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‘A perfect storm’: North Bay shoppers face historically high food prices this Thanksgiving

Lisa Boyer sounded resigned. And a tad exasperated.

“I’m looking at $400 dollars worth of groceries,” said Boyer, of Santa Rosa, “and my cart is only three-quarters full. How did that happen?”

Boyer, who lives in Oakmont, the 55-and-over community, stood outside the Costco Wholesale on Santa Rosa Avenue on a recent weekday. While that membership-based multinational boasts beef prices that “are usually pretty good,” said Boyer, “there was a lot of moaning in the meat department” as she passed through.

While Boyer did drop $32 on four sirloin steaks, which will make 8 meals — “we split them in two” — she took a hard pass on a four-pack of prime filets that cost $80, and described meat prices in the store as “kind of a shock.”

With Thanksgiving approaching, shoppers across the North Bay — and the nation — shared her shock as they navigated the crowded aisles of grocery stores, filling their carts not just with holiday items but everyday foodstuffs.

Prices for all goods in the United States were a jaw-dropping 6.2% higher in October than they had been a year earlier, according to the Consumer Price Index, maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those increases, the largest in more than three decades, are the result of spiking fuel costs, and supply chains that remain bottlenecked in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone’s got a problem with prices,” allowed a white-aproned 20-something working at that Costco’s meat counter. Company policy prevented him from giving his name. “Throw in the freak weather we’ve had,” along with fuel prices and expensive transportation, he said, and “Everything just keeps going up, you know?”

The dozen or so consumers interviewed for this story were feeling the pinch of those price increases, some more acutely than others, and had worked out strategies to cope with them, including, for one, a visit to a local food bank.

As America emerges from a “quick but deep” pandemic-driven recession, said Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler, demand for goods and has ramped up for various reasons, including “a lot of government spending over the last 18 months.”

While demand is rising, he explained, “global supply chains are not working as efficiently as they usually do” — a condition that is gradually improving, by some accounts.

That increased demand, colliding with anemic, erratic supply, “is like a perfect storm for rising prices,” said Eyler.

A hit to the pocketbook

Julie Schlander feels like she’s in the eye of that storm.

“I’ve got teenage boys at home,” said Schlander, a Santa Rosa-based certified health coach. The spike in food prices, “is hitting me in the pocketbook.”

While loading groceries into her car in the Costco parking lot, she held up a 15-pack of Kirkland grass-fed beef patties that cost $23.49 — up five bucks from 18 months earlier.

“I almost put it back” because of the jacked-up price, she recalled, “but grass-fed is important to me.”

To keep her overall costs down, Schlander makes multiple trips to different stores. She also frequents, and directs clients, to Trader Joe’s, not for its produce, which is often grown and packaged “way the heck somewhere else,” but for that chain’s “pantry items,” she said.

“Canned goods, rice, tea, snacks — they have so many things you can’t beat the price on,” she said.

While she appreciates the organic options available at Costco, she regularly detours to Andy’s Produce Market in Sebastopol, “because their produce is fresher and cheaper, and they get it straight from local growers.”

Andy’s allows, on its website, that its produce may not be as inexpensive as the “large, more corporate-type farmers” stocking the shelves at Costco and Trader Joe’s. But it’s worth it to them to support area growers. That local and regional focus has insulated Andy’s, and other area food vendors, from much of the volatility rocking Big Ag these days.

“If you look at a place like Costco, I don’t care how marbled it is, I don’t care if it’s choice or prime, they’re doing all factory meat,” said Dave the Butcher, aka Dave Budworth, who runs the meat counter at the Sebastopol Community Market.

“It’s all CAFO meat,” he said, referring to the confined animal feeding operations that supply large meat processing facilities. “They have those giant plants, and they took a big hit over COVID.”

Because he deals with only regional farms, said Budworth, “there’s been no shortage” during the pandemic, “and prices aren’t up, for what I do.”

Which is not to say meat at the Community Market is cheap. The smaller, independent ranchers are at a competitive disadvantage to conglomerates dominating meat processing in the U.S.

“All the big farms, the CAFO operations, are subsidized by the government,” he said. “So the idea of raising chickens and selling them for 99 cents a pound is not realistic.”

Help from the food bank

A woman named Anna ended up paying considerably less than 99 cents per pound for the 14-pound Jennie-O turkey she hoisted from a freezer and into her cart at the Grocery Outlet in Petaluma.

“I’m using a $14 coupon,” she explained.

Anna, who chose not to give her last name, citing a desire for privacy, works in Petaluma and shops at this discount outlet on Washington Avenue.

Even though the Grocery Outlet prices are “really good,” the chain hasn’t been immune from galloping prices. The pre-seasoned Farmer John pork roast that used to cost $3.99 is up to $5.99. She’s buying it anyway.

While she likes her job and enjoys the work, the pay is modest, sometimes leaving too much month at the end of the money, as the Marty Stuart country song laments.

When that’s the case, said Anna, “I’ll go to the food bank, and then I’ll go shopping.”

On his way into Cloverdale’s Dollar General discount store, retiree John Carr said he is “definitely feeling the pinch when it comes to food.”

“I eat a lot of chicken, and even the less expensive chicken is going up. But what are you going to do?”

“My son’s a butcher at Oliver’s, but I can’t shop there. If I did,” he said with a grin, “I’d be bumming money from you.”

Teri Wells was not pleased, leaving the Dollar General. The baking aisle had been picked pretty clean, she reported. “They didn’t have any sugar. They had flour, but they didn’t have sugar of any kind.”

Those supply chain hiccups are to be expected, said Eve Brancato, taking a lap around Cloverdale’s Grocery Outlet. “You can’t shut down for two years and then expect everything to go back to normal, right away,” she said.

When might Sonoma County, and the rest of the country, get some relief from rising food prices?

While that’s a complex issue, replied Eyler, the economist, one easy way to tell when things are getting better will be “when we look out from our port cities, and don’t see a bunch of container ships that look like they’ve been sitting there for days.”

Asked when she thought inflation come back down, Schlander the health coach said, “I’m not looking that far ahead.

“I’m just trying to keep the fridge full.”

Feast may make you fat, but your wallet will be thinner

Across the country, costs for just about everything related to a Thanksgiving meal are an average of 14% higher than they were in 2020 according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Here’s a sampling of the national averages:

16-pound turkey: $23.99 or approximately $1.50 per pound (up 24%)

2 frozen pie crusts: $2.91 (up 20%)

30-ounce can of pumpkin pie mix: $3.64 (up 7%)

Half pint of whipping cream: $1.78 (up 2%)

1 dozen dinner rolls: $3.05 (up 15%)

12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries: $2.98 (up 11%)

1 gallon of whole milk: $3.30 (up 7%)

1 pound of frozen peas: $1.54 (up 6%)

3 pounds of sweet potatoes: $3.56 (up 4%)

1-pound veggie tray (carrots & celery): 82 cents (up 12%)

Misc. ingredients to prepare the meal: $3.45 (up 12%)

14-ounce bag of cubed stuffing mix: $2.29 (down 19%)

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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