Buy local to keep grocery bills down as vegetable and fruit prices expected to rise: Experts

A new report that forecasts 2019 food prices says the prices for fruit and vegetables are expected to rise. One way to combat a rising grocery bill is to shop local, a University of Guelph professor says.

Weather and rise in vegetarianism causing increase in vegetable prices, authors of new report say

Ontario has a limited growing season, but University of Guelph professor Simon Somogyi recommends people buy local vegetables and fruit when possible to help keep their grocery bills low. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Fruit and vegetable prices will be on the rise in 2019, if predictions in a new report on food prices in Canada are accurate.

The report, a collaborative effort by the University of Guelph, Dalhousie University and Nova Scotia Community College in Halifax, says fruit prices could increase by one to three per cent, while vegetable prices could see a hike of four to six per cent.

The report also notes vegetable prices rose four per cent in 2018.

"People are moving to eating more vegetables and that's having an impact on price," said Simon Somogyi, a professor and the Arrell Chair in the Business of Food at the University of Guelph.

Weather is also a major factor and can see the price of produce vary from week to week, sometimes with large fluctuations.

He pointed to late 2015, when cauliflower was selling for nearly $6 a head in parts of Canada due to a drought in California.

"Winter can impact fruit and vegetable prices very, very quickly — eight per cent over two years is concerning to all Canadians," he said.

'Big impact on your food bill'

To combat the rising cost of produce, Somogyi suggests people try to buy local whenever possible.

"We get a lot of fruits and vegetables from countries like the U.S. and from Mexico because unfortunately, we have a climate that limits our growing season," he said.

"In season, if you can buy local, fresh fruits and vegetables, then that's going to have a big impact on your food bill. So I heavily recommend, buy local fruit and vegetables in season."

Watch: This Guelph food market lets people choose what they pay

He also noted people need to be more choosey at the store or farmers' markets to avoid eventually throwing out rotten food.

"Regardless of price, only buy the food that you need. Too many times we see people buying food because it's on sale and it goes to waste in your refrigerator or it goes to waste in your pantry," he said.

Southern Ontario not 'highly vulnerable'

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie who led the Halifax university's portion of the report, said southern Ontario in particular is well-served agriculturally, so the impact of fluctuating prices may not be felt as much here.

"The region itself is not highly vulnerable compared to other regions across the country," he said. "We are expecting food price hikes to be somewhat average in southern Ontario, I would say, compared to the rest of the country just because there's so much production in that area."

Weather and a rise in people eating a vegetarian diet has led to an increase in vegetable prices, the report's authors say. (CBC)

The food price report, though, is bad good news for people on fixed incomes, Charlebois said.

He noted the Hunger Report, released by the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) on Monday, found a 10 per cent jump in seniors accessing food banks in the province.

It also found 501,590 individuals used a food bank in the past year alone.

Charlebois said the new food price report anticipates families will spend up to 3.5 per cent more on groceries in 2019, or about $411.

"When we are concerned about nutritional security … when you see prices go up with vegetables by four to six per cent, you have to be concerned," he said.

"I don't see this report to be good news for a segment of the population that is highly vulnerable when it comes to food security."