After a long cold winter, I love this time of year in Calgary when the price for fruit and vegetables no longer make me gasp at the checkout counter.
But my discounted – and finally, delicious –strawberries belie what's really happening in the grocery store aisles.
Food prices have been soaring – and there's little relief in sight.
According to Statistics Canada's Consumer Price Index, the cost of food purchased from stores has jumped 13.6 per cent between 2008 and 2012, steadily tracking higher year after year. That's more than double the overall inflation rate of 6.6 per cent during the same five-year time period.
And, food prices in the first three months of 2013 were still swinging upward - far outpacing inflation.
Steven Zussino always considered himself a "conscious consumer," scanning store flyers, searching websites for deals and clipping coupons.
Living in Victoria, he felt he had no choice. Food prices were always more expensive than on the mainland due to lack of national chain stores and the transportation costs involved in just getting products to Vancouver Island.
He's managed to trim the monthly grocery bill for himself, his wife, Lina, and their 1-year-old daughter to between $300 and $350.
But things weren't always so lean.
"It was well over $500," Mr. Zussino said. "When we first got together we were saying, 'Why are we spending so much money on groceries?' It didn't make any sense. We cut down on the food waste and found these other techniques that seem to work."
In 2009, the couple also co-founded GroceryAlert.ca to help other consumers slim down the hit to their wallets. The website shows deals by region by combing through store flyers, recommends loss-leaders, the best deals on produce and meat, links to coupons and other tips to cut costs.
Other easy ways to save, according to Mr. Zussino:
- Contact your local store for clearance- or meat-reduction days
- Brand users should try cheaper store brands, which often come with a money-back guarantee if the product doesn’t meet expectations
- Cut the serving sizes of meat, which will still leave consumers full, but at the same time reduce waste and extend the life of the purchase
- Buy bulk foods for item consumers don’t need much of, such as spices or baking ingredients
The vast majority of Canadians say they are feeling the pinch of higher food prices, according to an RBC poll, which also found that 91 per cent of consumers plan to put their food spending on a diet.
For Jason Round, head of financial planning support with RBC Financial Planning, the reality check among consumers is a pleasant surprise.
"People are really taking this into consideration and making adjustments to their budget based on the fact that food prices are increasing and they're expecting them to increase in the future," he said.
The survey of 3,024 Canadians, which was conducted online last month by Ipsos Reid as part of the RBC consumer outlook index, but released on Thursday also found that one-third of respondents said rising food costs have had a "significant impact" on their daily budget.
Of respondents, 57 per cent said they would do more comparison shopping now than before and 41 per cent said they'd stick to their budgets and avoid impulse purchases.
As a first step, according to Mr. Round, consumers should look at their cash flow and find out what things are negotiable (such as that pricey daily latte indulgence) and non-negotiable (such as rent or mortgage) in order to set a budget.
And those should not be written in stone, he added. Stick to it, but come back to it as expenses – and savings needs - change.
The survey also found that the average Canadian spends $411 per month on groceries. Quebeckers spent $448 on the high-end, and on the low-end, those in Ontario rang in at $379.
Statistics Canada is set to release new monthly CPI data for April on Friday, but food prices may well still be on the rise, according to economists' predictions.
An RBC Economics report suggested that last year's drought in the United States could drive food prices 3 to 4 per cent higher this year, as the lag in commodity prices makes its way to consumers at the retail level.