Food Inflation Is Taking Its Toll on Average American Families

‘It’s crazy how much milk is. It’s crazy how much eggs are. But at the same time, everyone’s got to eat,’ a Maine mother of three tells the Sun.

AP/Teresa Crawford
Cartons of eggs on display at HarvesTime Foods at Chicago. AP/Teresa Crawford

Sarah Grogan now drives 20 minutes across state lines to buy groceries for her family because a gallon of milk is cheaper in New Hampshire. A 30-year-old mother of three children under the age of 4 at South Berwick, Maine, Ms. Grogan says food inflation is making it “stressful” to feed her family.

“It’s crazy how much milk is. It’s crazy how much eggs are. But at the same time, everyone’s got to eat,” Ms. Grogan tells the Sun. “Groceries are definitely our biggest expense.”

Ms. Grogan’s husband is a police officer. She is a stay-at-home mother while she finishes nursing school. Her youngest is only two weeks old. She describes herself as lower-middle class. She considers herself luckier than most because her husband hunts for sport: deer, wild turkeys, and ducks, so they don’t have to worry about buying protein. They raise chickens for eggs.

“We always have meat in the freezer,” she says. “I feel like unless you were kind of set before 2020, it’s very hard to make moves because it’s really hard to save.”

President Biden is touting a strong economy and “Bidenomics,” but only 20 percent of Americans think the economy is good, according to Gallup. The major crisis is one of affordability: Inflation is still high at 3.1 percent, even though it has eased from a peak of 9.1 percent in June 2022. Real wages — those adjusted for inflation — are not keeping apace.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released jobs numbers this morning that show non-farm wages increased 4.1 percent in the past year, which is above the inflation rate of 3.1 percent. The problem is that inflation-adjusted real hourly wages — those of the average blue-collar or middle-class person — are down 4.7 percent today from when Mr. Biden took office. That’s a weekly earnings decline in real wages to $381 in November 2023 from $399 in January 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The reason Biden polls so badly is that there’s a decline in wages and an increase in prices,” a former economic adviser to President Trump, Larry Kudlow, tells the Sun. He calls this the “affordability crisis.”

Americans feel it when they walk into the grocery store. Food prices increased nearly 6 percent in 2023, according to the Department of Agriculture. In 2022, at-home food prices — what one buys in a grocery store — increased more than 11 percent. No matter one’s income, it’s hard not to notice the rising cost of food at the grocery store and at restaurants — even fast food.

At the start of 2023, egg prices spiked to a peak average of nearly $5 a dozen. While the price has since come down, egg prices are considerably higher than pre-pandemic levels. Milk prices are also now coming down slightly, though the average gallon of milk costs more than $4. Poultry and meat prices are also up.

Ms. Grogan is in a better position than many Americans. Nearly 13 percent of American households experienced food insecurity in 2022, according to the Department of Agriculture, meaning they struggled to buy food or had to reduce food intake due to lack of money. This is a significant jump from pre-pandemic levels.

For Sonia Rebolledo, who lives with her granddaughter and her granddaughter’s 3-year-old twins in the Lillian Wald Houses, a NYCHA housing project on Avenue D at Manhattan, food is now also her household’s biggest expense. The $200 in food stamps she receives each month doesn’t cover it, especially should she want to buy fresh vegetables and fruit.

“Nothing is cheap now. Everything the price goes up,” Ms. Rebolledo tells the Sun. “But our food stamps [have gone] down a little recently.”

Ms. Rebolledo says she feels blessed that her rent is calibrated to the Social Security income she collects. Her granddaughter works as a cashier. Money is tight.

The USDA predicts that food inflation will slow in 2024, as it did in 2023 from a peak the year before. Yet for struggling families, a smaller rate of price increase is no consolation when the cost of everything else is also being affected by inflation.

“The food crisis isn’t necessarily all about food. The crisis really is an affordability crisis,” the director of policy at City Harvest, Jerome Nathaniel, tells the Sun. “People are struggling to afford housing, childcare, medical expenses, transportation, and balancing some of those fixed costs with their grocery bills, and their grocery bills are something they always viewed as a little bit more elastic.”

Mr. Nathanial says City Harvest, which is the largest food distributor to soup kitchens and food banks at New York City, has seen a 71 percent increase since the start of the Covid pandemic in the number of children being served by the food pantries with which it works. Children who don’t get adequate nutrition have poorer health outcomes and a harder time focusing at school, which creates a “feedback cycle” of poverty and hunger that diminishes the likelihood of future economic stability and success, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

“Our food pantry partners are consistently telling us that more and more working families are going to the program,” Mr. Nathanial says, adding that recent reductions in pandemic-era food stamp benefits and food inflation are mainly to blame.  

Mr. Kudlow is skeptical that food inflation will ease considerably in the coming year. He says food inflation is due to two main factors. “Number one, overall inflation has been high historically, even with the decline in recent months. So food and groceries are not immune to that,” he says.

The second reason, Mr. Kudlow says, is that fertilizer prices are up because oil prices are higher than they were four years ago. “The war against fossil fuels has had a big impact,” he says.

At a Walmart Superstore in New Hampshire, the Sun spoke with several shoppers who all said the increasing cost of food is taking its toll. One mother of two, Samantha Elkin, says she has swapped out fresh fruit in her children’s school lunches with Lunchables brand snacks because they’re cheaper.

“The cost of fruits and vegetables have gone up a ton,” Ms. Elkin tells the Sun. “You can’t shop as healthy as before, so you’re buying more processed food than you normally would.”

Another mother of four from Greenland, Rachel Tappan, who says she is a middle-class homeschooling mom, tells the Sun she hasn’t cut back on food, but “we’re just struggling more.”

“It’s pretty much the only thing we spend money on. We get secondhand clothes and stuff like that,” Ms. Tappan says.

“No more snacks,” a Portsmouth Naval Shipyard employee, Glenn Boyd, tells the Sun. He was shopping for his 18-year-old son and his infant and toddler grandchildren. “I blame Democrats,” he says.

Ms. Grogan says she doesn’t know who to blame. For now, she’s focusing on staying above water, feeding her children, and breastfeeding her newborn. In 2022, she stopped breastfeeding her six-month-old middle child just before the start of the baby formula shortage crisis. That sent her scrambling in panic. She doesn’t want a repeat of that.

The New York Sun

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