A recent report indicates food prices in Canada have increased nearly four per cent since last fall with prices for meat products spiking almost 10 per cent in 12 months. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Nathan Denette

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Published Nov 15, 2021

Vocational teachers are searching for savings wherever possible — in some cases, by replacing individual projects for students with group work or single classroom demonstrations — as price tags on food, fabric and other school supplies spike.

Climate change, pandemic losses, and supply chain issues related to COVID-19 are among the reasons for sticker shock in grocery stores and online catalogues this fall.

Matt Frost, a culinary arts instructor at Tec Voc High School in Winnipeg, estimates his receipts for food and packaging are around 15 to 20 per cent higher than usual. Following months of COVID-19 disruptions, during which many culinary students could not fully participate in remote cooking courses because of limitations on equipment and groceries at home, the latest challenge is disheartening, he said.

“This is just the cherry on top of the cake,” Frost said. “I don’t want to say kids are suffering, because we’re doing our best to make sure they get what they need, but it’s just one thing after another.”

Canada’s consumer price index rose by 4.4 per cent on a year-over-year basis in September, according to Statistics Canada. Food prices have increased nearly four per cent since last fall, per a recent agency report, which indicates prices for meat products spiked almost 10 per cent in 12 months.

Meantime, research from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University suggests the food inflation rate in Canada is actually closer to five per cent.

The cost of woodshop materials and sewing items has also been affected throughout the pandemic, in turn putting a strain on school industrial arts and human ecology course budgets.

A spokesperson for Siltex, a popular fabric supplier among teachers in Manitoba, said there has been a huge increase in prices for raw materials, freight, “and everything in between.” While the company said product prices have risen anywhere from 10 to 25 per cent, transportation expenses have increased five-fold.

Between teaching hands-on lessons via Zoom, product shortages and significant spikes in material costs, pandemic schooling has been especially difficult for vocational educators, said Steven Sprange, president of the Vocational Teachers’ Association of Manitoba.

The programming, however, remains critical, said Sprange: “We give ‘non-traditional students’ places to learn. The hands-on learners, the people who don’t necessarily learn from a book, who sometimes fall between the cracks… (Vocational education) is an opportunity to get to graduation.”

In response to concerns about budget constraints, trustees in the Pembina Trails School Division voted this week to allocate up to $90,000 of the board’s designated safe schools funding towards practical arts programs.

“Without this money, the programs wouldn’t be able to operate and then our educational programming would be sub-par, and our students are engaged in rebound learning and this is part of that rebound learning,” said Ted Fransen, superintendent of Pembina Trails.

Brian Cameron said his vocational instructors are coping by reusing items as much as possible, reaching outcomes using fewer materials, and researching sales. So far, Cameron, who oversees the Louis Riel Arts and Technology Centre in Winnipeg, has yet to issue any budget freezes.

While it’s been a challenge, Cameron is optimistic. The principal of the Louis Riel School Division facility said he likes to think this has been an opportunity to reflect on increased costs of living and “make sure we get the best bang for our bucks.”

Frost, who works in the Winnipeg School Division, said he is substituting for lesser-quality products — for instance, swapping rib-eye steaks for sirloin — and utilizing both demonstrations and group projects instead of constantly assigning individual recipes at the Grade 9 and 10 levels to stretch every dollar a bit further at Tec Voc.

“We just have to be really strategic about how we’re spending our money, so we’re not sacrificing student learning,” said the culinary arts teacher.

This item is reprinted with permission from Winnipeg Free Press. See article HERE.

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