PHILADELPHIA – Southwest Philadelphia resident Mona West has a simple strategy for combating rising food prices.
“I buy less,” she said.
West’s friend, Gail Glenn, of Pine Hill, N.J., has a different approach: “Just stomach it. You have to eat.”
The two reacted recently to the prospect of higher food prices next year because of the severe drought searing the Midwest grain belt.
The forecast for this year’s harvest of U.S. field corn – not the sort bought at farm stands to eat off the cob – is down 27 percent from earlier this season because of weather that has scorched more of the nation’s farmland than any other drought in the last 50 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The drought is not affecting produce markets – the corn humans consume – because such crops are either irrigated or in areas of the country that are not suffering from the heat and lack of rain.
Anticipating an imminent shortage of the grain that is integral to the production of meat, milk and eggs – and, increasingly, fuel because of the ethanol mandate for gasoline – traders have sent the price of corn surging as much as 50 percent this summer.
Worries about rising prices for food and fuel at a time when individual income growth is weak could be trouble for the U.S. economy, which has failed to hit its stride. The drought could also be a wild card in the presidential election.
The USDA predicted last month that overall food prices would rise 3 percent to 4 percent next year.
At the high end, that is not much more than the 3.7 percent increase last year, but one expert didn’t expect that unusually benign forecast to stand when the USDA updates the prediction later this month.
“They are probably going to revise that up,” said Robert Pierson, chairman of the food science, nutrition and management department at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa.
“My guess is 6 percent,” he said.
If Pierson is right, the average U.S. household with children could see its food bill increase about $11 a week, based on data provided by Moody’s Analytics in West Chester.
The estimated weekly increase since 2010 is $23, or 13 percent.
The projected increase does not account for shoppers’ tendency to trim where they can.
Glenn, for example, said she makes some items, such as cornbread, that she used to buy. For meats, she aims to get more for your money by buying large quantities and freezing it, Glenn said.
Philadelphia resident Duane Nelson was quick to say he eats out less and switches to lower-cost items.
“Chicken is cheaper than beef,” he said.
Unfortunately for Nelson, chicken is likely to be the first of the meats to increase in price because of higher prices for corn in chicken feed and the quick production cycle for chickens.
“It only takes 49 days to raise a chicken,” said James Dunn, an agricultural economist at Pennsylvania State University.
That is why the USDA has predicted a bigger increase in the price of chicken this year than next.
Chicken breasts that cost $4.59 per pound now could cost $4.77 per pound a year from now.
Beef prices, which are more volatile than food prices overall, will likely go down before they go up because farmers are finding it too expensive to feed some animals.
“Dairy animals are being slaughtered because the cows aren’t really making any money for the farmers.
“That’s pushing beef onto the market right now,” Dunn said.
When the price of corn and other agricultural commodities rise, the greatest impact is on meat, dairy, and eggs because the cost of feed is a major component of their retail prices, Dunn said.
By contrast, only 3 percent of the retail price of bread is from wheat.