From the vantage point of a quaint grocery store in Scales Mound, Ill., employees have had an up-close look at how a national rise in grocery prices is trickling down to the local level.

Pat Ohms, an employee at Country House Grocery, said workers and customers alike have taken notice of the rising costs.

“Last year, you could see prices starting to rise a bit,” said Ohms, who owned the Scales Mound store for more than four decades before selling it this year. “Since the beginning of 2021, prices have skyrocketed. It has really gone up a lot.”

Ohms said some products, namely beef and bacon, have seen a steeper increase than others. Shoppers have started adjusting their behavior accordingly.

“There are many people who are price conscious,” he said. “They’ll choose to buy the cheaper item or the thing that’s on sale. I think they are shopping differently.”

The small Scales Mound business is hardly the only one feeling the effects.

Rising food prices have impacted consumers throughout the U.S. and forced grocers large and small to adapt.

The phenomenon recently captured the attention of the White House, which filed a report on the ongoing rise in food prices. The administration of President Joe Biden identified beef, which is up 14% since the start of the year; pork, which is up 12%; and poultry, up 6.6%, as some of the commodities seeing the biggest shift.

But the issues extend beyond meat. The price of eggs has increased for seven consecutive months, and the cost of fruit has grown by more than 5% in the past year.

Large retailers have conceded that their customers ultimately will feel the impact: In an earnings presentation this month, Kroger CFO and Senior Vice President Gary Millerchip said the company will be “passing along higher cost to the customer where it makes sense to do so.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics on Tuesday reported that food prices increased an additional 0.4% in August compared to July. Federal officials project that these trends aren’t likely to reverse any time soon, predicting a continued rise through the year’s final quarter.

Making adjustments

The upward pressure on grocery prices has put local grocers in a difficult spot.

Jake Bender serves as vice president of Bender’s Foods, a grocery store with locations in Bellevue and Guttenberg, Iowa, as well as Muscoda and Fennimore, Wis.

Similar to industry giants such as Kroger, Bender’s has been forced to adjust to the changing landscape of the food industry. And despite its best efforts, this has meant raising prices on some food items.

“We take price increases pretty seriously,” Bender said. “We won’t raise a price unless it is absolutely necessary, … but I can’t keep the lights on if I buy something and then sell it for less than we paid for it.”

Bender said the ongoing rise in food prices has been shaped by a variety of factors, including higher trucking and freight costs and a workforce shortage that has led to wage inflation. Farmers also are dealing with higher input costs, a burden that trickles down to consumers.

Bender said most customers have been taking the increases in stride, noting that the area’s agricultural roots give residents a unique perspective on the rise and fall of commodities.

“In farm country, people understand it a little better,” he said.

Consumers’ patience will be put to the test in the future, however. Echoing reports from federal leaders, Bender said he is resigned to the fact that prices won’t be descending any time soon.

“From all the players (in the industry) that I have talked to, it looks like prices will continue to trend the way they are through the holidays and to the end of this year,” he said. “Some will come back down, but I doubt they will come all the way back to where they were five years ago.”

Prolonged stretch

As prices for fresh produce and meats rise, some experts fear that consumers will shift to buying cheaper, processed foods that offer fewer nutritional benefits.

Michaela Freiburger, chairwoman of the Dubuque County Food Policy Council, said some programs are in place to incentivize the purchase of nutritious food.

The Double Up Food Bucks program, for instance, provides matching funds when recipients of federal food assistance use those dollars to purchase fruits and vegetables.

In a broader sense, Freiburger believes it is important to educate area residents about where their food comes from and how one’s diet can impact health.

“We want people to realize it’s not just about buying the cheaper items on the shelf,” she said. “There are long-term benefits of buying foods that are higher in nutrition and support a more equitable food system for all.”

Trends in the grocery industry also touch area farmers, though not in the way some might suspect.

Craig Recker, president of the Dubuque County Farm Bureau, said crop and livestock producers aren’t striking it rich, even though prices at the store are higher.

“We’re not necessarily making more money,” he emphasized. “We may be getting paid a little more for beef, but the cost of production has gone up significantly.”

This is among multiple problems plaguing farmers, Recker said.

He noted that a lack of meatpacking capacity nationwide has created imbalances in the market: Despite high demand for meat, farmers struggle to move their product through the chain and into grocery stores fast enough.

If prices remain high for much longer, it could have longer-lasting impacts.

“If a consumer gets in the habit of doing something, it can be hard for them to switch back,” he said. “If we see customers getting used to buying less meat or buying cheaper cuts, it could have a long-term effect on how we market beef, chicken, pork and any of that.”

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