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Grocery prices are down from their COVID-19 summer peaks. But here's why your food bills are still stubbornly high.

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Eva Rosol was stunned during the summer when a rotisserie chicken that she could normally find on sale for $6 suddenly set her back $15.

Rosol, a resident of the Chicago suburb Westmont, Ill., who lost her job as a substitute teacher when COVID-19 shut schools in March, could afford it thanks to the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits the federal government offered during the first four months of the pandemic. But those extra benefits expired in late July.

Now Rosol, 54, who has a business degree and is seeking a job in sales, receives $108 weekly in unemployment aid. Meanwhile, her husband, who sells advertising for an auto and RV magazine, is making a quarter of what he normally earns.

Rosol has nixed the one night a week they used to eat out, shops the circulars and frequents five different grocery stores to find the lowest prices, trying not to rely on charity to put food on the table.

"I have gone to food pantries, but I feel guilty doing that because there are other people who have much more need," she said.

Though food prices that spiked during the summer have started to come down, staples like milk and meat remain much pricier than usual, pinching the budgets of millions of Americans who can ill afford higher grocery bills.

 

The price Chicago-area shoppers paid for dairy products like milk, butter and eggs was 8.3% higher in September than a year before, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meat prices were 5.3% higher. Normal annual food inflation is 2% to 3%.

Prices have fallen from summer peaks — meat prices in the Chicago metro area were 15.3% higher in June compared with last year — but with fewer promotions, grocery bills are still higher.

Usually, 31.4% of grocery store items are purchased on some sort of sale, but at the end of September the share was 26%, according to market research firm Nielsen. The biggest impact was in the household care department, where just 15% of items were sold on promotion, half the usual amount. Heightened consumer demand and strained supply are giving stores little reason to mark down prices, Nielsen said.

Elevated food prices may be going unnoticed by families who are saving money during the pandemic because of canceled vacations and skipped commutes.

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