Jun. 27—LENOIR — Higher prices for food and gas, supply chain delays, and the limited availability of some food items (like the recent shortage of baby formula) has caused concern among individuals and families across the country.
However, there are ways to combat these rising prices.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), most fresh-market vegetable growers rely on seasonal workers to grow crops and prepare them for the food delivery systems that bring the food to grocery stores. With COVID-19, the supply of available workers was reduced due to illnesses, and those remaining on the job had new safety protocols to follow, such as social-distancing and sanitary procedures. The combined effect reduced the amount of food available to be distributed across grocery stores and food outlets.
Contributing to this problem is the shortage of workers. The USDA notes that food price changes may reflect higher costs for labor and energy, as well as supply-chain challenges.
"Imagine running a business and suddenly things cost twice as much," said Seth Nagy, director of Caldwell County Cooperative Extension. "You're not sure if you're going to get paid, you're putting out twice the money. There's a risk to business, just like households. Everybody gets pinched; it's unfortunate, uncomfortable, and adds stress."
The pinch of increased costs has been felt by everyone, and at some point, businesses can no longer absorb the increases and must incorporate them into their prices.
Carolyn Bird, Family Resource Management Specialist at N.C. State University, offers a few strategies which families can implement to manage food costs.
"Make a grocery list based on the meals you plan to prepare," Bird said.
Check the pantry, freezer, and refrigerator before going to the store to avoid the purchase of unnecessary duplicates and to prevent forgetting items that will result in another trip to the store. This will help save money on gas, time, and avoid those extra purchases.
Bird also advises advanced meal planning in order to maximize cost and reduce food waste.
"Consider how you can plan meals to turn 'leftovers' into 'planned overs,' " said Bird. "For example, if you prepare a ham for dinner, the leftover ham can be incorporated into scalloped potatoes, breakfast omelets, sandwiches, and more. A tomato sauce might be used in spaghetti and for a lasagna that goes into the freezer for a future meal."
Next, Bird recommends utilizing store coupons and loyalty programs when grocery shopping. Many stores have a customer loyalty card that offers lower pricing on featured items.
"Be sure your loyalty cards are in your wallet or attached to your keychain," Bird said.
"Take advantage of buy one and get one offers, reduced price per pound on produce, and so on."
Some loyalty programs also offer instant coupons through an in-store machine or will mail coupons directly to a customer's house based on their purchasing habits. These coupons will sometimes include free food items. Bird said to be sure to redeem the coupons before they expire and avoid using coupons for items that are not typically on the grocery list.
Bird advises using meat as an ingredient.
"Recipes that incorporate meat as an ingredient will increase the number of servings and reduce food costs," she said.
The USDA reports that the highest food increases between February 2021 and February 2022 were for beef and veal.
This approach works for breakfast, too, stretching both eggs and meat. Additionally, beans are a great source of protein. Bird recommends planning one or two meatless meals a week using beans for protein.
Lastly, Bird advises managing food waste as much as possible.
"Studies show that as much as 40% of food is lost through waste," she said. "Reduce waste by using leftovers to create new meals, rescuing food from the back of the refrigerator, and using produce while it is still fresh."
Cooking at home is a great way to save money, especially when purchasing minimally-processed foods. This means chopping carrots instead of buying baby carrots, selecting a head of lettuce rather than a box of mixed greens, and so on. Fast food might seem cheap, but the same $25 spent on fries and a burger can provide several meals at home instead.
"These are just a few of the ways to manage food costs and get the most out of each food dollar," said Bird. "Keeping it fresh for your family is easy when you have a variety of recipes at your fingertips."
One resource available to families is morefood.org, which is supported through More in My Basket, a USDA-funded program offered in collaboration with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). The website has sections for kid-friendly recipes, beverages, and more.
To find recipes for meals, snacks, and desserts, visit www.morefood.org/tips-recipes.
According to Gas Buddy, the cheapest unleaded gas available in Caldwell County right now is going for $4.29 per gallon at the CitGo gas station on Pinewood Road in Granite Falls. The Murphy Express in Granite falls is selling unleaded gas at $4.36 per gallon. In Lenoir, the Murphy USA on Blowing Rock Boulevard has gas for $4.37 per gallon.
The national average price for unleaded gas as of Monday, June 27 is $4.90 per gallon, which is lower than North Carolina's average that is currently $4.53 per gallon for unleaded.
The highest recorded average price for unleaded gas in N.C. was $4.67 on Monday, June 13. On that same day, in the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton region, the highest recorded average price for unleaded was $4.64.
In order to combat rising gas prices, individuals are advised to consider walking or biking more; going electric, either with scooters or cars; using public transportation if possible; filling up more often but buying less gas; taking fewer shopping trips but buying more at a time; taking advantage of free gas promotions wherever available; and canceling or changing road trip plans.