‘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.”