: Inflation is forcing Americans to change their diets: ‘We make vegetable soup’

Inflation is changing how and what people eat.

More than half of consumers say they have changed their eating and drinking habits to manage the rising cost of living, according to a new survey by global intelligence company Morning Consult.

Cutting back on trips to restaurants and bars is the most common change, accounting for roughly eight in 10 people. Some 72% of people who said they have changed their shopping habits reported they had cut down on their meat purchases, Morning Consult said.

Among those who reported changing their eating habits, nearly half said they were buying more pre-packaged or frozen food to mitigate the higher costs, and over half reported they had stopped buying organic produce. 

Consumers will usually cut their restaurant spending in response to high inflation, but as financial pressures deepen, they change their supermarket habits too, said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst with The NPD Group.

U.S. inflation hit a 40-year high in May, with prices increasing 8.6% compared to a year ago, according to the latest consumer price index. Shoppers who paid 2021 prices would have gotten 43% fewer eggs than the same time a year ago, and 15% fewer oranges, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In tough economic times, consumers start cutting back — switching to store brands or generic products that are cheaper than big-name brands, buying smaller sizes, and buying chicken instead of beef, Seifer said. He said they also utilize coupons and deals more. 

Analysts said that lower-income consumers are the ones most likely to trade down for cheaper products because they spend more of their budgets on food and energy and feel the impacts of rising costs for those items. At the same time, rising prices have also taken a toll on middle-income consumers, as the big-box retailers where they’re likely to shop have increased prices. 

“It’s important to keep in mind that the overall effect on the nutritional quality of inflation depends on how hard families are impacted by inflation, and how they cope,” said Kassandra Martinchek, a researcher with the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Unfortunately, previous research has shown that families will cope with rising prices in ways that increase their food insecurity and decrease their nutritional intake, Martinchek said. Some people will simply reduce their food intake, while others pivot to cheaper options such as beans.

Martinchek shared testimony from her research in Arlington County, Va. conducted in early 2022. Some residents in that county, she found, started feeling the struggle to make ends meet in late 2021. 

“A mother of two reported, ‘Sometimes, there is not much money. Like meat — you know today how much it has gone up in price. That’s why sometimes we don’t buy meat. Instead, we make vegetable soup,’” Martinchek told MarketWatch.

This summer could see more lower-income families struggle with food insecurity, Martinchek said. Numerous government aid programs, such as pandemic-era Universal School Meals program, will soon be ending. 

She also said the annually-adjusted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (also called food stamps) might not be able to keep up with inflation adequately enough to meet the needs of many cash-strapped families. 

Every year, the government adjusts the level of benefits and prices in October based on June inflation data, she said. But the rapid rise of inflation could result in insufficient adjustments, she said.

The persistent increase in food prices is especially felt by low-income families who rely on government programs to supplement their food budget. As a result, Martinchek said, they have “ fewer places to turn to.”

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