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People shop for produce and seafood at the Granville Island Market in Vancouver on July 20. Canada's inflation rate was up 8.1 per cent in June compared with a year ago, its largest yearly change since January, 1983.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

While Canada’s inflation rate continues to rise, the latest figures suggest prices at the grocery store have begun to increase at a slower rate. But don’t expect food costs to suddenly fall.

In June, food bought at stores and restaurants cost 8.8 per cent more than at that time last year, according to Statistics Canada. That’s greater than the general inflation rate but unchanged from the previous two months. But when just the cost of store-bought food is counted, as it is the vast majority of what Canadians eat, prices rose at a slower rate than in the previous month, the first time that’s occurred since last October. In April and May, food purchased from the store was 9.7 per cent more expensive than the year before. In June, that figure fell to 9.4 per cent.

It’s a small but encouraging drop, said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

“It seems as though food companies are starting to get ahead of the volatility” caused by global events such as the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and higher fuel prices, he said.

This past December, Dr. Charlebois and a host of other Canadian academics predicted the cost of food this year would climb by 5 per cent to 7 per cent from the year before. He still believes that number will fall to around 7 per cent by late 2022.

However, that doesn’t mean food prices will necessarily drop anytime soon. The cost of food goes up all the time, Dr. Charlebois explains. It’s the pace of that ascent that varies.

And the cost of certain goods, like milk, are actually expected to rise, Dr. Charlebois said. Last month, the Canadian Dairy Commission, which oversees Canada’s dairy supply management system, announced that milk prices will go up about two cents a litre, or 2.5 per cent, come September. As reported by Statscan, the price of milk has increased by 8 per cent since last June. (Dr. Charlebois questioned that figure. He said his own research found the price of milk in some markets has actually spiked by 25 per cent since January.)

It’s hard to say when prices for meat or grain products will cool off, said Simon Somogyi, a business of food professor at Guelph University. Fortunately, some relief could soon be found in the produce department, as the domestic harvest reaches grocery shelves and Canadians rely less on imported fruits and vegetables.

Expect the price of leafy greens, corn, asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, berries, apples, stone fruit and other produce commonly grown in Canada to decline, he said.

The rise in food costs over the past year varies considerably depending on where you live. According to the latest Statscan data, the price of store-bought food has risen by 10 per cent or more since last June in Ontario, Québec, the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Maritimes. In Prince Edward Island, the cost of food in June was 11.6 per cent higher than the year before. Across the country’s western provinces and Yukon, that figure ranged from 7 per cent to 8.7 per cent.

It’s difficult to think of a place where high food prices are felt more than at the food bank. In the past two years, the Stop Community Food Centre, a Toronto-based organization, has seen a 26-per-cent increase in families with children accessing their food bank.

The rise in food costs isn’t only straining the families they serve but the organization itself, said Maria Rio, the Stop’s director of development and communications.

Between January and April of this year, its food expenses rose 21 per cent compared with that same period last year. The organization began allowing families to access the food bank twice a month at the outset of the pandemic. Two months ago, they had to again limit visits to once a month.

“It’s gotten to the point where we’re a little worried about our sustainability,” Ms. Rio said. “Because we can only serve so many people without overextending ourselves, which we have already done [due to the pandemic].”

Now there’s a new crisis, she added. “A once-in-a-lifetime event every month, you know?”

For those struggling with food costs, deals on fruits and veggies can already be found in the frozen aisle, Dr. Somogyi said. Instead of meat, people can try plant-based foods high in protein, such as chickpeas or lentils.

“It really comes down to being a savvy, smart consumer,” Dr. Somogyi said.

This frugal approach to food – using coupons, perusing flyers, planning meals, eating out less and sticking to a budget – was much more common decades ago, when more of people’s income went toward what we eat, he noted.

“We’re having to learn skills that our parents and grandparents had,” he said.

Perhaps the simplest, most cost-effective advice, according to Dr. Charlebois: “Eat what you buy. Waste less.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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