Rising inflation changes US household eating habits

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Lisa Altman used to pride herself on being able to eat what she wanted without worrying too much about the cost. “My mom had a budget every week, and she stuck to it,” she said.

“As I got older and more financially independent, having a full pantry and being able to eat what I wanted was a sign of success for me,” she added. “It was very humiliating to have to get out of that situation to where we are now.”

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Altman and his wife live in Austin, Texas, with their three children. Recently, they have been relying mainly on an income. His reduced earnings, along with inflation, dealt a blow to his finances.

And that has radically changed the way they eat. Altman is not alone in making big changes.

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We asked readers of CNN how inflation affected their eating habits, and many mentioned dining out less often, buying less meat, and giving up splurges. Some said they are very worried about the future.

Food prices rose 11.4% last year, the biggest annual increase since May 1979, according to data released in mid-September by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Grocery prices rose 13.5% and restaurant menu prices rose 8% over that period.

Consumers are responding by looking for deals and switching to generic brands, according to July data from market research firm IRI.

Companies like Tyson have noticed that customers are switching from beef to chicken. Applebee’s and IHOP reported an increase in higher-income customers who are likely switching from more expensive restaurants. Some people may be dining out less often or avoiding restaurants altogether.

For those who struggled to buy food even before prices soared, rising costs could mean a drop in food insecurity, a state of unreliable access to affordable food.

“If food prices continue to rise at a rate that outstrips wage increases, that is the inevitable consequence,” said Jayson Lusk, head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University.

“The last time we had a big spike in food insecurity rates was in the wake of the Great Recession.” Last year, about 10.2% of American households were food insecure, according to the USDA, down slightly from the 10.5% rate in 2020 and 2019.

Even for those who are not at risk of starvation, the increases in food prices are shocking.

Food “makes a lot for our self-esteem, our mood,” said William Masters, a professor at Tufts University’s school of nutrition science and policy who is also a faculty member in the economics department.

“Not being able to buy the foods that people are used to – that their children are asking for, that their family wants – is a very difficult thing,” he said. “Any interruption of the habit is very, very difficult.”

Giving up simple pleasures

For Carol Ehrman, cooking is a joyful experience.

“I love to cook, it’s my favorite thing to do,” she said. She especially enjoys cooking Indian and Thai food, but stocking up on the spices and ingredients she needs for these dishes is no longer viable. “When all the ingredients go up, that adds up to the total bill,” she said.

“What used to cost us $250 to $300…is now $400.” Ehrman, 60, and her husband, 65, depend on their pension income, and the increase was straining their budget. “We just couldn’t do it.”

About six months ago, she realized she needed to change the way she shopped.

In an effort to reduce his immediate costs, Ehrman stopped buying in bulk as often as he used to. Now, she avoids buying beef and opts for boxed wine over good bottles. She is also cooking simpler meals and saying goodbye to dinner parties.

Ehrman even gave up making staples like tomato sauce because of the expense, opting for a pre-packaged version.

“I know I can make you a lot healthier,” she said. And “it always tastes so much better.” These fresh ingredients are very expensive right now.

Ehrman’s husband is retired due to chronic health issues, and it has been difficult for her to work because of her own health issues – she recently had pacemaker and cardiac catheterization procedures. The couple, who live in Billings, Montana, were frugal in the face of the current price hike, enjoying simple pleasures. But now, even those are out of reach.

“Before, at least we found joy in being home and entertaining friends and family, cooking and sitting at the table and just being content,” she said. Now, “I’m not having fun. Is very sad”.

From Coke to Pepsi

Rick Wichmann, 64, and his wife have been eating dinner less frequently in recent years, due to the pandemic and in an effort to eat healthier. With menu prices rising because of inflation, they see no reason to change their habits.

“Eating out is expensive,” he said, noting that he is often happier with home-cooked meals than restaurant food.

But grocery shopping is also more expensive. Over the past year, Wichmann noticed that he was spending about 25% more shopping for groceries for himself, his wife, and their son than he used to.

To help mitigate those costs, Wichmann, who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, started going to different grocery stores. He avoids Whole Foods and Stop & Shop, opting for Costco and the local chain Market Basket.

He’s also switched to store brands if he feels the quality is the same, and sometimes chooses products based on price rather than brand loyalty – like, for example, buying Pepsi when it’s cheaper, when he’d choose Coke. Glue.

Wichmann also pays attention to events like the weather and how they can affect prices. When he saw reports of possible tomato shortages due to droughts in California, he realized. The next time he saw tomato sauce for sale, he’d stocked up enough to last for months.

A vegetable garden on the front lawn

Like Wichmann, Jenni Wells, 38, pays attention to weather patterns and food systems. A former chef and rancher, she noticed price increases well before the current surge in inflation.

“My alarms started going off for prices going up in 2019,” she said. “I saw food prices going up and realized that this would quickly strain our budget.”

So, in February, Wells plowed the grass on the front lawn of her home in Fort Worth, Texas, which she shares with her husband and best friend, and planted a vegetable garden. Wells decided at that time that she would like to be more self-sufficient.

“I just wanted to see what I could grow for myself,” he said. This year, she managed to grow broccoli, cauliflower, okra, tomatoes, peppers, squash and more in her garden.

“There are upfront and maintenance costs for the garden, of course. And it’s not easy to grow vegetables. But the family’s weekly grocery spending, excluding meat, has dropped from about $200 to $50.”

With money left over, Wells and his family were able to eat at restaurants, something that would have been “too luxury” if they were still spending $200 a week on groceries. And there’s the satisfaction of growing your own food.

“There’s a huge sense of reward,” she said. “I take pride in every meal I make with him.”

changing for good

Some consumers have made changes due to current circumstances they plan to keep.

Now Altman, a mother of three in Austin, aims to keep her grocery bill at about $100 to $125 a week by buying store-brand, lots of pasta and a limited amount of protein each week.

Instead of ordering or grilling steaks or ribs, the Altman family eats more basic meals with smaller portions. “Now our meals consist of a main course, and that’s it, maybe some bread on the side or a salad.”

If they go out to eat, they grab a fast food meal with some side dishes like a hamburger and two fries, share the items, and have drinks at home.

When Altman can afford it, she will go back to buying more fruits and vegetables. But she hopes some habits, like encouraging her children to avoid mindless eating and reducing food waste, will stick.

“I’m not going to spend $1,200 a month on groceries,” she said. “It taught us that this is not necessary.”

Source: CNN Brasil

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