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?”
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.