Donna Sampson was up in the middle of the night earlier this month checking online to see if her Social Security payment had been deposited in her bank account.
Without the money, she wouldn’t be able to buy food later that day.
“I make a list and buy once a month,” Sampson said, and that purchase has to feed the three people in her home for the next 30 days. “You have to figure out a way to do it.”
She is not alone. Living with a tight food budget is becoming a more common experience across the Inland Northwest as prices for food, energy and other consumables climb higher.
Experts said price inflation is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.
The cost of food nationally is rising 5 percent a year, according to a February estimate by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Severe winter weather across major southern growing areas, including Mexico, are pushing up fruit and vegetable prices at a rate of 10.9 percent a year. Meat, fish and eggs are rising by 7.6 percent a year, the government said.
Consumers are trying to adjust by cutting back on more costly items, shopping sales or buying in bulk.
“You get inventive,” said Sampson, who is retired.
On April 1 after her Social Security payment had arrived, Sampson drove to Sonnenberg’s Market & Deli, 1528 E. Sprague Ave., to stock up.
She was joined by a longtime friend, who is also retired, lives on a small Social Security pension and struggles to make ends meet.
Sampson, of Spokane Valley, takes her bulk meat purchases and divides them into individual meal portions, which she freezes for later use. She lives with her husband and an adult son.
Her grocery bill that day was $230 for meat, which will have to last until May, she said.
When Sampson runs short, she goes to the food bank.
Hope Belieu, a checkout clerk at Sonnenberg’s, said she knows the struggle. She sees it repeatedly there, especially in the first 10 days of the month when state food stamp allotments are deposited into recipients’ accounts.
Belieu, too, has learned to be a bargain hunter when it comes to feeding three children and a fiancé, plus other friends who might show up at mealtime at her Spokane home.
“I price shop,” she said, spending at least $500 a month on meat and groceries. “When I go grocery shopping I get my calculator out.”
Belieu keeps close track of her food spending. She said her average per-pound cost for meat has gone from $1.80 to $2.25 in the past two years.
Her family’s diet consists of an increasing number of stews and soups made from the bones and trimmings off larger cuts of meat, or lesser-priced stocks.
Dan Englehart, the manager at Sonnenberg’s, said he’s seeing buying habits change as well. Customers are increasingly choosing things such as chicken hindquarters, which are useful in simmered meals and for making soup stock.
“We’ve noticed people buying lesser cuts,” Englehart said.
For value, he recommends prepacked meat boxes or ground beef.
The role of oil
The upward price pressure traces back to international oil markets, and to a government monetary policy intended to stimulate weakened economies.
Assistant economics professor Ryan Herzog at Gonzaga University said, “Oil is kind of the driver in all of these food price increases.”
The current problem started with the economic recession in 2008 and 2009 and the anemic recovery since, Herzog said.
The Federal Reserve has chosen to keep interest rates very low to provide economic stimulus at the same time the Fed has increased the money supply, he said. As a result, the U.S. dollar has been devalued on international markets. Oil has gone up in price to compensate for the weakened dollar, Herzog said.
On top of that, unrest in North Africa and the Middle East has forced prices up further. “Oil prices have been going up pretty steadily for the past year,” he said.
AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report shows that the average price of a gallon of gasoline has risen 87 cents in the past year. Most of that increase has occurred since September.
Herzog said inflation is a predictable outcome of the Fed’s easy monetary policy. Economists believed that the upward swing in consumer prices would start within two years of the easing, and it has, he said.
In addition, drought and wildfires last year in Russia and rains in Australia have caused wheat prices to accelerate. China may need to import more grain as a result of drought there, which adds price pressure to grain markets. Corn in the U.S. is being diverted to ethanol production for gasoline blends.
Locally, chicken farmers said feed prices have gone up about 20 percent, forcing them to raise prices for local farm-raised eggs to $5 a dozen for the coming farmers market season.
Pinch on food banks
All of this plays into the price of food at the checkout counter.
Food manufacturers have responded by repackaging items into smaller quantities, which has the effect of passing along the increase without being as noticeable.
A Rosauers store on the South Hill posted a sign in the fruit and vegetable section last month warning that produce prices had gone up temporarily because of severe winter weather.
Camille Sullivan, co-manager of the Food Sense program in Spokane, works with youth and adults on limited incomes to help them get the most out of their food dollars.
She said her clients “are finding it harder and harder to make food last through the month.”
As a result, food bank outlets become an indispensable part of the food supply for many families and individuals, she said.
Rod Wieber, the chief resource officer for Second Harvest, which supplies local food banks, said that donations are holding up, but that fuel costs are squeezing his agency.
The fuel cost for hauling a semitruck load of surplus produce from Northern California to Spokane has increased from $2,800 to $4,000, he said. “It is very significant,” he said.
Local surveys show that 1 in 6 people in the Inland Northwest face concerns about where they will get enough food to eat – a situation referred to as “food security,” according to a survey from the Feeding America organization with assistance from a University of Illinois professor.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says a family of four with two small children would spend $6,000 a year on what it considers a “thrifty” and nutritional food budget and $11,800 on a “liberal” food budget.
Sullivan recommends that shoppers buy items on sale and build menus around those things. A sale is also a good time to buy extra.
Often, frozen vegetables are a lower-cost alternative and just as nutritious as fresh vegetables, she said.
Sullivan said planning menus can also cut costs. Starting a garden, reducing meat consumption and eating staples such as cooked dried beans can save money, too.
“Cooking from scratch is always cheaper,” she said. “It’s cheaper to eat in, of course.”
Shane Delforge, a manager at Fresh Abundance Local and Organic Foods, 2015 N. Division St., said he has cut down on meat and increased the amount of organic vegetables he eats, and he feels better as a result.
“You don’t have to eat like a king all of the time,” he said.
Nutritionally, more produce and whole grains are healthier, Delforge said.
“People are starving themselves even though they are eating,” he said.
Fresh Abundance delivers variety produce boxes to its customers with prices starting at $35 and containing locally grown products when available in season. Fresh Abundance and other markets offer local foods such as grass-fed beef and milk and free-range chicken and eggs.
Shannon Kessler, who buys for her family, said she shops the sales and buys at lower-priced outlets. The price of the bread her children like more than doubled recently to $3.19 a loaf.
Her current answer to fighting food inflation: “I’m going to do a garden this year.”