Wednesday is food bank day in the basement of Stairs Memorial United Church in North Dartmouth. The doors open at 8:30am and there is a line up.  

I chat with a man in his early 60s wearing a patch over one eye. He said he is a regular at this food bank operated by the North Dartmouth Outreach Resource Centre and staffed by volunteers from four local churches.

The man is on long-term disability assistance and his wife is unable to work because of a mental health issue. An employed adult son is part of the household and contributes some of his earnings, but it’s “still a struggle,” he said.  

“Food prices in the stores are ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t buy many groceries in the stores. We’ve already given up on meat and chicken and cut the cable TV.”  

Food prices up average of 10.4%

Statistics Canada reported Tuesday that between January 2022 and January 2023, food prices increased an average of 10.4%. The cost of bread rose 15.5%. StatsCan reported dairy prices were up 12.4 % year over year. This month, milk and butter prices went up again.

As reported in the Examiner last week, milk prices appear to have increased by a factor many times over what the dairy farmers received. And despite repeated denials by grocery store chains that they have been profiting off the higher prices charged to consumers, Statscan data for 2022 reveals grocery stores such as Loblaws (Superstore), Sobeys, and Metro (Quebec) saw their profits climb to $4.9 billion in 2022. 

I asked a man in his 20s walking out of the North Dartmouth food bank with two large plastic grocery carriers loaded to the max about the rise of food prices. 

“Crazy,” he said. “I get my groceries at the food bank. I only ever pick up odds and ends at Sobeys.”

His household includes a female partner and two young children, so he’s eligible for a litre of 2% milk and a dozen eggs from this food bank. These items are so popular the outreach centre must ration them; single people using the food bank are provided with canned milk and half a dozen eggs. 

‘Our numbers are up’

Two wome help ration cereal into small containers. The woman on the left is wearing a black winter coat, black winter hat, jeans, and white sneakers. The woman on the left is wearing a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Both women are wearing masks. There is a stack of rolls of toilet paper on the table where the women are working.
Volunteers ration cereal at the North Dartmouth Outreach Resource Centre. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

There are no boxes of cereal this week. Feed Nova Scotia, the non-profit agency that acts as a bulk purchaser and wholesaler to 140 food banks across the province, is finding it harder to find suppliers willing to discount non-perishable items such as cereal and soup. Those items are flying off grocery store shelves as customers change their food-buying habits.

There are only a dozen loaves of bread in the back room of the food bank and those are reserved for large families. Flour is also a hot commodity, and is gone from the shelves within the first hour. The previous day, volunteers spent time scooping flour that arrived from Feed Nova Scotia into individual yogurt containers so that more people would get a chance to take some home.  

“Our numbers are up,” said Sam Schwartz, president of the North Dartmouth Outreach Resource Centre. “In January, we were about 20% higher than last January (2022), but some food banks have seen even higher increases. Here in North Dartmouth, the higher food prices mean we are seeing more families and newcomers coming in now — people from the Middle East, Africa, and Ukraine.”  

A man with salt and pepper hair and glasses and wearing a puffy blue winter jacket and plaid scarf stands next to a table with a box of bread on top. A separate loaf of bread sits on the table next to the box.
Sam Schwartz is the president of the North Dartmouth Outreach Resource Centre. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

Raw vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and onions are staples, which are always in good supply and offer better food value than macaroni and cheese. 

During the second week of February, food was distributed out of Stairs Memorial United Church to 90 households, reaching approximately 150 adults and 72 kids. On Wednesday, many of the people picking up groceries and personal care items are newcomers from Ukraine.  

Anastasia (the Examiner is not using full names of food bank clients) is at the food bank accompanied by her mother and sister who do not speak English. Anastasia arrived from Ukraine in April. She took English as a second language through the Immigrant Settlement Association (ISANS) and now works full time as a cleaner in a hotel.  

“When I first came, all the food in Nova Scotia looked very expensive compared to the food in the Ukraine,” she said, as her blue eyes look out from above the mask that is mandatory for food bank clients and volunteers.  

“And when I came, we didn’t have money to buy food because I didn’t have a job. So, the food banks have been a huge support (for) all Ukrainians coming here.”  

With two small children to support, plus her mother and sister, Anastasia’s entry-level wages don’t go nearly far enough to buy food in grocery stores. 

A grey metal shelf stocked with food items, including Cheerios, and other boxes of cereal.
Shelves of food at the North Dartmouth Outreach Resource Centre. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

Wages not keeping up with food prices

The Examiner asked Nova Scotia’s finance department for an estimate of how much wages have increased in the past year to compare that to the increase in food prices. In Nova Scotia, the finance department estimates weekly wages increased 5.5% for full and part-time workers during the year-over-year period, on average.

Wages have not kept up with food prices, which still appear to be rising. (Details on average weekly earnings in Nova Scotia can be found here).

In 2022, the province allocated an additional $1.5 million to Feed Nova Scotia so it could buy more food to help people who cannot afford to buy it themselves. There are three food banks operating in North Dartmouth alone. Higher food prices also create challenges for volunteers at food banks who shop the specials to top up their pantry.  

One of Feed Nova Scotia’s challenges, Schwartz said, is being able to source enough halal food to feed large families from the Middle East. This week Walmart had halal turkeys on sale and the North Dartmouth food bank used some of the $15,000 it received from Feed Nova Scotia to buy turkey. They also bought four crates of eggs directly from the Nova Scotia Poultry Association. 

It also used some of the $15,000 to purchase 200 pounds of ground pork from Gateway Meat Market, a popular Cole Harbour discount grocery store. Schwartz said he has also used the extra cash to buy gift cards from No Frills where prices on most items, including fruit and vegetables, are consistently the cheapest. Those gift cards will go to clients.

A sign on an easel that says "cerel and cooking oil days. Feb. 1, Feb. 15, March 1, and March 15. To see what we have available check us out on Facebook. NDORC Food Bank."
A sign at the North Dartmouth Outreach Resource Centre. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

The Wednesday crowd is mostly newcomers to Nova Scotia and people with some form of disability. For those with a health condition where eating healthy meals is required, affording that good food is a challenge. In Toronto, a pilot project that allowed some family doctors to prescribe food for patients in the same way prescription drugs are covered by Medicare appears to have ended.

A man in his 30s tells me he came to the North Dartmouth Outreach Resource Centre for the first time last month. He’s a part-time student at NSCC and lives alone. 

“The cost of living is skyrocketing,” he said. “Prices at the grocery stores are too high and the cost of water and electricity is going up, too. I’m a decent cook. I can turn that pound of ground pork into chili and get three meals from it.” 

Schwartz said they have no rule that says a person can’t visit more than one food bank, and he knows people who do. He said Feed Nova Scotia can track who visits where, but the 5% “abuse” the agency estimates it experiences is not worth pursuing.

Most of the time, food distribution at Stairs Memorial United Church runs without incident. If Schwartz gets called on to sort out a problem, he said it’s usually because a person is upset someone may be taking too much of one food and there won’t be enough left for the people at the end of the line. Food is distributed on a first come, first serve basis, but what is available varies from week to week.  

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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