You had your best-laid plans and then COVID-19 came along and hammered the entire economy. But you’ve got this – if you have the right information. Join Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw on Stress Test, a podcast guiding you through one of the biggest challenges your finances will ever face.
Rob: [00:00:02] The pandemic has definitely changed our spending habits on food, but are young Canadian spending more at grocery stores? Have they replaced restaurant and bar spending? Are trends like meal kits and online grocery shopping here to stay? In today’s episode, we’re going to dig into food spending.
Roma: [00:00:19] Welcome to Stress Test, a Globe and Mail podcast that looks at how the rules of personal finance have changed in the pandemic for Gen Z and millennials.
Rob: [00:00:28] I’m Rob Carrick, the personal finance columnist at the Globe and Mail.
Roma: [00:00:31] And I’m Roma Luciw the personal finance editor at The Globe.
So, Rob, we get to talk about food today. I’m so excited, it’s one of my favorite topics.
And given that you have been inserting photos of the various meals your family has at your house, I gather it’s a big one at your place too?
Rob: totally I mean, who is not thinking a lot about food these days?
We’re stuck at our houses to an extent that we’ve never been before. And eating is one of the few pleasures we can just amp right up in the pandemic. And so, yes, at our house, we have been thinking more about food and doing more. What about you?
Roma: [00:01:05] I got one of my dream assignments with this episode and that was trying out food for journalistic purposes. So we tried out a food box for a few weeks. And I will start off by saying that the food was super tasty. The dish we tried was a cod taco, and we have some pretty strong feelings about tacos in this house. I found the ingredients fresh. They were seasonal. It was a creative recipe. It’s certainly not one that I would have thought to make. I liked that they didn’t shy away from some of the more controversial veggies, at least for kids. Mine wouldn’t necessarily gravitate towards radishes and marinated beets. And, you know, it was laid out in front of us. It was pretty easy to make. Family style, appeared on my porch. So very convenient.
Rob: What didn’t you like?
Roma: [00:01:52] I guess the negatives for us were that the portions weren’t that big.
I would say that for me there was enough food to eat and my husband’s obviously a lot larger and he had a cheese plate come out that night. There were no leftovers after dinner and I hate making school lunches. So that was a big negative for me. I guess in addition to that, the packaging was an issue. There was a lot of guilt for me when I saw that I had to throw out or I would really struggle to reuse that small container of plastic which contained vinegar that I had to marinate the beets in.
And I also thought it was a bit pricey for four people. It worked out to about eleven dollars a person. And I know that I can make fish tacos for less than forty four dollars for all of us and still have leftovers. And remember, at the end of the day, you still have to make all the food yourself. It’s not coming to you ready to go.
Rob: [00:02:36] Why is my question about markets? We’re locked into our houses to some extent. We have time to make meals. We’re all doing this big comprehensive weekly grocery shopping. Why not just buy the stuff and make it yourself?
Roma: [00:02:48] So I’m glad you asked. I was sort of thinking the same thing at the end of our experiment. So I did a call out on my social media, curious as to why people used it. Rob I was flooded with comments from people obsessed with these food boxes. And mostly people love the convenience. They love not having to think about what to cook. So I heard from people with small babies, super busy working parents, single parents or working professionals without kids. Now, one of the other big food trends that I think has sort of emerged in the pandemic or gained steam is online grocery shopping. Do you do that at your place?
Rob: [00:03:22] No, not interested. When I go to the store, I want what I want and I don’t want someone making substitutions for me. We did a curbside grocery order and went to pick it up. And there’s substitution here, substitution there. I was thinking, I don’t want that stuff. I would have just skipped it. So no, I’m a bit of a control freak and I’ll do my own grocery shopping. Thanks very much. What about you?
Roma:[00:03:44] I’ve also not tried it and I also did a callout on that. And I got a more tepid response. I would say, in our house. The other big change has been, I’m sure, was with many Canadians, we’ve been spending a bit more at the grocery store and definitely, obviously eating out less at restaurants. Has that been the case with you as well?
Rob: [00:04:04] Yeah, well, we’re ordering in regularly, like once a week at least. And you spend a lot less when you’re ordering because you’re not buying booze. I mean, some takeout lets you buy booze or cocktails or whatever. That seems to be the situation around us. But, you know, if you drink your own beer and have your own wine, that’s a lot cheaper. So the takeout is cheaper than going up to a restaurant and at the grocery store. Yeah, we’re spending more. I mean, there’s a butcher shop near us, and I have surprised myself with some of the expenses, you know, a good piece of meat, good barbecued steak is a great morale booster in the pandemic. I’m here to tell you. And yes, we have indulged ourselves a few times, not all the time. Um at the grocery store? Yeah. I think we’re spending more. There’s just a tendency to sort of treat yourself to things that you might not ordinarily buy because you’re spending less in other areas for sure.
At our house, I have a twenty six year old son who’s very interested in cooking and food and he’s been creating some masterpieces for us. I shared with readers of my newsletter a picture of a Detroit style pizza he made, which was one of the best pizzas I’ve eaten in the last several years. And believe me, I have eaten a lot. Food’s always fun to talk about. In today’s episode, we’re going to speak to a food researcher from Dalhousie University.
Roma [00:05:12] But first, we’ll talk to a millennial in Ottawa who has jumped on the food box trend. We’ll hear about how much it’s costing her and how her food budget has changed right after the break.
Ad:[00:05:24] This podcast is brought to you by CPP Investments. Take comfort knowing the Canada Pension Plan Fund will be there for you. We invest to help ensure the CPP fund remains resilient over the long term, sustainable and secure for millions. Of Canadians learn more at CPP investments dot com.
Roma [00:05:47] Carys is a 31 year old web developer living in Ottawa with her fiancee before the pandemic, they were spending about one hundred dollars a week on groceries and sixty dollars a week on takeout. Her work would also provide lunch every day
Carys: Since the pandemic,
I’ve been working from home every day rather than going to work and back in March at the beginning of the pandemic. I got pretty worried about getting groceries and what that would look like and whether it would be possible to get all of the food that we needed. So at that time, we decided to start subscribing to a meal delivery service, even though the pandemic has kind of gone through ebbs and flows and grocery shopping is not as stressful now as it was at the beginning, we’ve decided to keep doing that.
Roma [00:06:37] She says the basic meal kit costs her about sixty five dollars a week.
Carys: [00:06:41] What we typically gather in a box every week, and it’s three meals for two people. And you have the recipe, I should say, printed out and occasionally I’ll add extra grocery items as well. So recently, some of the things that I’ve added have been some salad dressing, some tofu, some iced coffee, just things like that. And I have found that the prices of things of the extra items is pretty reasonable.
Roma [00:07:12] To supplement the box,
Carys says she would still do an occasional grocery shop in person or order groceries online to be delivered.
Carys:[00:07:19] I think that we will continue doing it probably for the duration of the pandemic because it does just make things a little less stressful in terms of having to plan to eat at home for every meal. And it also just makes things a bit more interesting because you do get some meals and some ingredients that you probably wouldn’t get if you were just planning out your meals for the week yourself. A good meal that I had in my last box was the tomato and chickpea coconut curry that came with salad and some garlic naan as well. So the plan for now at least, is to stick with this routine until the pandemic’s over.
Roma [00:08:00]: Charise doesn’t eat meat and says the box has encouraged her to think outside the box when it comes to vegetarian recipes. She says she enjoys the routine of it and looks forward to cooking the meals each week. As for her overall food spending, she says it’s actually less than it was before.
Carys:[00:08:16] Just because we are going out less and when we do, it’s a lot more purposeful. We did go out person more meals while things were more open and patios were open. I think that eating out just used to be a way of socializing with other people, whether it’s someone from your household or a friend or an acquaintance or a coworker. And now that’s not the case. So a lot of meals that I had out before, it was just kind of out of convenience because you’d meet up with someone and you’d meet up with them over a drink or lunch or dinner or whatever. And I’m just not doing that anymore.
Roma: And in comparison to her spending as a whole?
Carys:I don’t feel concerned about the amount of money that I’m spending on food, but I’m also not spending that much money on anything else because there’s not that much to do during the pandemic. So it probably does make up a significant amount of my budget in the past, like when I was younger and I was just kind of getting started in my career. I definitely have had times where I felt like I was spending too much money on food and I needed to cut back in order to be able to save more money.
But more recently, before the pandemic reasons why I’ve tried to cut back on eating out and things like that has more so been for health reasons rather than financial reasons.
Rob: [00:09:36] You know, I think young adults were spending a lot of money in restaurants and bars before the pandemic that’s been largely cut off. And so they’re reallocating money to meal kits and take out maybe extra grocery spending. And that’s fine. I think it’s you know, it’s a logical, sensible reallocation of money to provide more enjoyment on a day to day basis. I do think, though, that when the pandemic is over, there’s going to need to be some kind of reconciling of all these costs, because if you’re going to start to go back out to the restaurants and you’re going to have the meal kit and you’re going to be, you know, treating yourself at the grocery store, you may find your food budget is kind of exploding.
Roma :[00:10:12] For sure, But right now I say whatever you need to get through this pandemic, whatever brings you joy on a daily basis, certainly food can be one of those things. I’m all for it.
Rob: [00:10:20] Not too much joy, though. I just read something today that people are gaining weight in the pandemic because they’re eating too much and not exercising enough.
Roma: [00:10:27] Rob, did you ever jump on the bread baking phenomenon back in the spring?
Rob: [00:10:32] No, no, I do not. I do not bake bread, but I encourage people I know to bake it for me.
Roma:[00:10:40] Me neither. I feel like that’s why we have bakeries, that I’m happy to support them.
Rob [00:10:44] So are you going to continue with your food boxes after the pandemic?
Roma: [00:10:45], I don’t know, I think that if I did continue with it, I would have to amend my usage of it. I know I would have to probably order extra ingredients and more food. Now Rob, you have had the experience of having two teenage boys in your house. I don’t anticipate they’re going to eat less in the coming months and years. I think if I was to keep doing it, I would mostly do it in order to get them in the kitchen cooking with more regularity and also to try out new recipes. But I would definitely need to supplement. So I would consider it. Yeah, I think about it for sure.
Rob: [00:11:21] I’m sure meal kits aren’t the only trend taking off. To find out what else is happening with food, we’ll speak to an analyst to get the lowdown right after the break.
Ad: [00:11:31] This podcast is brought to you by CPP Investments. At CPP Investments, we never lose sight of the long term. We invest the Canada Pension Plan Fund to help provide financial security for generations of Canadians. We diversified the CPP fund across geographies and asset classes to access the best investment opportunities and generate sustainable long term returns. The fund is now more than 400 billion dollars. To learn more about our investment performance for Canadians, visit CPP Investments Dotcom.
Rob:[00:12:08] Now, let’s dive into our conversation with Sylvain Charlebois. He’s the director of the Agrifood Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
[00:12:18] One of the things that economists and analysts and personal finance writers such as myself have been doing, the pandemic is tracking spending habits. What are people spending more on? What are they spending less on? OK, we know they’re not traveling. They’re not going to concerts, but consumer spending has been very healthy. It’s actually, at some points been up year over year. We’re wondering about food. How much has food spending risen in the pandemic and what’s your take on why the trend is happening?
Sylvain: [00:12:43] It’s a tricky one because of food service. That’s the enigma that we have that we’re facing. Before COVID, the average family was spending, say, 38 percent of its food budget on food consumed outside the home. Well, we know well know what happened in March and April. Nobody went out for a while. And so we actually believe in 2020, you know, food prices are going up three point five, four percent. We actually believe that perhaps households are spending less money on food overall, not more, even though the food inflation rate is much higher than the general inflation rate.
Rob: [00:13:22] So does that mean that they’re spending more at the grocery store but less at restaurants?
Sylvain:[00:13:27] That’s right. So just to go back to the ratio before covid, we looked at it through the 862 ratio. So 38 service, 62 retail that went down to 919 during Covid at the start of covid. And that’s why we saw all the volume of sales go up significantly at retail. We saw empty shelves where people were panic buying. That’s why I mean, this tsunami of sales went from one sector to another overnight almost, and now eight, nine months into the pandemic, were at about our guesses that were at about 25, 75. We’re not going to get back to 38. But if you keep your service, no, lower your percentage lower. You’re likely to save more as a consumer for sure, because there is a premium of about 40, 45 percent for every dollar you spend at the grocery store for the same volume of food, you have to spend a dollar foor dollar 45. So you are saving.
Roma:[00:14:31] Sylvain, One of the elements of the pandemic is that has really changed so many things about our lives. We’re at home for some of us have more time on our hands. We can’t travel. Do you think that spending on food has become a way of comforting ourselves? And I’m thinking specifically of, you know, the flour being unavailable and everyone turning to baking.
Sylvain [00:14:55] I thought you were alluding to the pandemic, extra pounds we’ve all gained, but that’s another problem for another day. But absolutely.
I think when you have less of a nomad, I guess not traveling, not going out as much, you you do spend a whole lot of time at home processing your own food. But the other thing that we’ve noticed in the last few months is that people have actually gardened way more as well. One in five have actually decided to garden this year for the first time ever. That’s a lot of people. The gardening rate in many parts of the country was almost at 50 percent. That’s an incredible percentage. And the number one motivation when we ask about 10000 Canadians was to save money. Saving money and feeling more food secure was really an important factor when they started to garden.
[00:15:54] So then what are we spending more on in the pandemic when it comes to food? Are people treating themselves more to certain things, you know, if they’re meat eaters are they buying better quality meat? Are they, you know, spending some more on really nice breads? What kind of trends are we seeing in terms of where people are spending their money?
Sylvain[00:16:14] I think it is a bit of an evolution. At the very beginning of the pandemic, we had a in the literate marketplace when it came to cooking, I guess we didn’t know much about cooking. The two top products that sold in Canada were Kraft dinner and peanut butter. But that’s really changed. After a while, people start to open up their cookbooks and they start to spend more time in the periphery of the store where fresh products are meat counter produce, even in frozen products were very popular. And so over the last little while, we’re seeing way more traffic in the periphery of the store because all of these products are, well, typically require some sort of processing and cooking at home. So those products are becoming more popular for sure. In the middle of the store, it’s slowly becoming a desert again. Before COVID, National Brands. We’re looking for friends. I mean, sales were very tough in the middle of the store and we’re back to that point again, so. Again, I would say right now what’s most popular periphery of the store, what’s fresh, it’s very much in fashion.
Roma: [00:17:25] I just would like to state that my 10 year old is still very much interested in KD and peanut butter.
Sylvain: [00:17:33] Well, Kraft will be very happy about that.
Rob:[00:17:38] The millennial and Gen Z cohorts are widely known for spending a large part of their disposable income at bars and restaurants have been criticized for that. But it is a hallmark of that generation where has their restaurant spending gone to. Are they as well in the grocery store buying up KD and peanut butter?
Sylvain:[00:18:00] With younger generations it’s funny because of course, they do buy a lot of products in stores now. They’re not spending as much time at the restaurant. The one peculiar thing about the younger generations is the local concept. They tend to buy more local products. The provenance of food is seems to be more important for them than for other generations. I think you’re just hardwired to think that way. The challenge, of course, being in Canada, especially during the winter months, are not as many locally grown products in fresh except perhaps at the meat counter. And that’s going to be a challenge for sure. And that’s why a lot of governments are talking about food, autonomy, how to produce food all year round in Canada.
Roma:[00:18:45] Food boxes have been around for a while. They’re not new, but have they taken off with people stuck at home, not going to restaurants?
Sylvain:[00:18:54] Yeah, actually, this is an interesting phenomenon. We’re actually doing a study right now on e-commerce. And part of that study, of course, is related to meal kits. Meal kit providers are doing very well. The challenge there is the price point. I mean, the economy won’t do as well. We are expecting economy to take a bit of a turn over the next little while because there are fewer people working and markets tend to be very expensive. The average price point for markets is usually north of ten dollars per meal per person. It gets expensive and you get your food delivered to your home and you still have work to do. You have some stuff to prepare. So on menu, planning a great solution to save money. Not so great. And of course, the other problem with meal kits is packaging. Packaging is really bothering a lot of people. And to keep these ingredients fresh, you need to use a lot of packaging. And it’s really turning a lot of people off, unfortunately.
Roma[00:19:58] Mm hmm. So then Carys buys her food box because she is vegetarian and she loves the variety, the suggestions of the recipes. She’s also well aware that the food box is expensive, but she has done the math and thinks that she’ll save money, not going to restaurants. And therefore, this is her treat. Is that part of the thinking with the increased popularity of the food box?
Sylvain: With food boxes for milk gets you save time, frankly, with cuisine fatigue or cooking fatigue, you do want to buy time. You’ll be tempted to buy time one way or another without paying tips or paying for an overpriced bottle of wine. You’re immune to that if you stay home. So, yeah, absolutely. You can save and you don’t pay taxes on top of that. It does matter. In the end, if you think about the ensemble of items that you have to pay once you get out of your home.
Roma:[00:20:53] It also strikes me that a food box might make more sense for a household of one or two people. But when you start adding it up for a family of four or five, it gets more expensive.
Sylavin: [00:21:05] So meal kits tend to be popular with people who do live alone or couples, professional couples and single parents who are desperate for time as well. And they can’t really afford to spend too much time on a menu management. Single parents, of course, they care about their children and they want to make sure that their children eat well. Meal kit providers will do the thinking for you. They’ll do the planning for you. And that’s worth money for a lot of people.
Roma: [00:21:33] Sylvain, we’re heading into a tough winter. The economy is in a tough position. There are going to be people out of work, younger people in particular, those employed in the restaurant industry, families. There are going to be people that are struggling with food insecurity. What are some ways to stretch a grocery bill and still eat healthy if you are going to be going through a tough time?
Sylvain: I think you need to be careful with where you buy. I mean, I actually do expect a grocers to convert a lot of stores into discount stores. Actually, we’re seeing it already in parts of the country. So I would say try to take advantage of discount stores. And there they’re out there. So there are deals to be made. Try to plan in advance as well over the long term. The gardening part is an important one as well. I mean, if you actually have the time, if you’re at home and you do have land, take advantage of it. You can actually grow food indoors now. There are technologies that are sold to and delivered to people in order for them to grow their own food at home. So there’s lots of different ways to save money on food, be part of a cooperative. There are different services that are available. The thing about covid is that it has completely democratized the supply chain. If you go online, you have so, so many options. Instead of being at the mercy of the oligopoly we have in the grocery business. It’s not just about Loblaw, sorbets, metro, Wal-Mart, Costco. There’s more to it now. Farmers are selling directly. Kraft Heinz has a restaurant offering the GTA. There’s lots going on here and many, many options. So if you’re a consumer concern about your budget, make sure you know what your options are, because truth is, they are way more options now than before covid.
Rob: [00:23:31] Sylvain, what data do you have for us to document how online grocery shopping has taken off in the pandemic?
Sylvain:[00:23:37] The one thing that we’ve noticed with e-commerce is that there are fewer bargains to be made online. I know if you’ve actually been online yourself, but they’re very, very hard. In fact, we actually believe that the premium that you pay to get your groceries delivered to your home is anywhere between five to seven percent. So if you are to get your groceries delivered, you would probably have to pay five to seven percent more than if you were to go to a grocery store physically and pick all your items up yourself.
Rob: [00:24:10] What’s resonating more with customers right now? Curbside pickup, you order, your groceries online, then you go to pick it up or just having it delivered right to your house.
Sylvain:[00:24:18] It’s the full delivery service that seems to be increasing. Curbside is a good compromise. I would say. It was an interesting solution for a while before that. It was convenient for consumers and it was certainly convenient for grocers because they didn’t really have to think about infrastructure and a fully deployed e-commerce strategy. Now, you may have seen the announcement coming from Wal-Mart and Loblaws and Sobeys basically spending billions and billions of dollars to make sure they can better service the Canadian market online and offer full delivery service across the country. And so we are expecting more and more competition. So all grocers are spending a lot of capital to make sure that we can stay home and get our food delivered.
Rob: [00:25:11] You were mentioning that you pay a little bit of a premium, five or seven percent to have your groceries delivered online because there aren’t as many bargains. I’ve been in a few grocery stores and drugstores in the last few months, and I’m wondering, am I seeing fewer items on sale? I feel like I am, but I thought I’ve got to check in with an expert like, you.
Sylvain:[00:25:31] No, it’s not a mirage. There are fewer sales. The whole notion of lost leading is also disappearing. Putting lost leaders into grocery store was common practice before covid. Grocers tend to put products on shelves to lose money on them, like a can of soup at 99 cents, for example. They would use Offsiders as a bait to get you in there in the middle of the store and entice you to buy other products at a higher margin. That’s the trick. We’re seeing less and less of that. You probably would have noticed also that your weekly flyer is much thinner now than before covid.
Rob:[00:26:10] Sylvain, one of the themes that keeps coming up in our conversation is that food is going to cost us more, more online shopping. That’s more expensive. There’s fewer sales. Do you think that if we look past the pandemic into the years ahead, that food is just going to take a bigger bite of our budget?
Sylvain:[00:26:25] This is exactly what’s going on. It’s been going on for a decade. You see, if you look at the data coming out of stats Can the food inflation index has outpaced the general inflation index by 23 points at the very least. It’s actually worse in the eastern part of the country, in the Atlantic where we are. It’s incredible. So, yes, absolutely. Over the last decade, we’ve seen households spending more on food relative to their budget, overall budget, and that’s probably going to increase over the next little while.
Rob:[00:27:01] I’ve heard families complain about the cost of food and they know food inflation has been significant more than the overall inflation rate. Do you think people are going to get even more perturbed about this because the pace of increase is going to is going to pick up?
Sylvain[00:27:15] This is what I think. I actually believe that we’re slowly departing an era of cheap food. There are a lot of things that people expect when it comes to the industry, in relation to sustainability packaging. They’re expecting more innovation. They’re expecting companies to comply to new regulations. That tends to cost more. And for many, many years, I would say over the last generation or so, we’ve seen an industry becoming more efficient, allowing Canadians to have access to the fifth cheapest food basket in the world relative to income. So that I mean, consumers are very well served. But now I actually think we’re catching up to Europe where people do spend more on food relative to income and we’re slowly moving away from the American model. In America. food is incredibly cheap, but I think right now Canada is kind of in the middle between Europe and America, and I think that’s going to continue.
Rob: [00:28:21] Thanks to Sylvia for joining us. He’s actually really fun to follow on Twitter, where he goes by the handle the food professor.
Roma[00:28:28] Wrapping up. I have some takeaways for everyone. I mean, we all eat One: The pandemic has been hard on everyone. And if you want to treat yourself to delicious food, do it. You are reallocating some of your entertainment budget to your food budget. And at a time of heightened anxiety and stress, we all need something to look forward to,
Two: Be prepared to reset your food spending when the pandemic ends. Once you’re back to eating in restaurants and going to bars, you might need to cut back elsewhere.
Three: Food costs in Canada are set to keep rising, so get into the habit of planning healthy, tasty and expensive meals at home. Your stomach and your wallet will thank you.
Rob: [00:29:14] Thank you for listening to stress test. I’m Rob Carrick,
Roma: And I’m Roma Luciw.. This show is produced and edited by Amanda Cupido with mixing and editing by TK Matunda. Kiran Rana is the executive producer.
Rob:[00:29:26] If you like what you heard, make sure to subscribe to the show. Share it with a friend or leave a review on Apple podcasts. See you next time.
Roma:[00:29:34] Oh, and Rob, maybe you can get your son to share that pizza recipe with me.
Rob: Done deal.
[00:29:53] This podcast was brought to you by CPP Investments. As a member of the investment management industry, we’re committed to helping drive financial literacy among young Canadians, including providing information about our role in helping ensure the sustainability of the CPP. To learn more, visit CPP Investments dot com.