Inflation following the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be here for the foreseeable future. Food inflation has hit Canadians and Manitobans particularly hard. It’s a double whammy, as many people are behind financially due to the pandemic and are now seeing their grocery bills rise faster than they have in years.

According to Statistics Canada’s Consumer Price Index, Canadians paid 9.7% more for groceries in April 2022 compared to April 2021, while Manitobans paid 8.8% more during of the same period.

We know that food is, as economists tell us, an elastic good. Rental costs remain static (or increase), but people buy less or different types of food (cheaper, less fresh and healthy) when budgets tighten, and many have to resort to charity food to make ends meet.

This is evident in the 40% jump in the number of Harvest Manitoba food bank users over the past year, recently reported in the Free press. This means a huge increase in the number of Manitobans who are food insecure or unable to consistently afford healthy and acceptable food.

Prior to the pandemic, 14.4% of Manitobans were food insecure (and up to 60% of northern Manitobans). Food insecurity has increased during the pandemic and is likely to remain high due to food inflation. Knowing how changing food prices affect the food security and livelihoods of Manitobans is critically important, but we have limited data to make these assessments.

Most provinces in Canada routinely assess the cost of food in urban, rural and remote areas using a Nutritious Food Basket model: a consumption basket of basic, healthy foods. Costing is done regularly (annually or every two or three years) by government departments, usually health or social services, and often in partnership with non-profit organizations. Grocery stores are randomly selected from geographic areas of interest and allow agency staff or volunteers to collect food prices.

Price data is analyzed, making it possible to track trends in food costs over time, compare food costs between regions, and assess the proportion of a citizen’s dollar spent on food versus other other expenses such as housing, relative to income. This empirical approach to food cost also enables organizations such as school lunch programs, long-term care facilities, and other healthcare facilities to plan, manage, and project food budgets.

Unfortunately, Manitoba does not regularly cost food. The last publicly available costing is from 2011. In 2017, a provincially-led coalition (Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living) collected grocery store prices across Manitoba, with the province taking responsibility for drafting and distribute a final report (I was part of the coalition). However, despite efforts by the coalition to have the report published, it remains in the minister’s office to this day.

We know from other reports that food prices vary widely across the province, being particularly high in northern communities. A report on milk prices from the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives found that the cost of milk in northern Manitoba communities was up to $1.40 per liter higher than in Winnipeg (about double), and even nearby communities had very different prices: the cost of a liter of milk in Opaskwayak Cree Nation was 23% higher than across the bridge in The Pas.

Manitoba’s poverty reduction strategy, Pathways to a Better Future, which included consultations across the province, reports that food insecurity was a major issue highlighted. Unfortunately, grocery cart pricing is not part of the strategy’s initiatives.

Given the current state of inflation and food insecurity, it’s time for the Manitoba government to reconsider releasing the 2017 report and facilitate and fund a new, ongoing process to collect and distribute food prices through the Nutritious Food Basket model.

Understanding trends in food costs over time and across regions is critical to planning food services, as well as social programs aimed at reducing poverty.

Joyce Slater is Professor of Community Nutrition in the Department of Food Sciences and Human Nutrition at the University of Manitoba.