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Why the Coronavirus Outbreak Has Sent Food Prices Soaring

There are ways you can lower your grocery bill now

Bacon on display at the grocery store
BLOOMBERG / GETTY IMAGES

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), inflation is low. Prices, however, have been climbing in at least one sector: food.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI), which measures the cost that Americans pay for a broad array of goods and services, has risen just 0.6 percent over the past 12 months, primarily because energy prices have tumbled 12.6 percent. The food component of that index, though, has jumped 4.5 percent during the same period, and prices for food consumed at home have increased 5.6 percent.

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Among the items that have seen the biggest price hikes in grocery stores are:

  • Beef and veal, up 25.1 percent
  • Eggs, up 12.1 percent
  • Pork, up 11.8 percent
  • Poultry, up 8.7 percent

The rising prices of meat and eggs have been offset, somewhat, by relatively tame inflation for fruits and vegetables, the cost of which has ticked up 2.3 percent, according to the BLS. Even so, some vegetable prices have jumped, too. Potatoes have soared 13.3 percent in the past 12 months, and tomatoes have risen 8.4 percent.

High steaks

There are three main causes of the rise in food prices, and all are tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first is demand. People are stocking up on food because they want to limit their trips to the store. Demand has been so high that companies that handle food processing and distribution are among the few that are hiring right now, says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics.

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AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.