Grocery bills are sky high. Photo credit: Fiqri Aziz Octavian of Unsplash

Empty shelves, prices high as hell. Food costs soar amidst shortages and discriminatory practices

6 mins read

This week, one California navel orange at Philadelphia’s Whole Foods Market on Pennsylvania Avenue rang for $1.50. Who knew an orange would now compete with a bus ride? 

Skyrocketing produce is the beginning of a noticeable sticker shock at grocery stores across the country. People passed the mound of pricey citrus at the gourmet mercado to cautiously grab snacks in the prepared foods section. Ironically, the shelves were half-way stocked at some points. 

The sobering reality shows food prices are continuously soaring without a ceiling in sight. The reason: inflation.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices in the mid-Atlantic region increased 1.5 percent from October to December of last year. In particular, fruits and vegetables went up 3 percent with overall surges not felt like this since the early 1980s.

“U.S. inflation pressures show no sign of easing,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at the financial services company ING to AP News. “It hasn’t been this high since the days of Thatcher and Reagan. We could be close to the peak, but the risk is that inflation stays higher for longer.’’

The Biden Administration pushed back at concerns, reassuring the rise in costs would be temporary. The White House’s official Twitter page posted that “lowering costs for the American people” would be their “top economic priority.” 

To further their claims, the Administration used reports from a “top independent economic analysts project [proposing] that the rate of price increases will moderate in the months.”

Still, government projections have not curved growing grocery bills, even for those who work at markets. The Los Angeles Times reported,“3/4 of Kroger workers are food insecure, meaning they lack access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life, according to the definition set forth by the US Dept of Agriculture.” 

The Kroger chain is prominent in the south, but also owns Ralph’s and Food 4 Less, popular stores in California.

Brooklyn residents checking prices in local market. Photo credit: Robinson Greig

The blame game

Adding to Biden’s pressure in tackling inflation, he must also contend with the Administration’s flailing efforts to quell COVID-19 and its ramifications. “The pandemic has prompted more recent supply issues as well, driving the prices of key commodities to record highs,” a White House housing prices and inflation report explained last September.

Ark Republic reported on the supply chain of mishaps during the pandemic that eventually led to merchant ships piling at ports around the world. Included in the gridlock was the U.S. Globally, inflation and the slow movement of commodities was felt in agriculture. Farmers faced issues such as the exorbitant spike of fertilizer, along with higher energy costs. The upswing placed more financial pressure on farmers around the world. 

Even more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ordered farmers to discard produce and throw fresh, unspoiled milk down the drain at the height of the shutdown.

“Black farmers told us that they had to increase their prices because everything went up for them . . . even something as simple as a jar provided little room for them to negotiate with suppliers,” said Amara Brown, Communication Strategist for Black Farmers Index. She also informed Ark Republic of how shipping costs drove up prices too.

Republicans point to President Biden as the key problem. “The president is pursuing policies that have driven inflation to its highest level since 1981 and made energy sources on which producers rely scarce and expensive,” Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) criticized in an op-ed.

“Land, machinery, labor, fuel, seed, fertilizer and livestock feed prices are all increasing,” opined Sen. Boozman. “You can draw a straight line between many of these price increases and the Biden administration’s reckless spending agenda and indifference to the challenges currently facing our supply chain.” 

Food justice in supply and demand: Breaking up corporate strongholds

One way the president plans to acknowledge soaring figures is by addressing the monopoly by large meatpacking corporations. In a $1 billion proposal, the Administration is working to create more transparency in the meat industry, as well as, support smaller independent poultry and meat farmers.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chair of the Senate’s Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry announced that the Harris-Biden Administration is prepared to take “important steps forward in creating a stronger and fairer meat and poultry supply chain that respects workers, stabilizes food prices for consumers, and fairly compensates farmers and ranchers for putting food on our tables.”

While addressing big meat agribusiness, large companies have already started to purge smaller farms to maintain control of the beverage markets. Right before Christmas, Logantenn, Pennsylvania’s Meyer Dairy Farm was informed via a letter from New-Jersey based Readington Farms that their vending contract would be dropped after a three-decade relationship. 

“This all has been disheartening, frustrating and totally devastating to have this happen and dealt with so poorly, especially after shipping to them for more than 30 years,” Coreena shared with AGWeb News in their coverage of the story.

With COVID variants emerging every several months, compounded by significant labor shortages across all sectors, leveling the playing field for ranchers deals with a small fraction of several grave issues in agriculture.

When leveling the playing field backfires

Currently, 13 lawsuits against relief aid for farmers of color halted a provision in Biden’s COVID-19 relief package in March 2021. The assistance aimed to help Black and indigenous farmers among others who suffered compounded pandemic-era losses by paying off USDA loans and outstanding taxes. 

“Debt relief is something that minority farmers desperately need as they try to recover from the damage that COVID-19 has disproportionately inflicted on their businesses and families,” said Keisha Stokes-Hough, senior supervising attorney for the Economic Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in a press release

In response to the aid centering on non-white growers, collectives of white farmers throughout the U.S. sued the federal government with claims that aid earmarked for certain racial and ethnic groups was racist. Complaints resulted in a Florida judge suspending payouts.

Furthering tension, Black farmers are losing their land at alarming rates during the pandemic. A CNN analysis showed Black and Asian farmers, when compared to white growers, have been rejected for loans at a much higher rate. This suggests a backlash of the initial relief aid bill, accumulating onto the country’s multiple generations worth of discriminatory practices

So alarming is the gap in protections between white farmers and those of color, the Black demographic represents less than 2 percent of agriculture. 

Although the GOP blames the president, recent reports show Trump’s relief aid to farmers contributed to the grave state of agriculture. Out of the USDA’s distribution of $9.2 billion in funds in 2020, less than 3 percent went to farmers of color, although they are classified as being under-served agribusinesses by the very institution.

Yet and still, Bob Marley said, “when it rains it doesn’t rain on one man’s house.” In 2018, Trump’s U.S.-China trade war ended up severely hurting white farmers. The after effects linger today. “It will be difficult for us to get back to the levels of agricultural exports to China that we saw before the trade war began,” Mike Stranz, vice president of advocacy for the National Farmers Union, told Yahoo Finance.

During the fiasco, the forty-fifth POTUS placed tariffs on over 1,000 Chinese imports such as a 25 percent tax on soybeans. In turn, China did the same. Resultantly, farmers could not afford the high costs, thus ceasing operations. 

Following the wars came the pandemic, causing farm bankruptcies to fly off of the charts along with a rise in farmer suicides. To thwart some of the hemorrhaging among growers, “the Trump administration authorized bailouts and signed a new ‘Phase One’ deal with China to try and rectify the situation,” reported R Street. But too little, too late.

“The Trump administration’s trade wars constitute a catastrophic economic failure and their fallout has particularly affected American farmers and ranchers. The subsequent bailouts were costly for American taxpayers and the longer-term ability of farmers and ranchers to reach otherwise closed foreign markets,” stated resident fellow at R Street Clark Packard, who examines bailout packages.

. . . . 

Nonetheless, Democrats are not yet in the clear on delivering legislation adequately addressing the systemic problems with food. According to a Politico article, several Dems have expressed grave concern that its House majority will not be able to cleanly secure a feasible farm bill. With Rep. David Scott (D-GA) at the helm of the agriculture committee, several lawmakers have questioned his health and mental capacity to facilitate discussions of votes for the coming proposal. 

According to witnesses in committee meetings, Rep. Scott is showing an increased fumbling of words and forgetting the particulars of bills while in committee meetings. Rejecting the allegations, Rep. Scott says he is fit as a fiddle whilst the accusations were made by “a bunch of wannabe chairmen.” With key legislation for voting next in line, those who are up for the marathon will eventually become obvious. For now, Americans are penny-pinching at grocery stores.

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