If you’ve been anywhere near a grocery store in the last six months, you’ve seen the rising cost of everything from beef to produce.
According to the USDA, the Consumer Price Index shows “Food at home” rose 2.5% from Aug 2020 and is predicted to rise another 1.5% to 2.5% in 2022.
Inflation, labor shortages and supply chain disruptions are fueling the continued rise of food costs being felt at all levels.
“Every which way you can see an expense increase, we’re seeing it,” said Brent Erenwert, CEO of Houston-based Brothers Produce. “Labor, shipping, inbound freight costs, outbound freight costs, packaging.”
“Are you seeing these costs as going down at any point in the future?” asked KPRC 2 investigator Robert Arnold.
“I really don’t know what can bring them down,” said Erenwert.
Brothers is a produce distributor that also sells produce boxes to the public through its website. Erenwert said the company’s average cost of a case of produce has gone up 25 to 30%. Farmers said these increased costs are also forcing them to charge more for products or face going under.
“I don’t think they’ll ever go back to the status quo, they’re never going to go back to pre-COVID numbers ever again,” said Shay Myers, owner of Owyhee Produce. “We know that we are going to have to ask for 30 or 40% more for contracts that will begin shipping in the Fall of 2022.”
All of this, in turn, is leading to higher costs to the consumer.
“How much of your budget is food?” asked Arnold.
“It’s a thousand dollars a month. However, we’ve been going over that since prices have been going up,” said Tiffany DiCarlo.
DiCarlo watches her family of five’s food budget with the precision of an account.
“How difficult has it been adjusting to these price increases?” asked Arnold.
“We’ve had to cut back in other areas significantly, mostly savings because we’re having to dip into savings,” DiCarlo said.
Despite rising food costs, Erenwert, DiCarlo and Myers also say consumers can take steps to mitigate the sting of higher prices. Erenwert said when it comes to produce, buy whole, not pre-cut.
“Every time that knife cuts something you lose shelf-life and there’s labor in the cost of these pre-packaged items,” said Erenwert. “Pull out that knife and make your own salad; it’s quick and that labor is going to be much cheaper.”
DiCarlo is an aggressive comparison shopper. Every week she scans the prices of groceries at five different stores to find the best price for every single item she buys.
“I shop at five different stores, I have what I call the grocery circle,” said DiCarlo. “To make sure per unit, we’re getting the best price.”
DiCarlo also said she doesn’t buy out-of-season produce.
“We don’t buy apples a whole lot in the spring, we don’t buy watermelon in December,” said DiCarlo.
Erenwert said consumers should consider comparison shopping frozen versus fresh produce and meat prices as a way to stretch their dollar. DiCarlo said she also buys certain staple items in bulk when prices are low and freezes portions for later use. Something else for shoppers to consider: urban farms.
“We’re in Acres Homes, just three miles north of 610, just outside the loop,” said William Trainor, co-founder and CFO of Verdegreens Farms.
Verdegreens uses a mix of hydroponic and organic farming to grow several types of produce. Trainor said the farm focuses primarily on leafy greens, but has also started growing tomatoes and cucumbers. Trainor and his partners sell to consumers, restaurants and farmer’s markets.
“You see this as a potential solution to consumers who are trying to keep their food costs down?” asked Arnold.
“Absolutely,” said Trainor. “By and large we’ve been spared a lot of the difficulties of the increased prices.”
Trainor said food grown and distributed locally can be sold at lower costs because farms like Verdegreens don’t have the labor and transportation troubles a lot of big farms are experiencing.
“We don’t have to pay somebody to drive it thousands of miles to get here in a refrigerated truck,” said Trainor. “We remove a lot of the intense physical labor that’s required to do a lot of the field production of the crops that you see.”
The program director for supply chain technology at the University of Houston, Margaret Kidd said consumers should not make the mistake of thinking higher food prices are only temporary. Kidd said it could take 12-18 months for food prices to settle.
“This is a serious issue,” said Kidd. “This could really, potentially move someone into a food insecure status.”
Kidd and her colleagues at UH estimate more than half-million people in the Houston area are currently food insecure and even produced a map showing where food deserts are located in the city.
Kidd and her students also volunteer at the Bread of Life charity and have seen a substantial increase in families needing help with food staples.
“These are families that have jobs that drive up in a car, they may drive in from the suburbs to midtown Houston to pick up a week’s supply of dry goods and groceries,” said Kidd.