Sure, the cost of living is up. But NB stores are a bargain compared to my old home

Photo of store shelf with various fruits and berries.
A selection of fruits in a New Brunswick grocery store. Contributor Tara Pyfrom has observed prices rise, but still finds produce cheaper than what she would pay in the Bahamas. (Submitted by Tara Pyfrom )

This column is an opinion by Tara Pyfrom, a New Brunswick-based poet and writer. For more information about CBC’s Opinion sectionplease see the FAQs.

While so many in New Brunswick are complaining about the rising cost of food, I sometimes struggle to join the conversation.

My point of view on the cost of food differs from many of my neighbors because in the Bahamas, my home country, food has always been expensive, and prices are much higher than here.

My family and I arrived in New Brunswick in 2019, six months before the world first heard of coronavirus. Both my wife and I were born and raised in the islands of the Bahamas.

When Hurricane Dorian hit Grand Bahama Island, our home is filled with ocean water to ceiling height, with us inside. We were so lucky to survive.

After that experience, we decided to leave the country permanently and immigrate to Canada. When we started researching the best place to call home, we discovered that New Brunswick at the time had one of the cheapest average costs of home prices in Canada.

We had never visited New Brunswick before, so this was a big draw for us as we navigated an international move while fighting post-traumatic stress disorder.

Right out of a movie

The first time we stepped foot in one of the larger grocery stores in New Brunswick was a moment straight out of a movie scene. We all stopped, slack-jawed, and marveled at the store’s sheer size.

Just picture our family of three, standing in the entryway with that awe-inspiring music you hear in the movies when the characters have reached the holy grail. That was us!

A sandy beach with trees and water is covered by deep blue skies.
The beach in the Bahamas where Pyfrom used to live. (Catherine Pyfrom/Submitted by Tara Pyfrom )

We could not believe how clean and bright the store was and how fresh the fruits and vegetables looked. We were even more impressed when we made it through the checkout line to find out that our shopping cart of groceries did not cost nearly what we expected.

The Bahamas is made from limestone islands with almost no soil, so there are very few crops grown within the country and no livestock except a couple of small chicken farms.

As a result, virtually all of the food is imported from Florida, usually by ship. Dairy, vegetables, fruit, dry goods and meats are all imported.

Most of our seafood is locally caught. You can find occasional salmon or shrimp in grocery stores.

Importing all that food is expensive. It means that people and machines in Florida must package and transport goods from wholesalers to the port to be loaded onto ships. Those cargo ships travel to the Bahamas, are unloaded, and transported again to various retail stores. In some cases, the goods must be offloaded onto smaller ships heading to smaller islands.

The costs add up

You can see how the expense of such transport logistics can be quickly added up. That additional cost goes directly into the retail price of the items on the shelves.

Let’s also not forget that the extra travel time between the farmers worldwide and the items’ arrival at a local grocery store in the Bahamas also means that the goods are not fresh. Fruits and vegetables are often overripe or spoiled on the shelves. I’ve purchased milk in the Bahamas more than once to get home and discovered it is already sour.

This is a normal part of living for people who call the Bahamas home. It is a source of incredible frustration but a fact of life.

Rows of cartons of milk sitting in a fridge cooler.
Lactose-free milk in the Bahamas, like other products, is sold at a rate equivalent to American dollars. Grocery products across the board are more expensive than in New Brunswick stores. (Sissel Mosvold-Johnson/Submitted by Tara Pyfrom )

After COVID-19 found its way to New Brunswick in 2020, people started to notice the domino effect of slowed or stopped food production and factory operations, together with cross-border transportation challenges.

While the cost of essential food items where I live in New Brunswick increased by 9.2 per cent between June 2021 and June 2022it’s still cheaper than any grocery bill I’ve ever had while living 40 years in the Bahamas.

Paycheck to paycheck

The Canadian government has given its best shot at controlling inflation with interest rate adjustments. The Bahamas put temporary price control measures in place on various essential food items to help alleviate the pressure on people just trying to get by paycheque to paycheque.

Still, the fact remains that food costs creep up because food suppliers have a more significant overhead now than before the pandemic.

Philip Vanderpol of the Dairy Processors Association of Canada recently said, “With cost increases of this magnitude, it is obvious that costs have had to be passed on down the supply chain.” The result of the global pandemic is that it costs the producers of our food more to get to us now than before COVID-19, much like it has always cost more in the Bahamas to import our food.

Two side-by-side images show broccoli on sale in two different places.  The Canadian price on the left is $3.99 each.  The store in the Bahamas is selling broccoli for $6.49 in American currency.
Broccoli prices in New Brunswick and the Bahamas on the same day in March. (Tara Pyfrom/Sissell Mosvold-Johnson)

I’ve had several conversations with friends and strangers over the last couple of years where they undoubtedly complained about the rising cost of milk or eggs.

According to Numbeo, the Bahamas ranks fourth worldwide for the cost of living while Canada ranks 25th.

While I was writing this, a two-liter carton of lactose-free milk at the store in New Brunswick cost me $6.36. A similar brand and size in the Bahamas is priced at $6.99 US, or just under $10 here.

A head of broccoli in NB costs $3.99, and a package of chicken for an evening meal might cost $12 at a big box store. In the Bahamas, your supper of chicken and broccoli could cost $27.86 in Canadian dollars. It adds up quickly.

I can’t complain about the rising cost of living in New Brunswick because my point of reference comes from sticker shock every time I’ve shopped in the Bahamas.

If you think New Brunswick’s cost of living has skyrocketed, imagine what life is like in places that were already expensive before this new normal.

Folks in the North or remote communities of Canada are struggling even more than ever. The cost of transporting goods to these communities — where most food must be flown in — has doubled the already extremely high price tag.

More and more folks in places like Fond-du-Lac, Sask., are experiencing food insecurity because they simply cannot afford to pay $14 for a bagged salad kit.

For me, buying food in New Brunswick is still far more economical.

From my perspective, no matter how costly essential items become, they will always be cheaper and fresher than anything I could expect back home.

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