Mon. May 20th, 2024

For David Hale, the tipping point was Red Rose tea.

A grocery shopper in the Moncton area, Hale says he watched over the past year as a box of 216 tea bags at Atlantic Superstore crept up from $9.99 to $13.99. A couple months ago, he walked into the store and says he discovered a new price: $23.99.

“I said there’s something going on here,” Hale said in an interview.

After speaking with a store manager and not getting a satisfying answer about what was behind the high price, Hale said he left without buying the tea. 

A grocery store shelf shows stacked red boxes of tea.
A box of Red Rose tea was the tipping point for Moncton shopper David Hale. (Raechel Huizinga/CBC)

His son encouraged him to start shopping elsewhere, and Hale has only been back to Atlantic Superstore for dog food — when it’s on sale. 

He stocked up on that at the end of April, ready to join other Canadians in boycotting all Loblaw Companies, which includes Atlantic Superstore, for the entire month of May (a box of 216 Red Rose tea bags was priced at $13.99 on May 7, when CBC visited the Atlantic Superstore in Moncton).

The boycott began as Loblaw Companies reported $13.58 billion in first-quarter revenue.

Other complaints about prices at the grocery giant that have circulated online include a $37 package of chicken breasts, $9 butter and $30 for feta cheese.

The prices led to the creation of a Reddit community called “Loblaws is out of control,” and the boycott was born.

Buying local

Forsaking corporate grocery stores can leave consumers — especially in a rural province like New Brunswick — with few alternatives. Buying from smaller grocers or farmers’ markets are a couple of options, but one farmer says New Brunswick doesn’t have enough producers to feed everyone.

Alyson Chisholm is the owner of Windy Hill Organic Farm in Kent County, about 55 kilometres north of Moncton.

She grows produce for farmers’ markets and her community-shared agriculture program, which takes up-front payments from consumers at the beginning of the growing season and in return provides baskets of fresh produce — spinach, tomatoes, zucchini, whatever is growing on the farm — every week until the season ends.

“We’re seeing fewer and fewer young people becoming farmers. We’re seeing a lot more young farmers or startup farms fail,” she said.

WATCH |  If New Brunswickers want to abandon corporate grocery stores, a transformation is needed:

Here’s why N.B. farmers say the problem of food prices runs deeper than a boycott

Some Canadians are boycotting Loblaw stores throughout May in response to high grocery prices, but New Brunswick farmers say the entire food system needs a transformation.

New Brunswick’s field-vegetable production reached 7,406 metric tonnes in 2023, according to the Department of Agriculture.

That’s an increase of 0.9 per cent from 2022. Self-sufficiency in vegetable production has also increased slightly, from 7.3 per cent in 2018 to 9.1 per cent in 2022. More recent data is not yet available. 

Chisolm said there was renewed interest in buying local during the pandemic, when supply chain issues exposed how reliant New Brunswickers are on grocery stores — but as restrictions ended and the supply chain stabilized, that interest faded.

A white, translucent structure sits on green grass. Inside are plants.
Alyson Chisolm uses this greenhouse to grow produce on her farm in Kent County. (Raechel Huizinga/CBC)

While her weekly food box subscribers have held steady, she said she believes that’s because other farms are struggling.

“I know quite a few farms who’ve either cut back their [community-shared agriculture] numbers quite drastically or have gotten out of farming,” she said. “It’s enabled me to maintain my numbers.”

Rebeka Frazer-Chiasson co-founded Ferme Terre Partagée, a co-op farm in Rogersville, with her partner Kevin Arseneau, now a Green MLA.

She said her weekly food-box numbers for this season are low so far, though not as bad as last year. This time four years ago, all of her spots were full — not only another sign of decreasing interest in buying local, she said, but also a sign that budgets are getting tighter. 

A social media post shows a graph about food prices.
Rebeka Frazer-Chiasson of Ferme Terre Partagée, says she shared this graph on social media to show how her farm’s food box prices have increased by 6.7 per cent over the past seven years, compared to an increase of more than 30 per cent at grocery stores in New Brunswick. (Ferme Terre Partagé / Instagram)

And not just for the average New Brunswickers. If farmers truly paid themselves for the work they do, Frazer-Chiasson said, the cost of their produce would be much higher. 

There’s also the problem of housing. In Rogersville, she said the vacancy rate is low, another barrier for new farmers who have to invest thousands of dollars to get started.

“You can’t be making $15,000 a year and buying a house for $300,000.”

It’s ‘not enough’

Suzanne Fournier, executive director of the National Farmers Union of New Brunswick, said data from 2018 shows the net income for farmers was seven per cent of every dollar they made.

“That’s not enough to earn a living. That’s not enough to keep your farm going.”

Fournier acknowledged that the province recently announced there were record farm cash receipts in New Brunswick, but pointed out that most of that money goes to bills and debt.

“Farm debt is increasing at another exponential rate,” she said.

At the same time, so few companies control Canada’s grocery store system that farmers can’t raise their prices, Fournier said.

Chisholm made the same point, adding that’s why it’s so difficult to rebuild the food system.

“It’s not as simple as boycott Loblaw, buy from the farmers’ market,” she said. 

“You have to build something. What we really need to do is transition. Transition away from supermarkets, transition towards local food and enable the farmers or the farmer wannabes to help meet that need.”

“Otherwise, it’s going to crash and burn, and we don’t want that to happen.”

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