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Rising grocery prices are impacting already-tight budgets, students say

By Claire Dufourd

After every trip Abbie North takes to Loblaws on Carlton Street, she’s forced to edit and refine her grocery list to prioritize cheaper products. Grocery shopping has now become a trip that needs to be planned out carefully in order for her to get access to everything she needs. 

“It feels like every time I am going grocery shopping, prices have gone up,” says the second-year journalism student. 

Due to rising inflation and the recent end to the Loblaws “price freeze” on its No Name brand products—which provided students with a cheap way to access their groceries—Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) students on a budget have to account for a surge in prices as the cost for basic needs, like dairy and produce, increases steadily.  

North says she had to restructure her whole budget to be able to afford her necessities, especially since her main source of income comes from her minimum-wage job as a full-time student.

“I have an Excel sheet, a sort of budget app that I created, just to be able to keep track of my spending,” she says. “In this economy, if I am not really careful and strict with my money, I won’t be able to afford everything I need on a monthly basis.”

But students are not the only ones to worry about rising prices. Food experts are also expressing warnings concerning the state of today’s economy.

“We all know that the price of food is going up rapidly, and more rapidly than the overall rate of inflation, which has also been high. We also know rent costs are going up, the cost of living is just really high in general and people’s incomes have not kept up,” says Elaine Power a professor in the faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University.

The cost of many basic needs have risen over the past year as inflation continues to climb up across the country. According to Canada’s Food Price Report 2023, there is a predicted five to seven per cent food price increase in 2023.

Power added that in Canada, there are only a few large grocery store chains that control most of the grocery market. 

Loblaws has its own independent food markets, while Sobeys, FreshCo, Farm Boy and Safeway are all owned by Empire Group based in Nova Scotia. This growing economic monopoly could be dangerous on an individual level.

“It ends up that there’s only a very few number of grocery store chains, that the ownership is really concentrated, and then they can do whatever they want,” Power says. “There’s not the kind of competition with prices that you would normally see in the market.”

“If I am not really careful and strict with my money, I won’t be able to afford everything I need.” 

International students have had an especially hard time keeping up with the prices increase. Adding on to international tuition fees and—more often than not—complicated and restricted laws when it comes to labour, it can be difficult to earn enough income to have access to all basic human needs. 

Olivia Harbin, a second-year journalism student at TMU, works two jobs in order to afford her rent, on top of other expenses like groceries and bills—everything she needs to pay for by herself, living alone. 

As grocery prices rise, Harbin says she struggles to manage her expenses when it comes to shopping for food and eating properly. She says it is difficult to find time for herself and to eat healthily as prices increase. 

“I pay for everything myself, so it is hard to balance all of that, especially with school on top of it,” she says. “We are always told to prioritize our mental health, but often you need to take on mentally and physically draining jobs if you want to earn enough to be able to cover all of your expenses.”

According to a 2022 report from TMU’s Centre for Studies in Food Security, students are struggling to have a healthy, balanced diet in the current economy. 

“Prior to the outbreak, food insecurity was already a serious public health problem impacting 1 in 5 residents of the City of Toronto,” the report states. 

TMU’s greenhouse initiative tries to balance out the costs of inflation by providing fresh produce grown on campus after the pandemic. But challenges have been met along the way and need to be addressed in order for its workers to meet expected goals.

“The unfortunate piece with the greenhouse, which is funded through Agriculture Canada, is they don’t support staffing costs, so that’s going to be our biggest challenge moving into the next year,” the report states.

“I just wish more options were made available to students”

Power also shared her concerns about students’ food security in the current economy.

“If [students] don’t have family members to help out, it is going to be really hard to keep up with inflation,” she says. “Grocery stores have taken advantage of rising prices, and students now struggle to eat properly. Food banks are only a temporary solution, but students really need to prioritize their health in these difficult times.”

Feed Ontario is a collective of hunger relief organizations who recently reported in an independent research study Ontario’s food banks were accessed by nearly 600,000 people. For students who need support, students can attend initiatives such as the Good Food Centre, a Toronto Metropolitan Students’ Union initiative for students in need of groceries. 

“If students start eating less, or cutting out on whole food categories like dairy, it can be very dangerous. And that is why they should receive as much support as they can get, from their school but also from the government. Food security is the most important aspect of their lives,” Power adds. 

Alternatives to the high prices at grocery stores also include apps like Too Good To Go, which provides help by allowing its users to pick up food that cannot be sold by stores in the area. Flash Food and Hungry Harvest are also services which help out students bound by a tight budget while preventing food waste.

But for most people, it feels like more resources are needed to get through these harder times. 

“I just wish more options were made available to students or just to people on a strict budget in general. If prices continue to go up like this, cheaper ways to afford groceries would be more than welcome,” North says.

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