Bulk buying, couponing and urban farming: 3 ways of fighting high food prices

With food prices in Canada on the rise, some Canadians and community organizations say tactics to help cut the cost of their grocery bills are all the more essential.

Those tactics are being further tested by inflation, with food prices up 3.9 per cent from where it was a year ago.

Over the past 12 months, prices for meat products spiked by almost 10 per cent, with seafood, dairy, eggs also seeing significant increases. Edible oils and fats, like olive oil, canola oil and margarine, are up 18.5 per cent.

High food prices especially hurt those with low income — a disproportionate number of whom are Black, Indigenous or people of colour, said Zsofia Mendly-Zambo, a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto who specializes in health policy and equity.

Faced with other rising costs for fixed expenses like housing, child care or transportation, people try to cut costs on what they eat, she said, because “food is the thing that we can squeeze the most.” 

Adwoa Toku says growing her own food has saved her a lot of money and made living in Toronto easier financially. Here she displays a recent harvest of collard greens, peppers and tomatoes from her backyard garden. (James Dunne/CBC)

 A recent online survey by the non-profit Angus Reid Institute found that 45 per cent of respondents said they currently find it either difficult or very difficult to feed their household, while another from Dalhousie University found 40 per cent of those surveyed have changed their behaviour this year to save money at the grocery store.

Bulk buying, couponing and urban farming are three ways of fighting high food prices commonly used by community organizations and individuals.

And while cost-cutting tactics can’t solve the problem of hunger and poverty, Mendly-Zambo said, they can help people stretch their food dollars.

Urban farming to save money 

Adwoa Toku says the best way she’s found to cut her food costs is simply to grow her own.

This spring, Toku, 27, and her roommates planted a garden at their rental home just west of downtown Toronto. “I would say this is probably the healthiest I’ve been eating in my entire life — but also the cheapest as well.”

Toku, who is vegan, works for a community farm in north Toronto, so she has a decent understanding of agriculture. But this year is the first time she’s farmed for herself. 

Her crops included collard greens, herbs, peppers, tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries and callaloo, a fast-growing, tall, leafy green.

She and her roommates had such good harvests, Toku said, they shared food with friends, who then became inspired to start growing produce of their own — even on balconies. Toku says all of them wanted to save money on food after seeing her cut her grocery bills down to as low as $20 a week during the summer.

Growing food makes it possible for Toku to live in the city, pay her bills, keep up student-loan payments and even save some money, she said.

“I could be hungry, right,” said Toku, adding she is now not worried “about lacking in food or lacking anywhere else.”

Couponing and sale shopping

Kinesha Harry is a mother of six and an expert bargain hunter. In the family’s northwest Toronto apartment, there’s a large closet stockpiled with goods — proof of how hard she works to find deals to offset the growing costs of food.

“I know what it is to struggle. And I know that it’s possible to buy stuff for next to nothing,” she said.

Harry uses coupons, monitors sales closely and keeps all of her receipts, so she can submit them for rebate and cash-back offers. She also makes a habit of buying things like paper towels, shampoo and cleaning products when they are deeply discounted.

“So then I have a little bit more to put toward food.”

WATCH | Kinesha Harry shows off her stockpiled closet:

Kinesha Harry shows off her stockpiled closet

This Toronto mother of six uses coupons and sales to cut costs on her family’s grocery bills. 0:15

Harry estimates her efforts have cut her grocery bills in half. And she uses social media to offer tips to other shoppers on how they can save money through couponing and sales.

The savvy tactics Harry is using to maximize her money for food are both amazing and alarming to Mendly-Zambo, who has studied food insecurity, when people are unable to routinely access safe and healthy food.

Mendly-Zambo calls rising food prices “insidious” — in part because individuals think it’s their responsibility alone to solve the problem. 

“‘OK, so my wages are the same, but the price of bread has gone up — I’m going to buy different bread,'” she explained. “It becomes sort of a game.”

Bulk buying for social agencies 

While some shoppers flock to jumbo-sized packages in an effort to get volume discounts on food, a Toronto-based program called FoodReach takes bulk buying to another level, doing it on behalf of social agencies like food banks, child-care centres, shelters and other non-profits.

FoodReach — part of the North York Harvest Food Bank — buys meat, eggs, dairy, bread and produce directly from suppliers at wholesale prices, taking only a small margin to cover its costs and passing the savings onto its clients.

FoodReach clients order what they need through a web portal and get delivery either directly from the supplier or from the program’s own warehouse.

Bulk purchasing is more important than ever for non-profit organizations, like food banks, because of high food prices, says Ryan Noble, the executive director of FoodReach in Toronto. (James Dunne/CBC)

“We have over 90 organizations that are purchasing food through our food-reach system,” said Ryan Noble, who is executive director of both the program and the food bank.

Pressure on social agencies has increased dramatically over the course of the pandemic, Noble said. At the North York Harvest Food Bank, demand is up 40 per cent — something he worries could be a “new normal.” 

With food prices rising, bulk purchasing in the non-profit sector is more important than ever, he said, because “we need to make the dollars that we have go even further. ” 

A volunteer at the North York Harvest Food Bank in Toronto sorts donations from the public. Demand at this food bank is up by 40 per cent in recent months. (James Dunne/CBC)

Hunger, poverty need more than ‘Band-Aid’ solutions

While Mendly-Zambo agrees that bulk buying, couponing and urban farming are effective tactics to cut food costs, they are also “Band-Aid approaches” to the issues of hunger and poverty, she said.

“They really serve to put the responsibility for dealing with rising food prices on the community and on the individual.” 

In her view, food insecurity and high food prices have become “normalized.”

WATCH | Rising food prices contribute to 18-year high inflation:

Rising food prices contribute to 18-year high inflation

The continued increase in food prices is a major contributor to Canada’s inflation rate reaching an 18-year high and some economists say the rising costs could last longer than initially thought. 2:30

In 2018, Mendly-Zambo co-authored a paper about how efforts like community gardens and food banks are presented as solutions to food insecurity, in the absence of government policy, like establishing better income supports for the unemployed, increasing the minimum wage and creating food programs in schools — which she sees as more effective.

She believes the government needs to create a food policy that treats food as a right, even though it is traded as a commodity in the global marketplace.

“To me, it means eliminating food insecurity, controlling food prices and making it so Canadians have access to food — whether they’re in northern Canada or southern Canada or wherever,” said Mendly-Zambo. 

“I don’t think we should have to depend on our coupon-cutting ability to feed our families.” 

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