Buying groceries in Sonoma County takes a bigger bite out of your budget
For waitress Lena Sheridan, who lives in Cotati with her 4-year-old son, the sharp increase in food prices means eating more fast food.
“It’s easier sometimes to get a $1 meal at McDonald’s than to be able to go into the grocery store to spend $15 to have one meal,” Sheridan said.
Also, to help keep her weekly grocery budget from ballooning, she’s now buying more processed packaged foods, and she’s not happy about it.
“You’re buying more stuff that’s not as good for you just because it’s cheaper,” said Sheridan, who watches every penny she spends on food and worries grocery prices could take a while to stabilize.
While the economy recovers from the pandemic, consumers in Sonoma County and across the country shopping at independent grocers and supermarkets are essentially picking up the tab for a slew of price hikes occurring along the stressed food supply chain. They are built into the cost of foods people buy at the store, causing the pain of sticker shock for many consumers.
It’s costing them hundreds of extra dollars for groceries, experts say.
The prices shoppers are paying at the store checkout also are inflated by increased fuel and other transportation costs to get products to grocers, labor shortages affecting food producers’ factories and distributors trying to hire more truck drivers, plus farmers’ bigger bill for corn and soybeans to feed their animals.
“It’s a confluence of all of those things creating these price increases” that producers, distributors and grocers are passing on to consumers, veteran food industry analyst Phil Lempert said.
“Everything along the food supply chain from farms to supermarkets are experiencing price increases.”
In a way, the food-buying conundrum of a year ago in the throes of the pandemic has returned, but with a pricing rather than supply challenge for shoppers.
Last year under a public health lockdown, many people bombarded grocers buying weeks’ worth of food and paper products at once, clearing store shelves to hoard items from pasta to toilet paper at home.
Now, for the most part, there’s plenty of food to buy. However, the price tags on everything from meats and cheeses to cereal and other perishables have been escalating even more this spring, straining residents’ grocery budgets.
Some of the biggest price boosts are on beef, chicken and pork and food industry operators and analysts say it could be sometime next year before the pricing volatility eases. Major U.S. meatpackers are still only operating at half capacity, at best, food industry experts say.
County residents are spending an estimated $5,280 a year on groceries for the average household, or $350 more than in 2019 before the pandemic, according to annualized May consumer expenditure data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, many area consumers likely spend far more than that at the supermarket because the government figures are only an average, don’t account for personal spending habits and aren’t adjusted for seasonal purchases. The figures also are for the broad West region that includes Sonoma County, but they are the best representation for average food shopping expenses, said Matt Insco, a bureau economist based in San Francisco.
Chasing elusive profit
Tara Carter, a teacher from Penngrove, said she’s spending about $250 a week on groceries, around $50 more weekly since January.
“I’m definitely comparing what I’m buying and determining the brand I buy based on price,” said Carter, a mother of two daughters, as she loaded bags of groceries into the back of her car she bought at Oliver’s Market in Cotati.
Although consumers are taking the brunt of food inflation, grocers, particularly independents that don’t have the daily shopping traffic and vast selling space that chain supermarkets do, are getting pinched, too.
Dean Molsberry, third-generation co-owner of Larkfield’s Molsberry Market, said the wholesale price of beef has soared about 40% in three months.
After the market passed on price increases on beef, from steaks to ground beef, to shoppers to offset some but not all of that inflation, “I’m not making any money on hamburger anymore,” said Molsberry, who owns the market with brothers Brian and Joe.
On top of wholesale price increases “across the board,” he said, the market is contending with a gas surcharge on food deliveries and supply chain kinks causing typically 20% of items ordered to be temporarily not available.
Saying this is the most challenging time he can recall in his 30 years in the food business, “grocery margins being thin, you have to make up for it,” Dean Molsberry said, of raising prices. “If you make 1% (net profit), you’re doing good.”