How technology is helping shrink grocery bills by cutting food waste
The price of food is up 6.5% in the last year, prompting consumers to find new ways to save
Everything seems to be getting more expensive. Food, gas and housing prices are on the rise while paycheques are slow to keep pace.
The CBC News series Priced Out explains why you're paying more at the register and how Canadians are coping with the high cost of everything.
The rising cost of food has compelled many Canadians to find innovative ways to save on their groceries, including using digital tools to seek out discount food that would otherwise be thrown out.
Luke Nichols, who lives in Regina with his two kids, said he has started buying less meat and tries to stretch out the food he buys as much as possible.
But he is also among a growing number of people turning to apps that connect shoppers with cheap food nearing their expiry date, and he said they can help people who are feeling squeezed by high prices.
"As food prices rise and people start feeling the constraints like I am, they look to the alternatives and kind of investigate these options," he said.
Canada's food inflation rate hit 6.5 per cent in January compared with a year earlier, with prices rising faster than they have in more than a decade.
At the same time, an estimated 20 per cent of food produced in Canada every year goes to waste, according to a recent report from the federal government.
A number of companies — including Flashfood, Too Good To Go and FeedBack — have entered the Canadian market billing themselves as an innovative way to simultaneously cut food waste and save money.
"They are becoming more popular because more and more consumers realise that savings occur more on the back-end of the grocery store experience," said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab and professor at Dalhousie University.
"There's not a whole lot of promotions going on in stores."
Too Good To Go, a Copenhagen-based company, made its mobile app available in Canada last year and operates in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal so far.
Sam Kashani, who heads the company's Canadian operations, said it has grown faster here than in any other country. Although the company only launched in July, the app already has more than 200,000 users in Canada, and works with roughly 2,000 stores selling food across the country.
The premise is simple. Users who sign up are alerted when a grocery store or restaurant in their area has surplus food left over nearing the end of the day. The specific contents of every "surprise bag" aren't finalized until the end of the day, but anyone interested in broad categories such as baked goods, fully prepared meals, assorted groceries or fresh produce, can select one, pay for it in the app, and show up at the location in question at a prearranged time to pick it up.
The store gets to book a sale that they otherwise wouldn't have been able to, and consumers get something fresh and new for about one third of the regular price, he said in an interview.
"Perfectly healthy, delicious food doesn't end up in the trash and ends up on someone's table for them to consume," he said.
The idea of saving food from the landfill isn't new, of course — it's been one of the ways foodbanks get donations from corporations for years.
But apps like Too Good To Go have scaled that idea down to the individual level.
"People feel empowered to rescue food, but also the motivation, obviously, is to save money," said Charlebois.
Upside for food sellers, too
Cost-conscious consumers see the benefits of the new technology. And even food sellers themselves say it's good for their bottom line.
The owner of a bubble tea shop in Montreal — a franchise of the Chatime chain — has started selling their remaining beverages at a discount at the end of the day.
Customers can reserve what will potentially be available at the end of the day on the Too Good To Go app, which is a win for both the store and its customers.
"We are becoming a zero food-waste facility," said Alexy Inyatkin, who owns the shop in Montreal's Chinatown.
WATCH | Grocer explains how his costs have gone up, too:
Stretching shelf life and dollars
Beyond online tools, some shoppers are seeking out stores like Freestone Produce in Calgary, which sells fruits and vegetables nearing the end of their shelf life, at a discount.
"When things aren't perfect, they have some blemishes or they have a few days left on them, then we list them for a cheaper price," manager Ali Soufan said.
The food on sale at Soufan's store is perfectly safe to eat and just as nutritious and delicious as what you'd find in any grocery store, but at a sharply reduced price that makes a huge difference for his customers.
"If it means half of your grocery bill every week, then it's a no-brainer for some people, you know?"
One customer there, Doug Winegarden, is trying to make ends meet by finding more affordable produce and splitting costlier items, like olive oil, with a friend.
"Being a low-income senior, I'm trying to stretch the dollar as much as I can and eat as healthy as I can," he said.
He isn't the only one. In a recent survey by Angus Reid Forum, almost half of respondents say that high food prices are causing them to switch to lower-priced brands. More than a third said they are cutting back on expensive items like meat.
A full 43 per cent of respondents said they were finding it "difficult" or "very difficult" to afford to feed their household right now.
The survey was conducted online between Jan. 7 and 12 among a representative randomized sample of 5,002 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. A probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 2.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
PHOTOS | The high prices Canadians are seeing on store shelves:
Food rescue apps and discount produce stores are good tools to help consumers reduce waste and save money, said Tammara Soma, research director of the Food Systems Lab and assistant professor at the Simon Fraser University.
But long-term, she sees the need for bigger changes, like shortening the supply chain to cut the distance between us and our food by growing in urban areas.
"There's a huge realization that our food system is extremely wasteful," she said. "We use a lot of resources — water, energy — and there's just a lot of food being wasted when it shouldn't be."
While Canada produces a lot of food, the complexities of a large and long-distance supply can create problems. Border issues that came about during the pandemic are an excellent reminder, she says, of being overly reliant on foreign food imports, especially ones that are so vulnerable to specific bottlenecks.
"With the current geopolitics right now, we really need to have multiple plans so that we are not caught empty handed," she said.
"We do need a major reorganization … it's very inefficient."
Do rising food prices have you experiencing sticker shock at the grocery store? Show us what you've been seeing at your local supermarket and send a photo or video with a brief description to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to also include your name and location. It may be featured on CBC News Network.