 more than she’d originally budgeted for.

Romm is staying in a Lille hostel — it’s relatively cheap, but more crowded and less clean than she would have liked. When she comes home in the evenings, she sits in front of her computer for hours trying to search for ways to save on accommodations and flights to visit the cities that she’d planned on seeing. Usually, Romm travels between cities by bus, paying about €10 (around C$15) for the least expensive afternoon bus rides, which bore her to death. Taking a train would be faster, giving her more time for sightseeing, but could cost closer to €40 (about C$61).

The persistent penny-pinching takes its toll on Romm. “I’m not enjoying my time here because I’m spending so much time trying to look for the best deal,” she admits.

Romm’s friends are going to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day. Trying to book a flight online, she tells her computer to translate websites from French to English. She ends up picking a 6 a.m. flight — it’s the cheapest one she can find, and though she would like to take a later flight to spend more time in Dublin, she knows she has no other option. Romm buys the ticket before realizing that something’s gone wrong with the translation; she’s just bought a ticket for a flight out of Dublin on April 3. Not wanting to stay in Dublin for that long, she changes her booking, helplessly watching as the fees stack up. Romm has already paid a three-minimum (about C$4.58) exchange-rate fee, plus an extra two per cent on the ticket. Now she has to pay a €30 (about C$45) flight-change fee. A simple translating error has hiked up the cost of her flight to about $300 — or three dozen $8 cauliflowers.

A lineup of students snakes out of a freshly-stocked Good Food Centre. On any given Tuesday, after the centre’s shelves have been filled with deliveries by Daily Bread Food Bank, dozens of Ryerson students and faculty line up outside of the second-floor-student-centre room for free food. These aren’t students waiting an hour to grab a quick snack — they’re people struggling to eat on top of paying rent and tuition. As of Jan. 28 and for this academic year, there are 359 of them.

About 20 to 30 of these members wait for an hour after the Tuesday delivery. These are mostly the people trying to get the essentials — milk and eggs. “We don’t have enough of that to go around,” says Nicola Nemy, who’s a third-year creative industries student and has been one of the centre’s coordinators for two years. “We sometimes get cereal and chocolate and things, but people come for the eggs and the milk.”

The plight of these students and faculty extends far past the booms and busts of the Canadian dollar

The hot commodities aside, it only takes until Thursday for most of the rest of the food to be gone, Nemy estimates. As the centre submits usage statistics to the food bank, she says, “deliveries are often just enough.”

The deliveries rarely contain fresh produce as it is — the only way to get fruits and veggies is by signing up for a program the centre holds in partnership with FoodShare. Even then, students pay $13 for a small green box with a few items (as she sits in her office, one of these students comes to claim his box. “Enjoy it,” she tells him, “and then come back!”). The plight of these students and faculty extends far past the booms and busts of the Canadian dollar, Nemy says.

“I think we’re often in this sort of like, economically unstable situation ourselves — with student loans and the high cost of tuition. Students are the fastest growing group of food bank users,” she notes, adding that the centre has seen a consistent and considerable growth in members over the past year. “And this is all before the [harshest] downturn of the dollar. These are all effects that are being compounded, in my opinion, by our weak dollar.”

With files from Farnia Fekri

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