The NWT might be spared an increase in food prices forecast to occur across Canada in 2021, said the lead author of the recent Food Price Report.
Overall food prices are expected to rise by three to five per cent in 2021, largely due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the agri-food chain, according to the report that was released on Dec. 8.
That rise translates to an increase of $695 for a hypothetical family of four compared to 2020, projecting a total of $13,907 for food expenditures in 2021.
But while the NWT was given only a brief mention in the report – and Nunavut and Yukon weren’t mentioned at all – lead author Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University said food prices won’t rise as much here compared to the south because prices are already higher in the North.
“The big factor for (the NWT) market is transportation and the cost of transportation and we don’t see that to be a factor for 2021 at this point,” he said. “The biggest challenge is to get the food there. And that’s very costly. Energy costs aren’t expected to be an issue, at least that’s what we’re seeing right now.
“Some people are even suggesting energy costs might drop as a result of a slower economy. That could help for Northern communities.”
The report states that energy costs will have a moderate impact on food prices in 2021 and could in fact decrease costs. That stands in contrast to climate change, geopolitical risks, Covid-19 and currencies and trade environment as factors that have a higher likelihood of influencing food prices.
“In terms of percentage increase, Northern communities will be affected by inflation like everyone else but we don’t expect them to be more (affected) than other places. The macro economics of getting food to Northern communities aren’t necessarily going to be a challenge,” Charlebois said.
“It’s a ‘steady as she goes’ year for the North. But you shouldn’t be expecting any discounts either.
“I think we need a good program to support Northern markets. The bottom line is that you have to build some capacity in terms of food autonomy.”
The NWT was mentioned only once in the report to show that it had the lowest difference between the consumer price index (inflation), and food price increases over the last 20 years compared to other jurisdictions.
The food price increase has been about eight per cent higher than inflation. New Brunswick had the largest gap, with food prices about 23 per cent higher than inflation.
“It is important to note that, overall, the food inflation index has outpaced general inflation over the last 20 years in Canada. The typical grocery bill for Canadians has risen approximately 170 per cent over the last two decades. Canadian households – especially those in Eastern Canada – have been spending a greater proportion of their household budgets on food,” the report stated.
Alternatives North, which this month released its Poverty Report Card 2020 expressed surprise that the NWT wasn’t included in the Food Price Report.
“(We) should be included in any program that calls itself a Canadian Food Price report,” said Suzette Montreuil, a member of Alternatives North.
In response to Charlebois, Montreuil said it’s hypothetical that the territories won’t experience increased food costs in 2021.
However, as the report card shows, the territory would be vulnerable if food prices increased because food insecurity is already relatively high in the NWT.
Relying on data from the GNWT Bureau of Statistics and Statistics Canada, the poverty report found that food instability across the territory was a increasing problem between 2014 and 2018.
“In 2014, 21.7 per cent of NWT households often or sometimes worried about running out of food before having money to buy more. Almost 40 per cent of these households were in smaller communities,” the report found.
“In 2018, almost one in four (23.1 per cent) NWT households worried about having money to buy food and 37% were in smaller communities. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of Yellowknife households worried about affording food rose from 14 per cent to 16.7 per cent. Food insecurity is reflected in use of in-school food programs, food banks, soup kitchens, and community luncheons. Current data on these food programs are scarce.”
In smaller communities, fishing and hunting work to ease food insecurity, with more than one-third of households harvesting at least 75 per cent of the fish or meat they consume.
Drew Williams, spokesperson for the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, said in an email that food security is a key concern in the GNWT’s decision making on costs of living in the North.
Since the Covid pandemic began, “the GNWT has worked with the government of Canada to maintain supply chains in our territory,” Williams said.
“Even before the pandemic, our government’s mandate included a commitment to increase food security through locally produced, harvested, and affordable food. Specifically, we are focused on strengthening local commercial agriculture and fishing sectors. This will increase local and affordable food options for NWT residents.”