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The Roots of Food Insecurity

Bill C-56 is not enough to combat rising food prices

The global inflation triggered by the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is beginning to ease, but food prices in Canada remain sky-high. If you celebrated Thanksgiving last week, you probably noticed an increase in your grocery bill compared to last year: across Canada, potatoes are 6.8 per cent more expensive than they were last year, butter is 9.2 per cent more expensive, and brown rice is 6.3 per cent more expensive.

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demanded that Canada’s five largest grocers – Loblaws, Sobeys, Metro, Walmart, and Costco – come up with a plan to stabilize food prices before the Thanksgiving holiday and threatened repercussions, including increased taxes, if they failed to do so. “Large grocery chains are making record profits. Those profits should not be made on the backs of people who are struggling to feed their families,” he said. On Thursday, October 5, Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced that all five grocers had agreed to lower or freeze prices “in the coming days and weeks.”

Beyond appealing to grocers directly, the Liberals have also tabled a new bill, the Affordable Housing and Groceries Act (Bill C-56), that aims to increase affordability by increasing competition in Canada’s heavily concentrated grocery sector. Loblaws, Sobeys, and Metro reported a combined $100 billion in sales and $3.6 billion in profits in 2022. According to a York University analysis, their dominance of the grocery sector hurts not only consumers but also suppliers, who receive lower prices for their goods, and workers, who receive lower wages.

Trudeau’s ultimatum and proposed changes to Canada’s competition law are far from unnecessary, but there is good reason to fear that these measures may not be enough to bring food prices under control. Some experts are calling Bill C-56 “useless,” arguing that “competition law, which seeks to prevent monopolies and cartels, is not designed to solve macroeconomic problems like inflation.” A National Post article likewise warns that the changes proposed by Bill C-56 “are very broad and will not directly affect food prices.”

While Canada should hold large grocers accountable, it must also work to address the underlying causes of high food prices, including the declining value of the Canadian dollar, supply chain issues stemming from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and labour shortages. Extreme weather and climate change also contribute to high food prices: in 2021, for instance, heat waves in BC destroyed 50 per cent of the berry crop on some farms. A few months later, intense flooding disrupted the province’s food supply, leaving shelves empty. Meanwhile, severe wildfires and drought conditions across the Prairies affected the prices of meat and bakery products. The responsibility to protect Canadians (and their wallets) in the face of climate change-related disasters as well as major world events lies with the federal government. The blame for high food prices cannot fall entirely on grocers.

We must also remember the impact that an increased cost of living has on Canada’s most vulnerable populations. Indigenous communities in northern Canada already pay astronomical prices for their groceries, with basics such as an eight-pack of juice boxes costing well over $40. Nunavut resident Aviaq Poison took to TikTok earlier this year to ask, “So now that the majority of Canada, which is white people who live in the southern part of Canada, are having issues with food security – now you want to talk about it?” Food insecurity isn’t a uniquely financial issue: as the organization Food Secure Canada points out, food sovereignty for Indigenous communities allows these communities to be less reliant on inflated prices. It’s imperative that the Canadian government preserves land that is used for hunting and fishing. Another policy solution put forth by Food Secure Canada is a Canadian-wide school food program.  

From Nunavut to Prince Edward Island, food banks across the country are struggling to meet demand: Neil Hetherington, the CEO of Toronto’s Daily Bread, remarked that his organization saw an estimated 65,000 client visits per month before the pandemic but now sees an estimated 275,000 visits per month.

If you are experiencing food insecurity, there are several services on campus designed to mitigate this struggle, such as Midnight Kitchen, SNAC, and SSMU’s Pilot Grocery Program. Midnight Kitchen has also compiled a list of food security resources across the island. If you are not experiencing food insecurity and have the means to do so, you can support the organizations mentioned above through donations or volunteering.