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British Columbians spend more money on food than almost every other province

Average household shelled out $9,168 on food in 2015; only Alberta spent more

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British Columbians spend more money on food than the average Canadian household and more than every other province except Alberta, according to a recent Statistics Canada survey.

The typical B.C. household spent $9,168 on food in 2015 — roughly 11 per cent of total expenditures — and higher than the Canadian average of $8,629. That total was divided into money spent on food purchased in stores ($6,491) and in restaurants ($2,677). Albertans topped the list, shelling out $10,171 on food. Nova Scotians spent the least at $7,478.

British Columbians saw a steep rise in food expenditures in 2015, when spending climbed nearly 12 per cent from the previous year. Spending on food across Canada rose six per cent in 2015, a year marked by significant food-price inflation domestically even as global food costs fell, tied mainly to a weak loonie.

UBC food and resource economics professor James Vercammen said the bump could be attributed in part to a rise in the cost of doing business for grocery stores.

"Perhaps it's just the fact that stores basically have higher costs, higher rents and higher ownership costs and they simply pass on those prices to consumers to cover their overhead," he noted.

Another recent report, this one out of Dalhousie University, painted a less than rosy picture for Canadian food prices. ("'The Trump effect' on Canadian food prices: Sad!" Pique, Jan. 19.) Researchers predicted the average Canadian family could spend up to $420 more on food this year thanks in part to U.S. President Donald Trump's controversial stance on immigration, trade and security. But Vercammen believes the report painted in broad strokes.

"It's much more complicated than the report made it out to be," he said. "We export from the U.S. and of course we buy from the U.S., so if Trump puts tariffs on what comes into Canada, for example, or puts restrictions on country-of-origin labelling, that simply means then we can get rid of our excess food, and that's actually going to mean cheaper food prices in Canada. And for beef and pork and other products we export to the States, they will simply become more plentiful here until farmers adjust it out so there's a surplus and we get lower prices. On the other hand, I haven't heard of Canada retaliating and putting tariffs on imported food; I don't really see that in the cards. Otherwise, there's no reason to expect that we would have higher imported prices if we're not putting tariffs on U.S. product."

Vercammen did acknowledge, however, that the Dalhousie study was right in saying the impact on food prices could be staggering if Trump manages to deport the estimated 2 million illegal immigrants working on American farms.

"If he's serious about actually deporting a lot of illegal immigrants, that's a lot of farm workers, so that might mean higher prices for everybody in North America because they have higher wages to pay for pickers," he said. "We know it's not an easy thing to do that type of picking, so (farmers) may have to invest in mechanization or simply pay legal migrants a lot higher (wages)."

With commodity prices down, Canadians are enjoying a period of relative stability when it comes to food prices. But don't expect that trend to last, explained Vercammen.

"It's inevitable. We came off a high price period in 2012-2013, and for whatever reason you get lucky. You have a few big crops produced in a row. Like right now the U.S. just produced another bumper crop with record yields just because the rains came at the right time," he said. "What happens is those extra stocks accumulate, and then you have a stockpile for several years that you can use to buffer any shortfalls. It's only until you have a couple bad years — a drought two years in a row, for instance, like Australia had — then you run your stockpile down. As soon as your stockpile falls below a critical level, then prices really jump up very fast when panic sets in. That's inevitable. It's going to happen, it's just a matter of when."

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