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Sonoma County residents learning to cope with record-high grocery prices

It was a little after 3 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, and plenty of people had flocked to the Santa Rosa Costco. Lines at the registers were four and five people deep.

But one corner of the big-box store was a ghost town.

This was a section of the meat department, at the counter stocked with prime USDA boneless ribeye steaks priced at $17.99 a pound.

Vacuum-sealed packages, in the neighborhood of 19½ pounds, cost $350 — which seemed like a bargain beside the cuts of choice beef tenderloin going for $24.99 a pound. Business for those steaks was not brisk.

“It’s ridiculous,” Christy Temme exclaimed, while eyeballing a row of roast chickens near the meat counter.

She’d driven from Forestville to take advantage of the warehouse club’s prices, but found herself fuming at recent increases in the cost of items ranging from chicken to cat food.

“Everything” is more expensive, she lamented. “I mean, how are we going to live?”

Temme spoke for many at a time when paychecks are being chewed up faster than they can ever remember by the surging cost of feeding one’s family.

A report released Jan. 12 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that, as of December 2021, grocery prices in the Bay Area had spiked 6.6% over the previous year. Cereal and bakery products were up 10.3%., while meat, poultry, fish and eggs went up 9.4%.

Overall, U.S. consumer prices soared 7% in 2021, the largest 12-month gain since June 1982, according to the Labor Department.

While skyrocketing gas prices drove much of that increase — the long lines at Costco’s gas pumps on Santa Rosa Avenue told their own, grim story — the rising cost of groceries is creating no less hardship, forcing shoppers to cut back, clip coupons, take advantage of specials and otherwise cope with this latest hardship in their lives.

DIY granola bars

Cutting back on beef is one way to go.

“I’m a vegetarian,” said Gahlia Powers, while shopping Wednesday at the Healdsburg Safeway, “but my husband is not.”

Nonetheless, she added with a smile, “he’s been enjoying more vegetarian dishes, lately.”

Powers has also taken to stocking up on sale items — her cart contained at least four packs of Tillamook cheese slices.

Her solution for the fast-rising price of granola bars would make Martha Stewart proud: Powers now makes her own, buying the oats, dried fruit and other ingredients, then cooking them in batches of 36 bars on sheet pans.

“I do that twice a month,” she said.

Taking a break from plying the aisles at Oliver’s Market in Windsor, Jan L’Esperance still seemed slightly traumatized by the sticker shock she’d experienced a week earlier. In this case, she and her husband had picked up a pork tenderloin at the meat counter. That item had gone from “between 6 and 8 dollars a pound,” she estimated, to $15.

Inspecting the receipt on the drive home, she blurted, “This thing cost us 20 bucks!”

As part of their counterattack against inflation, the L’Esperances build their weekly menus around the specials offered by Oliver’s, which they visit each Wednesday. Humpday, as it happens, is that chain’s weekly “Senior Discount Day,” with customers over 60 getting 10% off all items except alcohol and tobacco.

Asked if he was taking advantage of Senior Discount Day, Mike Batton merely removed his USC Trojans ball cap, revealing a head of gray hair.

“We’ve definitely been using the slow-cooker more” as food prices have spiked, said Batton, who was shopping with his wife, Julie. “Or, we’ll make a big batch of lasagna, slice it up, then freeze it for later.”

Wrapped in butcher paper in Debbie Schwanke’s cart was a $21 package of chicken breasts, that didn’t seem like that much chicken.

To wring more mileage out of meat and poultry, which, she agreed, are “ridiculously overpriced,” she’s been making more “soups and stews.”

Those chicken breasts were bound for the slow cooker, where they’d go nicely with rice and wild mushrooms, she said. If there was any chicken left over, it would go into tacos or burritos.

The beatings will continue

Adding a pinch of optimism is Jayson Lusk, a food economist who is head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University. While it’s difficult to predict future price changes, he told The Press Democrat, “the most recent data suggests meat prices have already started to decline.

“Ultimately, food price increases are unlikely to fully subside until the labor market issues are resolved and until COVID is brought under control.”

One factor behind the run-up in food prices, according to Lusk, is the “dramatic increase in money supply” that came with unemployment benefits and stimulus-type spending. “More dollars chasing fewer goods” jacked up prices.

Also, a rise in grain prices has pushed up the cost of feeding livestock and poultry. Difficulties finding workers in the food and agriculture sectors, Lusk added, have driven up wage rates. Additional supply chain hiccups have added further costs, which are passed on to the consumer.

But Lusk is leaving something out. That, at least, was the opinion shared by Carrie, a mild-mannered woman shopping at the Petaluma Safeway Tuesday evening. Chalking the galloping inflation up to the pandemic and a balky supply chain tend to leave out the profit motive.

“They’re gonna get away with whatever they can get away with,” said Carrie, who has seen her weekly grocery bill climb from $250 to $350 over the past year.

Not exactly disproving his theory was Procter & Gamble, which makes every kind of household staple from laundry soap to toothpaste. In a statement strikingly close in tone to the tongue-in-cheek workplace placards promising “the beatings will continue until morale improves,” the Cincinnati-based consumer-products colossus announced Wednesday its price increases would continue throughout 2022.

“The consumer is very resilient,” P&G finance chief Andre Schulten assured the Wall Street Journal.

Weathering the storm

Standing at the back of the Lucky grocery store on Petaluma Boulevard, Alison Duiven held up a packet of Foster Farms chicken strips, fixating on the $10 price tag.

“I’m not sure what these used to cost, but it was a lot less than this,” she said, before adding, with a smile:

“I mean, for 10 dollars, they should be free range and organic.”

Duiven and her family “feel fortunate that we can weather the storm” of high food prices, she said. “But if you’re paycheck to paycheck, you’re struggling.”

That’s reflected in the amount of food being handed out by the Redwood Empire Food Bank, the North Bay’s largest hunger relief organization. Participation in distributions has recently increased 10% to 15%, according to Rachelle Mesheau, the food bank’s marketing manager.

Asked if the United States might be headed into a prolonged inflation spiral such as the one that dragged the economy down in the early 1980s, Lusk, the economist, said that scenario is “unlikely, but not impossible,” pointing to signals made by the Federal Reserve and the return of Americans’ savings rates to “more normal levels.”

That’s music to the ears of Eric, who works in the meat department at that Healdsburg Safeway.

“Everyone’s always got a comment on the price of stuff. So we just try to explain what’s going on, the best we can,” he said.

“Trust me, I’d love to see ribeyes and New Yorks and filets get back down under $20 a pound. ’Cause right now, this is rough going.”

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

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