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Rising food prices have resulted in both food insecurity and improvisation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And now to something that affects just about all of us - rising food prices. A lot of us are experiencing sticker shock at the grocery store, and many families are finding their grocery budget does - is not covering what it used to. NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: When I talk with Washington, D.C., resident Kleshay Miller (ph) outside a supermarket in Columbia Heights, she's carrying plastic grocery bags, but those bags don't contain the item she actually wanted to buy.

KLESHAY MILLER: We have a whole bag of soup. You get four for five. I went in there for some steak 'cause I like to make homemade soup, but it's too high.

WAMSLEY: The cost of steak?

MILLER: Yes.

WAMSLEY: She also wanted to buy paper towels and toilet paper.

MILLER: But you see I didn't come out with any, so - (laughter).

WAMSLEY: With her 18-year-old son standing beside her, Miller says the rising prices have been hard on their budget.

Does it cause you any stress?

MILLER: Of course because we have special diets on top of that and underlying health issues. We have to eat certain ways, so that food really costs.

WAMSLEY: She's not the only one feeling the pinch. The price of food at home has gone up 4.5% over the last year. And one food item has gotten especially pricey - meat.

JAYSON LUSK: Beef is up about 18%. Pork is up about 13%. Chicken is up about 8%.

WAMSLEY: Jayson Lusk is an agricultural economist at Purdue University. He says the cost of corn and soybeans went up a year ago, driven by demand from China and some bad weather. Because corn and soybeans are what livestock eats, meat prices went up. And there's high demand in general right now for groceries and eating out.

LUSK: And then on the supply side, pandemic-related disruptions are still here, mainly labor-related issues. In a lot of parts of food processing, it's still tough to get labor, and labor is more expensive.

WAMSLEY: The different trends you've heard about - ports clogged with ships, people quitting their jobs - they're all a part of why food costs more. Brandon Tabor (ph), a 33-year-old in Houma, La., says prices surged during Hurricane Ida and never receded. He's noticed the spike in meat prices and finds that canned goods are pricier, too.

BRANDON TABOR: Like, the off-brand costs as much as the name-brand corn would cost three months ago. And you just got to get what you got to get, sometimes.

WAMSLEY: Nerve injuries in his hands have made it hard to find steady work. He says the SNAP benefits he receives are helpful, but they don't cover everything.

TABOR: Probably three weeks out of the month, I'll have groceries and then start getting to where things run thin, you know?

WAMSLEY: Geri Henchy is director of nutrition policy for the Food Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C. She says the rising food prices are a disaster for low-income families.

GERI HENCHY: Many of them are already struggling. And as prices have increased and so rapidly, they cannot adjust. They don't have room in their budgets.

WAMSLEY: More than 38 million Americans lived in food-insecure households last year, according to the USDA. And Henchy says rising food costs can be tough for those who had been on the brink but still able to get the food they need.

HENCHY: There's a whole set of low-income people who are in that category. When these food prices go up like this, they just fall out of that category. They become food-insecure.

WAMSLEY: Krisna Mendieta, a 39-year-old in Queens, N.Y., is managing to hold it together. She's 39 and grew up in Ecuador, and her household includes her mother, her fiance and her 18-year-old daughter.

KRISNA MENDIETA: Before, I was able to have a diet rich in all kinds of meat, fish, different type of vegetable.

WAMSLEY: She works as a dental assistant, and her hours have been cut during the pandemic. With higher prices and less income, her family has changed its diet to rely more on seasonal vegetables.

MENDIETA: Now meat is out of the way (laughter), seafood out of my reach, though now I have to try to look for the sales for the chicken 'cause, sometimes, you do find it.

WAMSLEY: She said she tried to get SNAP benefits but was told she makes about a hundred dollars over the income limit.

MENDIETA: It's not that I feel hungry. It's just stressing to see that now I have limitation that I didn't have before, even though I'm working.

WAMSLEY: Mendieta says she's improvising, finding new ways to work magic with vegetables. As prices keep rising, many other families will have to find ways to improvise, too.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BURRELL'S "SEVEN COME ELEVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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