Food prices are skyrocketing, and it’s changed the way we eat

When she was growing up, seconds weren’t served and side dishes were rare. “My mom had a budget every week, and she stuck to it,” she said. “As I got older and became more financially independent, having a full pantry and being able to eat whatever I wanted was a sign of success for me,” she added.

“It was very humbling to have to go from that situation to where we are right now.”

Altman and his wife live in Austin, Texas with their three children. Recently, they mainly relied on one income. Their reduced income, coupled with inflation, took a toll on their finances.

And it radically changed the way they eat. Altman isn’t the only one making big changes.

We asked CNN readers how inflation is impacting their eating habits, and many mentioned eating out less often, buying less meat, and giving up the splurge. Some say they are very worried about the future.
Food prices have climbed 11.4% over the past year, the largest annual increase since May 1979, according to data released in mid-September by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Grocery store prices jumped 13.5% and restaurant menu prices rose 8% during this period.
Consumers are responding by searching for deals and switching to generic brands, according to July data from market research firm IRI. Companies like Tyson (TSN) noticed customers switching from beef to chicken, and Applebee’s and IHOP reported an increase in high-income customers who are likely turning away from more expensive restaurants. Some people may dine out less often or avoid restaurants altogether.

For those who struggled to buy food even before prices exploded, rising costs could mean falling into food insecurity, unreliable access to affordable food.

“If food prices continue to rise at a rate that exceeds wage increases, that’s the inevitable consequence,” said Jayson Lusk, head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University. “The last time we had a big increase in food insecurity rates was following the Great Recession.” Last year, about 10.2% of U.S. households were food insecure, according to the USDA, slightly below the rate of 10.5% in 2020 and 2019.

Even for those not at risk of going hungry, food price spikes are shocking.

Food “matters a lot for our self-esteem, our mood,” said William Masters, a professor in Tufts University’s School of Nutrition Science and Policy who is also a faculty member in the economics department. “Not being able to buy the foods that people are used to – that your kids are asking for, your family wants – it’s really difficult,” he said. “Any habit-breaking is very, very difficult.”

Giving up simple pleasures

Carol Ehrman is taking a Thai cooking class on Zoom during the pandemic.

For Carol Ehrman, cooking is a joyful experience.

“I love to cook, it’s my favorite thing to do,” she said. She particularly enjoys cooking Indian and Thai dishes, but storing the spices and ingredients she needs for these dishes is no longer possible. “When each ingredient has gone up, it adds up to the total bill,” she said.

“What used to cost us between $250 and $300…is now $400.” Ehrman, 60, and her husband, 65, depend on her Social Security income, and the increase has strained their budget. “We just couldn’t do that.”

About six months ago she realized that she had change the way he does his shopping.

In an effort to reduce their immediate costs, Ehrman stopped buying in bulk as often as she used to. Now she chases sales, avoids buying beef, and opts for boxed wine instead of nice bottles when buying wine. She also prepares simpler meals and says goodbye to dinner parties.

Ehrman even foregone making staples, like tomato sauce, because of the expense, opting instead for a prepackaged version.

“I know I can make it a lot healthier,” she said. And “it’s always so much better”. These fresh ingredients are just too expensive now.

Ehrman’s husband is retired due to chronic health issues and finds it difficult to work due to his own health issues. She recently underwent cardiac pacing and cardiac catheterization procedures. The couple, who live in Billings, Montana, were frugal before the current price spike, enjoying the simple pleasures. But now even those are out of reach.

“Before, we at least found joy in being home and having friends and family, cooking and sitting around the table and just being content,” she said. . Now, “I’m not entertaining at all. It’s really sad.”

From Coke to Pepsi

Rick Wichmann, 64, and his wife have dined out less often in recent years, due to the pandemic and in an effort to eat healthier. With menu prices rising due to inflation, they see no reason to change their habits.

“Eating out is expensive,” he said, noting that he’s often happier with home-cooked meals than restaurant food anyway.

But groceries are also more expensive. Over the past year, Wichmann has noticed he’s spent about 25% more on groceries for himself, his wife, and their son than before.

To help mitigate those costs, Wichmann, who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, has started going to different grocers. He avoids Whole Foods and Stop & Shop, opting instead for Costco and local chain Market Basket.

He’s also switched to private labels, if he feels the quality is the same, and will sometimes choose products based on price rather than brand loyalty – like, for example, buying Pepsi when it’s less dear, when he would choose otherwise Coke.

Wichmann also pays attention to events such as weather and how they can affect prices. When he saw reports of a possible drought-induced tomato shortage in California, he took notice. The next time he saw tomato sauce on sale, he stocked enough to last for months.

A vegetable garden in the front lawn

Like Wichmann, Jenni Wells, 38, pays attention to weather patterns and food systems. A former chef and rancher, she noticed price increases long before the current surge in inflation.

‘My alarm bells started ringing for rising prices in 2019,’ she said, amid devastating floods in the Midwest drowned livestock and destroyed grain stocks. Wells decided at the time that she would like to be more independent.

“I saw the food prices go up and realized it was going to quickly overwhelm our budget,” she said. So in February, she pulled grass from the lawn of her home in Fort Worth, Texas, which she shares with her husband and best friend, and planted a vegetable garden.

“I just wanted to see what I could grow for myself,” she said. This year, she has successfully grown broccoli, cauliflower, okra, tomatoes, peppers, squash and more in her garden.

There are of course initial and maintenance costs for the garden. And it’s not easy to grow vegetables. But the household’s weekly grocery spending, excluding meat, fell from about $200 to $50, she said.

With the money left over, Wells and her family were able to eat out, which would have been “too luxurious” if they still spent $200 a week on groceries. And there’s the satisfaction of growing your own food.

“There’s a huge sense of reward,” she said. “I’m proud of every meal I make with it.”

change for good

A recent weekly grocery for Lisa Altman.

Some consumers have made changes due to the current circumstances they plan to hold on to.

Now Altman, the Austin mother of three, aims to keep her grocery bill at around $100 to $125 a week while purchasing private labels, lots of pasta and a limited amount of protein each week.

Instead of ordering or grilling steaks or ribs, Altman’s family eats more basic meals with smaller portions. “Now our meals consist of a main course, and that’s it, maybe some bread on the side or a salad.” If they go out to eat, they’ll choose a fast food meal with a few sides, like a burger and two fries, share the dishes, and take drinks home.

When Altman can afford it, she will start buying more fruits and vegetables again. But she hopes that certain habits, like encouraging her children to avoid mindless eating and reducing food waste, will stick.

“I’m not going to spend $1,200 a month on groceries,” she said. “It taught us that it’s not necessary.”

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