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Rising grocery prices put financial strain on Sonoma County families

Grocery store shelves are more fully stocked than they were during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic when residents engaged in panic buying and hoarding.

But prices for a range of staples and many other food products have been steadily rising, forcing struggling Sonoma County residents to face difficult decisions about how to feed their families.

Increased consumer demand for groceries by people spending more time at home, coupled with a food supply chain upended by the pandemic, have caused many items including meat, dairy and fresh produce to get more expensive.

And retail and supply chain experts say residents should brace for further food price inflation.

Sierra Friar, a 35-year-old Santa Rosa mother of two young children, was recently laid off and is feeling the strain of higher grocery prices on her family’s budget.

“Meat has definitely gone up, and milk — kind of all the essentials,” she said while shopping at a Lucky supermarket in Santa Rosa.

The mounting food costs fall hardest on the nearly 30,000 county residents like Friar — roughly one in 10 local workers — who have lost jobs during the ongoing pandemic. Thousands more people have had their work hours slashed since much of the local economy went into a forced lockdown in mid-March to curb the spread of the coronavirus. And with the $600-a-week enhanced federal unemployment payments that many of those residents relied on now expired, there is concern that the region’s virus-induced food insecurity crisis will only worsen.

Friar’s husband was able to keep his job at St. Joseph Health, which helps cover most of the family’s expenses. But without her income, she has been more budget-conscious at the grocery store.

“We have kids so we still have to get what we have to get, but I always try to find the cheapest stuff,” she said.

Nationwide, prices for most types of food have climbed since an initial crush of shoppers overwhelmed grocery stores this spring, according to data released last week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The price of beef and veal increased the most of any category, spiking over 20% between March and June. Pork and poultry, meanwhile, increased by 9% and 7%, respectively. The average prices for milk and dairy products, as well as fresh produce, each grew by 2.5%.

Grocers and industry experts point to a multitude of reasons for the sticker shock. Simple supply and demand is one factor. Increased costs for food manufacturers that have phased in social distancing measures is another. Restrictions on foreign imports during the pandemic are also to blame.

In addition, food distributors have struggled to reroute goods meant for now-shuttered restaurants to grocery stores. And coronavirus outbreaks at large meat slaughterhouses across the country have disrupted output, leading to the dramatic spike in the price of beef, pork and poultry.

While food producers and distributors have begun to adjust, Phil Lempert, a grocery retail analyst in Santa Monica, said the national supply chain remains “fragile.” He expects current issues to persist and affect prices, perhaps even after the pandemic is under control. To prevent future shortages like the ones that occurred in March, Lempert said, the food industry needs to spend more on automation, shipping and health safety measures, costs that may be passed on to consumers.

“The most important thing to say is we ain’t seen nothing yet. Prices will continue to go up,” Lempert said.

The higher price of groceries comes as at least 3,400 more households in Sonoma County are receiving CalFresh benefits, formerly known as food stamps, since the pandemic began in March. That’s a 20% increase from March to June, according to the most recent data from the California Department of Social Services.

At the same time, thousands of local residents are lining up in their cars to receive emergency meal boxes at drive-thru food pantries throughout the North Bay. Redwood Empire Food Bank, the region’s largest food donation center, expects it could feed around 160,000 people this year, twice the amount it normally serves annually.

David Goodman, Redwood Empire chief executive, said that demand could become even greater over the next month if lawmakers in Congress fail to reinstate the supplemental weekly unemployment payments in some amount. Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order extending those payments at $400 a week, although it’s unclear when or if the benefits will reach people who have lost work.

Goodman worries that families with less money to spend as grocery price jumps are more likely to view food as a “discretionary expense.”

“We can’t negotiate with the gas station, the landlord or the power company. ... As food prices go up, people are forced to make difficult decisions: less food or less quality,” he said. “These two choices lead to poor health outcomes, which leads to an unhealthy community.”

Debbie, a mother of two from Windsor who declined to provide her last name, said the cost of utilities, clothing and other essentials also has increased during the pandemic. She’s started shopping at the discount Grocery Outlet in Santa Rosa to save money.

“We’re not buying as much (food) because the prices have gone up significantly,” she said. “We’re really watching that.”

Lawrence Jacobs, a grocery buyer at Oliver’s Markets, said since public health emergency stay-at-home orders went into effect in March, the average price increase on each product sold in Oliver’s stores has been around 10% compared to the same period a year ago.

“There’s only so many weeks you can see that and not feel for the consumer,” Jacobs said.

To help ease that burden on shoppers, area grocers including Oliver’s say they’re looking to offer discounts and sales on products whenever they can, instead of simply pocketing additional store profits. The problem is that food producers and distributors have been providing far fewer product promotions through advertisements and coupons, a main way many smaller grocery stores extend savings to customers.

“Anytime we get a deal, we try to pass it on to the customer,” said Joe Butwill, a manager at Pacific Market in Santa Rosa. “But if there aren’t as many of those deals, then obviously we can’t pass that along.”

Friar, the Santa Rosa mother, has found another way to save: by growing her own vegetables.

“Thankfully it’s summer so we can eat from our garden,” she said. “But the stuff that we can’t grow we have to buy, and that does make it pricey.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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