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North Shore has the 2nd most expensive groceries in B.C., study finds

A UBC food economist tells us why the price of food has risen so fast.
Greater Vancouver Food Bank CEO David Long has seen a significant increase in demand for his organization’s services. |Chung Chow, BIV

North Shore residents are paying more for healthy groceries than people in almost every other region of the province, according to a new report by the BC Centre for Disease Control.

The report, released on July 10, tracks the cost of 61 minimally processed but commonly eaten food items, including vegetables and fruits, proteins, grains, and oils and fats, from 245 stores around the province.

To feed a family of four in the North Shore/Coast Garibaldi region, which includes the Sea to Sky corridor, Sunshine Coast and some North Coast communities, the CDC estimates a monthly average cost of $1,379 – more than $100 higher than the B.C. average of $1,263.

The study found purchasing roughly the same products in Richmond would be $200 cheaper per month.

Only the Northwest region, including Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii and Kitimat had a higher average at $1,571.

Crossing either of the North Shore bridges would likely result in a lower grocery bill, the report suggests, with Vancouver’s average coming in at $1,287 while in Fraser North, which includes Burnaby, New Westminster and the Tri-Cities, the average was $1,234. South of the Fraser in Surrey/Delta the average monthly price falls to $1,194, while the more eastern communities stretching to Hope had the cheapest monthly average in B.C. – $1,109.

The data was gathered by the BC CDC in May and June of 2022. Although similar studies have been done in the past, the CDC used different methodology in 2022, making it impossible to do comparisons over time. The report does note, however, that with recent rises in the consumer price index, the cost of a nutritious food basket is likely even higher today.

The report does not delve into why the cost of food has risen so high or why there is such disparity in the price of a similar basket of food from one region to the next, although it does stress the public health implications for people struggling to put food on the table.

“People who experience household food insecurity are much more likely to experience chronic physical and mental health problems and suffer from infectious and noncommunicable diseases. They are also more likely to experience negative disease outcomes, be hospitalized and die prematurely,” the report states.

In 2021, just under 15 per cent of households in B.C., or 732,000 people, were experiencing food insecurity, including 145,000 children, according to the report.

In 2023, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank reported previously unthinkable numbers of people registering to get their basic nutrition needs met monthly: 16,500-plus clients and hundreds of new faces arriving each month.

North Vancouver's Harvest Project, which has been offering urban relief for 30 years on the North Shore, will likely provide upwards of $500,000 in grocery supports in 2023, said development officer Kevin J. Lee.

“Unfortunately, not a lot of surprises at all. The numbers… are painfully familiar," he said. “These things all present an extreme challenge for folks who find themselves in margins and it is not getting any less severe.”

Taken with the rental prices, which are among the highest in the country, and other hard costs, people are left making some truly desperate decisions, he said.

“If there's not enough money, then there is an immediate issue of food insecurity and the folks are going hungry, or they're making terrible choices. You know, mom or dad doesn't eat, or doesn't eat as much as needed in order to keep the kids fed,” he said. “And those choices are being made every day on the North Shore.”

The BC CDC and the Food Bank both put the blame not on rising prices specifically but rather the lagging behind of wages and fixed incomes like disability, social assistance and old age security.

“Research shows that the strongest predictor of household food insecurity is not food prices, but inadequate incomes. Addressing household food insecurity requires policy action to increase incomes so that everyone can afford to eat a nutritious diet that supports health and overall well-being,” the BC CDC report states.

Lee said that should be "painfully simple."

Numerous studies have found that providing greater income supports will improve outcomes, Lee said, but the fix is always politically "unsexy" and requires foundational changes in how we structure taxation.

Why are food prices so high?

The dramatic rise in household food costs has had academics flummoxed, said Rick Barichello, professor of food and resource economics at UBC.

“Food prices have been rising much, much faster than we’ve seen for a very long time,” he said, noting that inflation in food prices has been about five per cent higher than the general inflation rate. “I’ve been working this business for 50 years, and I’ve never seen it.”

The same pattern has been observed in the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom, he added.

Barichello said they’ve looked into a number of theories as to what’s driving the trend, including the cost of fuel, fiscal stimulus programs like CERB, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine destabilizing wheat and fertilizer exports.

But world market commodity prices for agricultural products have been flat or falling, he said. And while fiscal stimulus might lead to rising prices generally, it doesn’t explain why food prices would outpace the inflation rate.

“So this is not a story at the farm level. It is a story of what happened after the farm gate,” he said. “It probably is mostly food manufacturing, plus food retailing and wholesale, and restaurants... It’s mostly labour costs and the difficulty in getting or holding labour, and this seems to have hit the food industry particularly hard.”

Barichello said he’s aware of accusations of gross profiteering by food retailers, but he said there’s no evidence that margins on products, generally, have become plumper.

Barichello said he wasn’t surprised to see the regional variations in the price of foods that show up in the BC CDC report, given the average incomes in those areas, adding that people are less likely to shop around if it’s too time consuming or inconvenient.

“These are, in some ways, separate little markets, especially for people that aren’t so mobile,” he said. “Maybe they’re are all just seeing that they can pass along some price increases more easily there than they can in Vancouver or Richmond.”

If there is any good news, it’s that the gap between food inflation and general inflation seems to have peaked in January 2023, Barichello said, although he said the gap is closing very slowly.

“I’m afraid we have to suck this up and put up with this a bit longer,” he said. “It’s not unique to anyone.”