'Fruit is a luxury now': US and UK shoppers tell of 'scary' rise in cost of living

Some people are forced to take up second jobs in an effort to make ends meet

Empty fruit and vegetable shelves at an Asda supermarket in east London in February. PA
Powered by automated translation

Across the world, the rising cost of living has made it difficult for many to afford basic goods and services. Crop failures and soaring energy prices are contributing to global rising inflation rates as millions struggle to make ends meet.

Since January, 'The National' has been tracking the prices of food staples in supermarkets across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in India, the UK and US to see how consumers have been affected.

Shoppers in the US and UK are increasingly feeling the pinch as inflation in each country keeps the price of many supermarket staples stubbornly high.

In the UK, prices unexpectedly increased in February after falling for three consecutive months. Inflation rose to 10.4 per cent in February from 10.1 per cent the previous month, driven by rises in the cost of food, clothing and energy.

In the US, inflation fell from a high of more than 9 per cent last spring to 6 per cent in February.

Both countries have resorted to raising interest rates in a bid to bring prices down.

In the US, consumers spoke about being forced to make sacrifices to cover the cost of the weekly shopping.

Thiery Koungwe, a college student in Washington DC, said he noticed an increase in petrol and food prices after Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.

Demand on oil and gas increased sharply after the Covid-19 pandemic but supply has been limited due to sanctions on Russia — a lead exporter of oil and gas — driving prices up.

“Everything is expensive … we don’t have enough money to get food,” said Mr Koungwe. “Milk was $2 a litre and now it’s $4.”

He said he received some meals from the university — which hands out food for students in need — and relied on vouchers to help supplement his supermarket bill.

Virginia resident Maria, who did not to give her second name, said she preferred to bulk buy, going to only smaller markets for urgent necessities and steering clear of bottled water.

“It’s pretty expensive right now,” she said as she shopped in her local Giant store in Arlington.

Otherwise she relies on big-box stores such as Costco, where the prices are more competitive.

Michon Curtis, a mother of four, said she was forced to take on a second job and move in with her mother because of increased food prices.

“I'm doing a side hustle, DoorDash [an online food ordering and delivery platform],” she said. “I have four children … [all aged] five and under. So that's very hard, especially the way they increased the [price of] baby formula. It has increased a lot and that's taken away a lot from our lives.”

Prices of baby formula collected by The National in Washington DC showed an increase of almost $10 from January to $37.99.

Don Fairpairm, who is retired, said he noticed an increase in the price of milk and dog treats, and wondered if perhaps vendors were taking advantage of consumers by raising the prices of certain items.

“Obviously there are inflation pressures, so how much of the price rises are due to real supply issues, versus taking advantage of the opportunity maybe to raise prices when they couldn't be raised before?” he said.

“I know it's concerning for people who don't have enough money to buy groceries, but hopefully it will stabilise, hopefully the Fed[eral Reserve, the US central bank] will work out.”

In Britain, where the rising cost of food contributed to the increase in inflation in February, David White, who runs a fruit and vegetable stall in London, spoke about the “scary” consequences of the cost-of-living crisis afflicting the UK economy.

“Drive around and the roads are empty, there's not a lot of footfall, it's like something's happened and nobody's told us,” the 65-year-old said. “People haven't got as much money as they used to have and things like fruit, it used to be a necessity and it's not any more. It's got to be a luxury.”

He said many of his colleagues in the fruit and vegetable industry had given up their businesses as a result.

“It's scary to be honest,” said Mr White, who blamed Brexit, energy and transport costs for the huge rises in wholesale prices.

Lucia Antonio, a 30-year-old mother of two from Angola living in London, said prices for everything now were high.

“I remember, three years ago when I first came, with £50 [$61.70] I could buy many things but now it's very difficult.”

She would consider using food banks in the future “if I really needed … but right now I manage”.

Food shortages have further complicated the situation in Britain, with many UK supermarkets showing empty shelves.

Last month, Tesco, Aldi and Lidl temporarily limited purchases of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers to three items per person. Morrisons set a limit of two per customer on tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers.

The shortages were due to production problems in Morocco, which began in January with unusually cold night temperatures affecting tomato ripening. Growers and suppliers then had to contend with heavy rain, flooding and cancelled ferries, all of which affected the volume of produce reaching Britain.

Supplies from Britain's other major winter source, Spain, were also badly affected by weather, which was compounded by ferry cancellations due to the weather affecting lorry deliveries.

High electricity costs also limited supply as it had become too expensive to grow out-of-season produce in Britain’s energy-intensive greenhouses.

The restrictions on sales at supermarkets have since been lifted — but the price of staples has kept rising. Tomato prices rose 6.4 per cent in February compared with the previous month, the second-biggest riser in Bloomberg’s Breakfast Index, which tracks the price of a basket of English breakfast items.

A supply crisis caused grocers such as Tesco and Sainsbury's to restrict sales of certain produce to three per person last month, while pictures on social media showed empty shelves across the country.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said last month that salad shortages contributed to a shock increase in the overall rate of inflation, which climbed to 10.4 per cent. Economists had expected the rate to drop below 10 per cent.

Overall, the average cost of products to make a traditional fry-up rose by more than 22 per cent from a year earlier in February. It was the second straight month that the Breakfast Index had increased by more than 20 per cent.

The index crunches ONS data on the price of sausages, bacon, eggs, bread, butter, tomatoes, mushrooms, milk, tea and coffee. Using product sizes provided by the ONS, the cost of English breakfast ingredients jumped by almost £6 from a year earlier to £35.10.

Milk continued to show the most dramatic rise, with a 43 per cent increase from the year before. Bread gained 33 per cent annually and eggs rose 33 per cent, while prices of all the ingredients increased.

The ONS said that, overall, prices in UK supermarkets in February rose at their highest rate since 2005.

Shoppers are turning to discounters Aldi and Lidl amid the country’s worst inflation in a generation, while other grocers such as Morrisons are expanding lists of temporarily discounted items in a bid to lure customers.

Market research firm Kantar reported UK supermarket prices increased at an annual rate of 17.5 per cent in March, the highest recorded since its survey launched in 2008. The cost of cheese, eggs and milk rose fastest.

An index compiled by The National shows price increases to a small selection of goods in one mid-market British supermarket.

The price of local beef rose from £3.58 ($4.35) in January, to £3.98 in February and £4.38 last month.

The cost of many other items, such as bread and milk, remained static, probably due to price guarantees. But last month, an 800g tin of baby formula jumped to £14.50 from £13.50 the previous month.

“Households continued to be squeezed by inflation driven by food prices and household bills,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium.

She said a weaker pound had “made importing products such as vegetables from Europe more expensive”.

Updated: April 04, 2023, 7:17 AM