Calgary families see roughly $220 added to monthly grocery bill; CBC launches new focus on food cost

Families in Calgary are spending roughly $220 more per month on groceries this year, according to the living wage report out in early November.

Global factors pushing up the cost of food will likely remain for a while, say experts

Dashmesh Culture Centre started a food pantry program during the pandemic. Neighbours can stop by and ask for exactly what they need. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

This story was originally published on Nov. 1 and is being resurfaced through the holidays as part of our series on the high cost of food.

About six months ago, grocery prices took off and now a typical family of four can expect to be paying $220 more each month for healthy food compared to last year. 

That's according to Vibrant Communities Calgary, which calculates costs in the city as part of its annual living wage report.

It released that report on Nov. 1. Researchers found prices in many areas increased with inflation, but food prices increased faster. Now a family with two adults and two kids can expect to spend nearly $1,200 a month to ensure a full fridge and kitchen cupboards.

"It's surprising. We found the food category in particular jumped up," said Lee Stevens, a researcher with Vibrant Communities Calgary, a non-profit that advocates for strategies that address poverty in the city.

She used a standard list of food items set by Alberta Health Services to make the calculations, what a typical family of four would eat to stay healthy. Adding in other expenses, total household costs for a modest standard of living came out at $81,300 annually for 2021.

Crop loss plays a role

Vibrant Communities executive director Meaghon Reid says several factors are driving up food prices. First, there's the inflation and supply chain issues that have impacted many different parts of the economy.

Then locally, the hot and dry summer caused crop loss. That decreased the supply of cereals and pulses, both to sell directly to consumers and to feed livestock. 

"That definitely drives the cost of food up," Reid said. "Meat in Alberta has gone up exponentially and a lot of consumers are now having to make trade-offs in terms of how much meat they consume in a week."

"The other thing to note," she said, "is that those factors aren't one-time factors. Climate change, supply chains, changes in the workforce as well, they are not likely to be a one-time occurrence. And so the price of food is going to keep increasing."

Crystal Bassett prepares chicken soup from the bones and residual bits on meat on the whole roasted bird. She says she buys more ground chicken now that grocery prices increased. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Because of the increase, CBC Calgary has decided to run a special focus on the high cost of food, what it means for Calgary residents and what can be done about it.

We've been inviting people to sign up for our text-messaging app, and already many Calgary residents have used it to describe what they're seeing.

Cutting back on fresh fruit

Packages of food are shrinking — holding four chicken breasts instead of five, for example — even as prices stay the same. And the same bag of food that used to cost $40 at the self-checkout, might be $60 now. 

The high prices seem to be especially hard for people with specific diets, such as those allergic to gluten.

Calgary parent Crystal Bassett said it can take a emotional toll when children start to notice and ask questions about why a family can no longer afford certain items. She and other shoppers told CBC they are cutting back on fresh fruit, buying ground instead of whole chicken, and buying discount meat close to the best-before date.

Several who texted in say they're increasingly going to multiple stores to find what's on sale and returning to the frugal habits of their parents. One said she buys in bulk now to fill the deep freeze, and works harder to reduce waste, such as by drying apple or mushroom slices in the residual heat from the oven.

Others are turning to Facebook groups like Calgary Kindness to give and receive help, and many have turned to food banks. The last province-wide tally was in March. At that point, food bank use was up 30 per cent compared to 2019. 

Volunteers prepare a free vegetarian community meal daily in the basement of the Dashmesh Culture Centre in northeast Calgary. Anyone is welcome to join them. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

'Things are so expensive'

CBC stopped by Dashmesh Culture Centre in the northeast to talk about the impact residents are seeing.

"Things are so expensive, it's hard to make ends meet. And with not getting much from EI, it just makes it really difficult," said Amin Hassan, who came to get peanut butter and cereal from the free pantry Dashmesh started during the pandemic.

He cleans offices and was laid off twice.

The grocery bill is especially difficult because it follows increases in utility costs, insurance, gas and sometimes rent, say community members.

Wages haven't gone up to match. Community member Ranbir Kaur Virk says that makes her worried and adds to the stress of shopping.

"It's too much," she said. "For normal people, it's hard. Before we buy, we have to think if we (really) need it or not."

CBC Calgary: The High Cost of Food

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Elise Stolte


Elise Stolte has 15 years of experience telling the stories of her community and has been recognized for feature writing, social-impact and community-based journalism. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal and joined CBC Calgary last year. You can reach her at