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Food prices are escalating: Here’s what you can do to stretch your grocery budget

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Cathy Dobson

Nutritional consultant Cathy McRae heads to the grocery store every couple of weeks to see what $25 will buy. She does it to prove a point to her clients.

“I have new clients who tell me that eating healthy is expensive and they can’t afford it,” says McRae who owns Coming Alive Nutrition in Sarnia. “I say that’s a big misconception. Look what I can buy for $25.

“It may not be the same groceries that $25 used to buy but, if you think outside the box, you can still eat a healthy diet on a budget.”

She doesn’t know a single person who isn’t complaining about the cost of food, no matter what their income. Food prices have soared 11.4% year-over-year, according to Statistics Canada. It’s the fastest rate of increase since 1981. Everything from the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, a weak dollar and high inflation is being blamed for skyrocketing food prices, with no end in sight.

Grocery bills are distressing but McRae says there are many ways to cut food costs. One of her favourites is heading for the “crash and dent” rack at the grocery store. These are canned goods and fresh vegetables and fruit discounted because they may be bruised or close to expiry. She buys meat only when it is close to the “best before” date and deeply discounted.

“I will buy great big packs of ground beef that are 30% off and about to expire,” she said. “I cook big casseroles with it. If I don’t have time, I throw the meat in the freezer.

“I realize we are all feeling the pinch but you can still eat well even if your budget is tight.”

Some grocery items like lettuce that she used to consider a staple are often too expensive now so McRae makes different kinds of salads. For instance, it’s possible to find apples on the crash and dent rack for $1 per bag. She uses them for alternatives like chunky chicken salad, and then uses the leftover apples to make applesauce.

In the last year, several grocery chains have introduced Flashfood, a free phone app that identifies which stores have deeply discounted meats, milk and produce nearing their best before dates. They are repackaged and stored in a cooler so shoppers can use the app and order them online, then pick up their purchase at customer service.

This week, McRae ordered a bag of avocados with Flashfood. Normally, the bag would sell for more than $5 but was discounted to $1 because they expired the next day.

“And that’s not a problem because I can make them into a salad or dip. If they are getting a little brown, I make avocado chocolate pudding,” said McRae. “We have to get out of our old habits and be strategic with the money we have.”

Many of her clients say they can take the family for fast food and pay less than they would at the grocery store. McRae finds that particularly alarming.

“There are still ways for most people to eat healthy meals, even on social assistance,” she said. “Buy frozen vegetables if fresh is too expensive. Make meal plans and grocery lists so you don’t add extra items to your cart.

“And fast food is not cheaper. That’s a total fallacy. And it’s so unhealthy.”

Lambton Public Health spokesperson Shaun Bisson says one way local residents can lower the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables is to order a Garden Fresh Box every month. The program is co-ordinated through public health and open to everyone. It provides fruit and veggie boxes at a discount for $5 to $20, depending on the size.

The Garden Fresh Box program has been around since 1996 and currently fills about 140 orders a month, said Bisson.

As an example, a $15 fruit and veggie box typically contains potatoes, carrots, onions, apples, squash, broccoli and oranges. Savings are possible because the food is ordered in bulk.

“This is the first year that rising food costs have impacted the program and the combo veggie and fruit boxes each rose $5 as a result,” Bisson said.

Details about the program and pick up sites are available at https://lambtonpublichealth.ca/health-info/garden-fresh-box/.

So what did Cathy McRae’s $25 buy her this week? A large bag of brown rice, two cans of tuna, one dozen eggs, a 4-lb bag of apples and a bag of sunflower seeds; the basics to feed a family of four a balanced diet for four days, she said.

“But you will have to be creative. There’s nothing wrong with having eggs for supper.”

MORE TIPS TO SAVE ON GROCERIES

• Get serious about coupons;

• Use discount-hunting phone apps that collect deals from coupons and fliers. For instance,”Flipp” has data from more than 2,000 stores and makes price matching easy;

• Join Canadian Savings Group on Facebook where members post coupons, deals;

• Remember the old-fashioned strategies like buying in bulk when items are on sale and freezing what you can’t use;

• Buy imperfect produce; and

• Never shop when you’re hungry.

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