Is Your Grocery Bill Determined by the Neighbourhood In Which You Live?

When I wrote my post a few weeks ago on Poverty and Vegetarianism I wanted to include something about the cost of groceries and the relation to where you live, but I only had anecdotal evidence. In my experience in Toronto, the tonier neighbourhoods may have expensive luxury items for sale, but their staple groceries are often cheaper than in poorer neighbourhoods. Now the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation has come out with a study that shows just how much Canadians are paying to provide their families with healthy food. The results were pretty shocking.It has always been understood that people who live in remote communities, especially in the far North, pay significantly more for everything, especially perishable groceries. What this study shows is that prices for healthy food fluctuates wildly even in cities no more than an hour apart on the main highway corridor.

Volunteers in 66 communities were asked to go and price healthy food items covering the four food groups, and then price some not so healthy items. They were asked to discover the cost of 6 apples, 5 lbs of potatoes, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, 1% milk, cheddar cheese, lean ground beef and peanut butter. In one Ontario city, apples which grow locally cost $5.49 while in another city, not too far away the cost is only $.90. In Winnipeg, which is a major Canadian city, brown rice cost $7.76 while Torontonians pay only $2.19. In Ottawa, our nation's capitol, consumers were charged $13.21 for lean ground beef, while shoppers in Barrie, a few hours away, were charged $4.14. The meat alternative was peanut butter, clocking in at $7.58 in St. Catherine's and at $3.99 in Kitchener, which is about 1 1/2 hours away and neither of them are remote. Interestingly enough, chips, pop and cookies are a pretty consistent cheap price right across the country, regardless of distance or difficulty of transportation.

A poll was conducted as part of this study and 47% of Canadians say they go without fresh fruit or vegetables, dairy products and whole grains because they are too expensive. Accessibility is also a huge issue. 3 in 10 communities have little or no access to low fat dairy products. 2 in 10 communities have little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grain products.

I decided to do my own little survey in the neighbourhood in which I live. My neighbourhood is quite mixed in terms of house sizes, and one assumes, therefore, incomes. My street is a middle class street with fairly large houses but my house backs on to a street of rooming houses. One street over from my home, the houses are about half the size of mine, and then a couple of streets over the houses are huge and sell in the $1,500,000 range. I have four grocery stores in my neighbourhood which are all pretty close together. A Loblaw and Sobeys which are both big chains, a No Frills which is the cheap version of Loblaw and an independent grocery specializing in organic foods and local produce called Fiesta Farms

Some prices were quite close, but others differed a fair amount, especially given that you can walk between these stores. I used the same items in the study and looked at the same brands and this is what I found.

Loblaw: apples 1.49 per lb, potatoes 3.49 for 5 lbs, whole wheat pasta 2.49, brown rice 7.49
1 % milk (2 litres) 4.49, cheddar cheese 8.49, lean ground beef (per kg) 6.59, peanut butter 3.49

Sobeys: apples 1.49, potatoes 3.49, whole wheat pasta 2.49, brown rice 4.29, 1 % milk 4.39, cheddar cheese 9.19, lean ground beef 8.13, peanut butter 5.39

No Frills: apples .99, potatoes 3.99 for 10 lbs (5 lb bags were unavailable), whole wheat pasta 1.97, brown rice 2.87, 1% milk 4.09, cheddar cheese 7.77, lean ground beef 6.31, peanut butter 4.67

Fiesta Farms: apples 1.49, potatoes 3.99 for 10 lbs (5 lb bags were unavailable), whole wheat pasta 1.99, brown rice 2.87, 1% milk 4.49, cheddar cheese 8.99, lean ground beef 6.70, peanut butter 5.49

While a number of the prices were the same, the discrepancy between some items such as the brown rice, the cheddar cheese and the lean ground beef were a surprise. Bear in mind that you can walk between these stores, they are quite close to one another. While the apples were cheaper at No Frills, they were inferior in quality to the other three stores.

I do most of my shopping in Fiesta Farms because they have organic eggs and dairy products and they always have local fruits and vegetables. The other three stores rarely have Ontario produce, even at the height of the growing season, but they are starting to offer more organic items.

I admit to being confused about why the prices would vary and I don't really know who is responsible. Is it the fault of the retailer? Should the government be regulating food prices? Certainly more education on nutrition and diet is necessary. I do know that if people are buying produce shipped from around the world the impact on our environment is huge. If people have little or no access to local fresh food, then chances are the food they are eating may have a detrimental effect on their health and that costs us all in the long run as well. It's a sad reflection on our society where it's cheaper to give your kids a handful of cookies and a glass of soda pop than it is to have an apple and a glass of milk.

Challenge of the Week: check out the prices in your local market and see how they compare.

Sources: Report Cards on Health: Heart and Stroke Foundation, The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, February 10, 2009

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