Year Ahead

The Year Ahead: Food in 2024

The federal government will apply pressure to skyrocketing grocery prices, while food banks will struggle to keep up with demand. Canadians will have more options for sustainably grown meat but fewer pickings for pasta—and less interest in any wine to pair with it. 

(Illustration by Anna Minzhulina)

1. The government will try to lower grocery prices

Food prices are up across Canada—and most Canadians believe profiteering grocery companies are the culprits. CEOs from Loblaws, Metro and other grocery chains have told Parliament that they don’t price gouge, but many made record profits while food prices soared. (In mid-2023, baked goods cost roughly 15 per cent more than a year before.) Last fall, CEOs entered discussions with the federal government to help lower costs, under threat of higher taxation. In October, grocers agreed to initiatives like more discounts and price-matching, and Ottawa announced that they will establish a grocery task force to monitor the cost of food at major chains. Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservatives recently introduced the Better for Consumers, Better for Businesses Act in Ontario. If it passes in 2024, there could be improvements to the existing Consumer Protection Act, with increased fines for price gouging.

2. Shake Shack will arrive in Canada

You’ll no longer need to cross the border to grab a ShackBurger with crinkle-cut fries and frozen custard. In 2024, Shake Shack—arguably the greatest American burger chain—will open its first Canadian location in Toronto. It follows in the footsteps of several American fast-food joints that have headed north, including Chick-fil-A and Prince St. Pizza. The location of the Canadian flagship has yet to be announced, but it won’t be the last: more than 35 Shake Shacks will open across the country by 2035.

3. Scientists will grow beef in labs

Cultivated meat—grown from the cells of animals in a lab—has been approved for human consumption in the United States, and Canada isn’t far behind. The federal government has already presented research about lab-grown meat, and some predict that Ottawa’s approval will come within the next five years. Canadian companies are already getting ready for when that day comes. The Better Butchers, a slaughter-free butcher shop, wants to open a location in Vancouver in 2024, and has prototypes of lab-grown sausages, ribs, deli meat and steaks on the way. At McMaster University, researchers are working on lab-grown beef that could be a convincing substitution for steak, and Toronto-based Cell Ag Tech is developing cell-cultured white fish, like snapper, for sustainable seafood dishes.

4. A pasta shortage is coming

Devastating news for carb-lovers: pasta might be harder to find and more expensive when you do. Canada is a top international producer of durum wheat, an essential ingredient in most dry pasta, but we had an extremely low yield in 2023 due to widespread droughts. At the end of July, the domestic price of a bag of semolina flour, made using durum wheat, rose by 24 per cent. Italy has already called crisis meetings over the shortage, and Canadians should expect higher prices and possibly fewer varieties of pasta. (Now might be a good time to stock up on harder-to-find types like bucatini, which was in short supply during the pandemic.)

5. School food programs are on the way

One child out of every four in Canadian provinces is food-insecure, and we still don’t have a national solution. In 2021, the Liberals made an election promise to invest $1 billion in a nationwide food program. It hasn’t yet materialized, but advocates still have hope: consultations were held in 2022 and 2023, where the feds heard overwhelming support for the program, which will need to be designed with local realities in mind. (In the North, for example, food is much more expensive, and variety is limited.) In the meantime, some provinces are fixing the problem themselves: British Columbia is putting $214 million over three years toward expanding local food programs at schools.

6. Artificial intelligence will invent your food

There’s a chance artificial intelligence might be the creative genius behind your next cocktail or vegan chicken nuggets. Major food companies are using AI to help design better recipes. Last year, Absolut Vodka launched a Canadian campaign promoting neighbourhood cocktails, all crafted by ChatGPT, which helped come up with unique flavour combinations. Chilean company NotCo uses AI to find ingredients that can simulate beef and poultry in their plant-based meat substitutes—and their innovations are available to try in Canada now.

7. More Canadians will go off the sauce

Many Canadians are taking stock of their drinking habits and cutting booze—roughly 22 per cent reduced their alcohol intake during the pandemic. That trend has continued: the sales volume for Canadian non-alcoholic beer is growing at a rate of 22 per cent annually. Events like Calgary’s OctSOBERfest put a dry spin on traditionally alcohol-forward occasions, and boozy brands like Collective Arts, a brewery based in Hamilton, now offer zero-proof cocktails. At the end of November, B.C. welcomed its first non-alcoholic bar and bottle shop: Bevees, located in Port Coquitlam, offers weekly wine tastings and sophisticated mocktails.

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8. You might get less food for your buck at grocery stores

Does your cereal box feel lighter lately? For the past few months, Canadians have been railing against the rise of shrinkflation, which is when you get less product for the same price. Price-watchers have alleged that a box of Betty Crocker SuperMoist Cake Mix had reduced from 432 grams to 375, packages of Oreo cookies were down almost 30 grams, and Campbell’s soup cans were skinnier than before. And now, customers have also been hit with skimpflation: the switch to cheaper (and sometimes poorer-quality) ingredients. Consumer watchdogs also claim that Quaker Dipps granola bars had changed their milk chocolate coating to a “chocolatey coating.” Advocates say that companies should be more transparent—or even increase prices so consumers can get more food at a higher quality.

9. Food bank usage will keep rising

More Canadians are using food banks than ever before—and a lot of them are people with jobs. The CEO of Food Banks Mississauga said that, in 2023, it experienced the highest increase in demand in its 37-year history, and that isn’t expected to let up any time soon. The Toronto–based Daily Bread Food Bank is expecting a $7-million loss this year and, as inflation soars, food bank operators fear that donations will drop and leave them with even less to give. That might mean smaller food boxes (one Toronto-area food bank has already had to reduce the size of their family boxes) or fewer clients served.

10. Canadian restaurants will struggle to keep the lights on

As prices rise, Canadians are looking for ways to tighten their budgets—and one strategy is to eat out less. In 2023, roughly 80 per cent of 5,500 people surveyed by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab said they were being more budget conscious when choosing where to eat out. (Almost 10 per cent opted not to eat out at all.) The entire industry is feeling the impacts. Restaurants Canada lowered their prediction for this year’s annual commercial food service sales—from 4.5 per cent forecasted growth to 3.4 per cent. But quick-service, fast-casual places like Chipotle will likely have more luck; by 2026, that industry is predicted to balloon to $43.3 billion in Canada. The budget-friendly prices and convenience remain hard to beat even as consumers pinch more pennies.

This article is part of the Year Ahead 2024, which is Maclean’s annual look at everything that’s coming your way next year. You can buy the print version right here.

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