AILSA CHANG, HOST:
So once a week, Jill Mallen goes to a food pantry in St. Petersburg, Fla., to pick up groceries.
JILL MALLEN: I'm just thankful that there are places like this that I can go get food because I can't afford to go to Aldi and places like I used to go.
CHANG: Mallen is 62, and she has a fixed income. She's on disability, battling brain cancer and a rare bone disease. A friend brought her to the pantry for the first time last year. And at first, it was just kind of this occasional thing. But then, everything started getting more and more expensive. And now she goes to two or three pantries around town regularly.
MALLEN: And I started going just for extras, and I would still go to Aldi and things like that. But now it's my main source of food because I don't have money left over - with the increase in everything, I don't have money left over to go to the grocery store, and I still have to eat.
CHANG: Now, Mallen owns her home. And she has a car, which helps her get to all the medical appointments.
MALLEN: Thank God God laid a hybrid on my heart when my other car died, my eight-cylinder car died.
CHANG: But when it comes to food, that is one budget item that's getting harder and harder to afford.
MALLEN: Everything, everything has gone up. And if I want to eat, I've got more time than I have money, so I'm grateful that there's places like this that I can go to.
CHANG: Mallen is not alone in feeling the squeeze of rising prices. The metro area where she lives has one of the highest rates of inflation in the country. Food prices especially have spiked. Nationally, the cost of food has risen nearly 11% in the past year. That's the biggest annual rise since 1979. CONSIDER THIS - gas prices are falling. Inflation is dropping ever so slightly. But the cost of food is soaring. We'll look at the effect that's having on businesses and consumers, including those who are most vulnerable to food insecurity.
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CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Tuesday, August 23.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Earlier this month, in a town near that food pantry in Florida we just heard about, Tiffany Holmes was loading groceries into her car in a Walmart parking lot.
TIFFANY HOLMES: I was shopping with my daughter. She's only 22. And it's funny to hear someone that young to say, I remember when this was - and that's what we just went through in here. Like, she's picking things up, like - and it's 40 and 50 cents higher than it was even a year ago.
CHANG: Holmes is 54. Her husband works in construction, and business is good. But rising food prices are still changing the way they shop and eat.
HOLMES: You have to be a little more strategic in your planning of meals. And to me, it seems like everything went up. Cases of water are up. Meat is up considerably.
CHANG: Holmes is right. Ground beef, for example, is 10% more expensive than it was a year ago. The price of milk - up 15%. Those increases also hit small business owners like Jennifer Jacobs, who owns a bakery in nearby Clearwater.
JENNIFER JACOBS: Ingredient costs for me have risen significantly. For example, I buy a box of 15 dozen eggs. I buy a couple of those boxes each week. Each box used to be $15 a box in 2020. It's gone up so much that it was $62 last week. So it's risen almost - what? - four times the price that it once was.
CHANG: And that spike in prices has a ripple effect.
JACOBS: And so for me, it's affecting my pricing in the bakery. So I have to pass that cost onto my customers by raising the prices.
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CHANG: This is a cycle that we are seeing everywhere. So let's zoom out of Florida and see how rising food prices are hitting businesses and consumers all across the country.
TOM CHARLEY: We're taking a hit on items. Like, I'm looking at something like bananas. We just had another price increase on bananas.
CHANG: Tom Charley's family has been selling groceries in the Pittsburgh area for four generations. They have three stores around the city, and they're trying to figure out how to meet rising prices while still keeping their customers.
CHARLEY: There are certain items that we're just not going to increase prices on no matter what happens because it's such a staple for those customers. But it's a challenge for sure. There's no doubt about it.
CHANG: It's a challenge that Victor Garcia is facing, too. He owns two Mexican-style ice cream shops near Fort Worth, Texas.
VICTOR GARCIA: Whether it's with inflation or with anything else that comes our way, the customer speaks. They tell you what they want.
CHANG: And lately, what they want is less costly ice cream. Garcia has noticed people ordering fewer items these days.
GARCIA: That was the first real indicator that, hey; maybe a recession is coming and maybe we do have to be a little bit more flexible with our budget-conscious consumers.
CHANG: So how does a small business stay flexible when prices rise and the economy remains shaky? Well, let's go now to Kewanee, Miss., where Stephan Bisaha, from our Gulf States Newsroom, went to visit the Simmons-Wright Company, a country store that's weathered its fair share of economic turbulence.
STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Gary Pickett owns the Simmons-Wright Company, a family business just off the interstate passed down to him by his aunt.
GARY PICKETT: Normally, we'll have people coming in here buying 100, $150 worth of stuff. Now they'll come in here, and they'll maybe buy $20 worth of stuff.
BISAHA: The store has been around for 138 years. It's one that survived that long by knowing how to adapt, like in 2008. The Great Recession hit the store's bottom line, so Pickett shifted to cooking. He started offering fried catfish and pork skins, and that's helping him stay open as dollar stores take over as the place to buy things for cheap.
PICKETT: Dollar Generals are everywhere, but I don't try to compete with them. We just try to keep on doing our thing with the cooking part. And it's really helped us out a lot.
BISAHA: Even before dollar stores, there was Walmart, and many country stores had to shut down. Those that did survive have been the ones able to adapt with the times. Pickett expanded his restaurant business by delivering burgers to a truck line across the border in Alabama. But even the food side of Pickett's business is feeling the sting of this high inflation that we haven't seen in 40 years.
PICKETT: Well, the beef and the meat has almost doubled in price. And we've gone up just a little bit, but we hadn't gone up the percentage we need to go up. I know we're going to have to go up. We just don't want to run everybody off, regular customers.
BISAHA: Other country store owners say the same thing. They're raising prices as little as they can because they're based in poor communities that just can't afford it. Before, Pickett wouldn't mind throwing some extra fries into the meals. But now, to keep prices down, Pickett's team measures everything. Even the hamburger patties get weighed before cooking. Yet concern about a possible recession means long-term survival could require more drastic changes. One idea he's considering is leaning into the store's nostalgia and making the place an event venue.
PICKETT: Like, a wedding on a weekend, if you let them rent the cotton gin for a photo shoot and have a wedding up there, it'll be 10,000 bucks, you know, or more.
BISAHA: Country-like nostalgia is already a big part of the business. The old nutcrackers and antique soda bottles might not sell, but they draw in customers like 75-year-old Louis Hankins. He made the short drive here from Alabama, and he can't stop playing show and tell with the rusted farm equipment he pulls from the shelves.
LOUIS HANKINS: This old - that's an old sausage mill right there. You take - you put your sausage in there, you pull it and then put your seasoning in there, and you made your own sausage. I mean, you know, it's just fascinating.
BISAHA: Despite Hankins gushing over the old tools, he didn't buy any of them. And the canned goods and lotions in the other aisles, well, he'll pick those up at the dollar store instead.
HANKINS: Because it's cheap. And your money and the way money is now - it is so tight.
CHANG: That report was from Stephen Bisaha of our Gulf States Newsroom. Now, rising food prices are only partially driving the larger spike in the cost of living in America, a reality that Brooke Neubauer sees every single day. She runs The Just One Project, which works to end hunger in southern Nevada. And for more than a year, she's been helping us understand what the shifting economy looks like for people who come to her organization for food. Back in March, food prices had already risen sharply, and she told us about the toll that was taking on her organization.
BROOKE NEUBAUER: Now, our groceries that we're trying to purchase are more expensive due to that. And then also to just us being able to access those items are really hard.
CHANG: And since then, prices have gone up even more, so we invited Neubauer back. Our co-host, Ari Shapiro, caught up with her to see how rising food prices are affecting her clients now.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Tell us, what's the new challenge and what's the solution that you've found? What's different?
NEUBAUER: One of the latest challenges is housing costs for folks. So now we're just seeing so many more decisions on where to put money towards. Is it gas? Is it groceries? Is it now increased rent? So we're really seeing a lot of new clients come into the community market that have never had to access help before.
SHAPIRO: It's interesting. You know, we've been talking to you over the months more than a year about the price of food. But what I'm hearing is that everything is related in the economy. If the price of gas goes up, if the price of rent goes up, then people can't afford to buy as much food. The cost of food doesn't exist in isolation.
NEUBAUER: Or how about if somebody can't afford gas, how can they possibly go to a food pantry to get food?
SHAPIRO: And do you hear from those people?
NEUBAUER: We do. And we are very, very fortunate that we have a fleet of seven vehicles and seven drivers that are able to do deliveries. So not only do we have fresh meal delivery, but we also have grocery delivery for clients that are seniors. But also because of COVID, we expanded that into non-senior serving for our home delivery.
SHAPIRO: Given the supply chain problems and the cost of food going up, if I were to have visited just one year ago, would I have seen different specific food items than what you're offering today?
NEUBAUER: A year ago, the shortages were so different. You know, a year ago, it was strictly freight, the costs. So we were having to decide, OK, do we want to pay twice as much money for potatoes and grapes and oranges? And now it just seems like the issue is do they have enough grapes in stock for us to purchase?
SHAPIRO: Oh, so before it was like, can we afford the cost of getting the grapes? Now it's like, can we even find grapes at all?
NEUBAUER: Yes, exactly. So that has been a little challenging. But what we do is we're working with our staff to find out what's available. And then we build recipes around that so that clients, you know, can make a healthy meal out of the items that we do have in stock.
SHAPIRO: Give us an example.
NEUBAUER: So vegetable primavera - we had sourced tomatoes and zucchini and garlic. And so we would decide, OK, do we want to pay $2,000 extra to get tomatoes or do we want to do tomato sauce because it might be cheaper for us?
SHAPIRO: Is there a client you've spoken to recently who you really remember?
NEUBAUER: I met a woman. She was in her 60s, and she's a new client of ours. And she said that she had come from corporate America, and she never expected herself to be in lines accessing food pantry. And I just thought, wow, this is, you know, a woman who thought she planned well who never thought that she couldn't afford her monthly groceries or she had to choose between medication and groceries.
SHAPIRO: When someone says to you, I've never been to a place like this before, I never thought I would need to, what do you say to them?
NEUBAUER: I told her, thank you so much for trusting us to serve her. And look; she might be a client for more than three or four times. And I really just felt grateful that she found us and that we can help her in her time of need.
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CHANG: That was Brooke Neubauer. She runs The Just One Project, which works to end hunger in southern Nevada.
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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.
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