Battle of the Bulging Bill

By Matis Glenn

A shortage of baby formula. Gas prices that make walking to Manhattan seem appealing. Eggs that feel like a yoke instead of a yolk. Helium prices that have gone up quicker than stray balloons. A grocery bill that makes us want to check it over three times, because it’s more than it was last week … even though last week we did the same thing.

For inflation, we can point fingers at any number of people and institutions, but it’s probably not going away anytime soon. How are everyday Yidden dealing with the battle of the bulging bill? What’s going on behind the scenes at heimishe grocery stores? Have these things happened before?

Hamodia spoke with people at the front lines — family shoppers, food distribution organizations, and grocery staff — for a closer look at what it’s like to watch the price tag rise faster than the challah that costs nearly double what it used to.

Inflation, economists say, is the gradual increase of cost of goods and services in an economy. Inflation sometimes shows a strong economy; when people have more money, they spend more, and businesses can raise prices to make more profit. As businesses grow, the economy grows along with it.

Sometimes, though, when there’s a dramatic disturbance in the balance between supply and demand, prices can soar and potentially cripple an economy — and an individual’s finances.

Typically, economists describe two main causes of inflation: demand-pull and cost-push. Both are related to the basic idea of supply and demand dynamics. Demand-pull inflation occurs when more of a product is needed, but the supply doesn’t increase to meet the demand. Cost-push inflation happens when supply goes down, but demand remains the same; this usually happens during a war, after a natural disaster, or following other events that can affect supply production.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the Consumer Price Index (CPI) monthly, based on the changes in prices that people pay for major goods and services; some consider the CPI the main tool for measuring inflation in the United States.

This month, the Labor Department reported that the CPI in May grew by its highest level — 8.6% — since 1981.

Gas prices hit $5.00 on average nationwide earlier this month, for the first time ever.

There’s general agreement in the economic community that the two main triggers for the current inflation are an upset in the supply and demand relationship as countries pull out of “pandemic mode,” lifting restrictions, which encourages demand, with supply not catching up fast enough; as well as Russia’s war on Ukraine. Russia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of oil, and the international community has imposed sanctions on the country that limit its ability to export the essential product. Ukraine, sometimes called “the world’s bread basket,” is a major exporter of wheat throughout the world; but it is unable to grow or ship its products due to its being under bombardment from its neighbor.

“We literally saw the price change in front of our eyes,” Moshe C. told Hamodia. He and his wife were getting gas at their usual station, when they saw employees changing the signs on the pumps. “The prices hadn’t registered yet, so we quickly filled up before the price changed.”

Moshe has found ways of dealing with the food situation, too. As a father of seven, bli a”h, food shopping and preparation take up a lot of time in both his wife’s and his day. “Food giveaways are very popular. Large amounts of food are distributed outside assisted living facilities, where many residents don’t need the amount given to them. My wife’s grandparents live in such a place, and we see many frum families loading up their cars with the extra food that would otherwise go to waste,” he said. “We’re doing much more of our shopping in stores that cater to bulk buying” he added.

Moshe’s not the only one changing over to bulk buying.

“We’re switching from buying staple items like cereal at our local grocery store, to large outlets like Walmart, which offers deals on large quantity orders,” Nochum, a father of five, told Hamodia.

Some people are used to living simple lifestyles; they say that they aren’t bearing the brunt of the damage. Rabbi Y., an elementary school Rebbi who lives in Brooklyn and commutes to Queens every day, says, “I thank Hashem that I can continue to do what I need to do — travel every day to teach my beloved talmidim. My family doesn’t take vacations, and we don’t buy many extras in general; we keep it simple and, baruch Hashem, we haven’t had a lot of problems keeping up that lifestyle,” he says. “I don’t think about the gas very much. What would I gain by blaming Putin or Biden? I keep davening to Hashem that He’ll fix the situation, but there’s no point in complaining to and screaming at the government. At this point, we’re seeing a great lack of concern from them. In these moments we see clearly that we can only rely on Hashem.”

Others are managing to get by, but not by very much.

Avigdor, a full-time kollel yungerman in Brooklyn,told Hamodia: “How do I deal with it? Hashem helps. We’ve sometimes had just enough, but we’ve never been without enough food. During the week, for Shabbos and over the Yamim Tovim, we’ve even had guests over, and there’s always somehow enough. Right when the inflation kicked up, our family qualified for food stamps; Hashem kept taking care of us. We don’t buy extras or luxury items; if we did, we’d be in big trouble.

Moshe was enrolled in government programs designed to help people with financial problems.

“Our family was off of SNAP benefits for a while, due to an income change; we reapplied and were told that there’s a big backlog because of a sharp rise in applicants.”

Yehudah G., a general studies teacher in Brooklyn, has been curtailing his spending. “There have been things that I’ve cut back on that aren’t essential, like ice cream. I drive less, and I try to use less electricity in ways that I didn’t used to think about, such as turning off lights when I won’t be in the room.

Aware that many are in a far worse situation than he is, Yehudah increased his level of tzedakah giving.

“I also give more to tzedakah now, because I can only imagine the toll that inflation is taking on those less fortunate than me.”

Organizations that help the needy of the Orthodox community have been hit especially hard by inflation. “For us it’s even harder … during COVID we received a large supply of food donations; all of the leftover airline food, food that was made for hotels that were closed … during COVID there was a lot of food that we could make use of,” explained Alexander Rapaport, Executive Director of the Masbia Soup Kitchen Network.

“Government subsidies that were once available to buy food are no longer an option. Previously the issue was with people making parnassah and being able to buy food, but there was a very large amount of excess food to go around. Every wholesaler used to donate food to us if there was a packaging defect or other slight imperfection that did not affect in any way the quality or safety of the food; now they sell it to discount stores, because there’s just less food out there.

“The war in Ukraine — the ‘breadbasket of the world’ — is affecting the cost of wheat; but we, b”H, managed to find good quality sifted flour with a hashgachah before Shavuos at prices that we would routinely pay before the war. We stocked up and were able to distribute it to many families. People needed challah for six seudos, and they were very grateful!”

Despite the organization’s greatest efforts, the situation is dire.

“Our inventory is scorched-earth low; it’s very daunting. We’re planning ahead for the summer and Yamim Tovim. We raise tzedakah and stretch every dollar, while making sure that our customers get quality foods, but it’s getting harder and harder.”

Many working families who normally struggle to make ends meet are being spread even thinner, as wages aren’t rising to meet the higher cost of expenses.

“Though I work full time, and we qualify for both SNAP and WIC, in recent months we have run up a bill in the grocery of thousands of dollars,” Yisroel told Hamodia. “Those two programs combined cover about half of our food costs. With, b’li ayin hara, 11 children, it’s a lot of mouths to feed. We used to barely scrape by, but now with the food costs having gone up so much, we aren’t really managing.”

Yisroel never lived a lavish lifestyle, but he and his family are having to make more sacrifices than ever.

“We lived a fairly simple lifestyle before inflation hit, so there isn’t much room to maneuver. We try to cut down further on any unnecessary expenses, and postponed indefinitely a planned family vacation — one that we can desperately use. But when it comes to food, there isn’t really from where to cut. … In today’s society, you can’t serve children, especially teenagers, bread and butter sandwiches for supper. Besides not being nutritious, it can affect their emotional well-being. Children need to be fed real food that they like, and no matter how you slice it, it will be expensive.”

For such families, the option of working more hours or getting a second source of income — despite the widely publicized labor shortage and ease of finding jobs — isn’t so simple.

“I looked into the possibility of taking on additional work, but so far nothing has come up. There are lots of job opportunities out there, but not at hours that wouldn’t conflict with my current job. I even considered looking for a better-paying job, but decided that it would be too risky to give up what I have now for something that might not work out.”

Mr. Moshe Mark, manager of Moshe’s Discount Supermarket in Midwood, spoke with Hamodia about how his store is navigating these turbulent times.

For him and his team, the needs of the customer are very important. Rather than automatically passing on the cost of inventory directly to the consumer, Mr. Mark says that his store tries their best to mitigate costs, sometimes even at a loss.

“When the price of a given food item rises, we would normally raise our prices accordingly, but there are times that we lessen the mark-up even though it results in less than usual profit for us, because we ask ourselves, ‘How much can we possibly charge people already?’ Wherever we can hold back on raising prices, we try our best.

“There are different containers to pack candy, so when the candy prices go up, we’ll keep them low by using cheaper packing materials.”

He says that he wants to help customers plan meals according to what items are on sale that week.

“People are going to the country, so I’ll put canned tuna and mushrooms, and other items that are easy to bring on long trips. Things for camp, including snack bags, too. Camps are expensive, as is shopping upstate, so we try to have our items advertised in a way that shoppers can ground their shopping in the ad, including what meats, sides, and produce are on sale. We try to help customers stretch their money as far as they can.”

Deliveries are another area where stores are experiencing hardships.

“There are many costs that we’re eating,” he says. “The expense of deliveries is very high: gas, tape, cardboard boxes, which are up more than 20%, and hard-working delivery workers are also due for raises. Even before, there were deliveries that we’d lose on. A $7.50 delivery charge doesn’t cover the $12-15 we would spend on delivering the order itself if it’s a small one. Now things are much harder, and we’ve had meetings to decide if it’s necessary to raise the delivery fee. The conclusion of each of those meetings so far has been not to; we want to look out for customers, and we know that times are tough for everyone — food costs might be 20% higher, but people, especially Rebbeim, teachers, and other klei kodesh, aren’t getting paycheck raises of 20%. We don’t want to hurt our customers. We also don’t want people to think that we’re raising prices just to have bigger profits.”

Mr. Mark explains how his store prepares for shortages, something that until recently was very rare.

“Paper and canned goods are easy to stock up on. When we hear about an upcoming shortage of items, we reach out to our vendors, with which we have very good relationships. We’re able to secure a few months’ supply without so much as to be overstocked.”

“When we heard of possible shortages, we started loading up in January on certain products that were [expected] to be hard to find come Pesach time. We use analytics, but it can’t be a perfectly exact science.”

Much like Yehudah, many shoppers are gravitating toward cheaper, more basic foods, and eschewing luxury items. “I see people buying less luxury items; people used to be on the fence about buying something, and wouldn’t be reluctant, but now if there’s a question about buying something, people lean toward not getting it.”

During the 2008 recession, food prices soared, and some stores placed limits on food to prevent panic buying.

“The only time similar to this that I can remember was in 2008; sometimes we placed limits on some products, not due to a scarcity of supplies, but because things were more expensive. Now it’s not a question of how much something costs, but a question of if a customer will be able to get this particular item.”

Some companies in the general U.S. market dominate their industry, or make up a portion so significant, that if they have difficulty supplying their product, it will drastically affect that item. Baby formula in the U.S. is manufactured mainly by just three producers — when one of them, Abbot, ceased production, it upended the entire market and caused a shortage. This, Mr. Mark says, is less of a problem in the kosher food market.

“The kosher industry has an advantage because of the larger amount of smaller, private companies — if one brand doesn’t have enough of an item, a different brand will until the other brand comes back. In the general market, companies like Green Giant dominate the markets and if they have a shortage, it upsets the entire industry.”

“If you are a brand- or hashgachah-specific consumer, then there are more issues.”

Produce is ordered daily, or every other day, and can’t be stocked for very long.

“I think there will be a major jump in the price of produce, because of all the costs involved — tractors use a lot of gas, as do the trucks which ship the products. I think a spike in produce is going to come soon.”

Much like Moshe and Nochum mentioned, Mr. Mark sees a lot of customers who previously were scared off by the higher overall cost of bulk items — “sticker shock” — switching to buying large quantities, because of the savings.

“People didn’t buy as many bulk items because of sticker shock, but now customers are doing the math and seeing the savings in bulk buying; they’re much more in tune with how it works than before. I think people are thinking about creative ways to make meals and avoid steep prices. I also think restaurants are going to take a beating; people are going to think twice about going out for special occasions. … They got used to cooking at home more during COVID, when there were no restaurants open. People are still working from home and thus less people are ordering take-out for lunch.”

“We’ve been more discerning lately in choosing our distributors,” Mr. Yanky Schwartz, manager at Parkville Food Center, told Hamodia. “We’ve been opting for even a slight difference in price, while in the past we wouldn’t have focused on it as carefully. Products like Kleenex tissues are far higher than usual; a box of latex gloves went up from $8 to $12. Bread, especially, has increased during the war; a loaf of rye or whole wheat bread used to cost $3, now it’s $5. Individual rolls have doubled; people are wondering why they’re paying $1.25 for a long sesame roll, saying ‘How is this going to fill me up?’”

Local, smaller-scale stores don’t have bulk-buying as part of their business model. “We’ve lost some inventory because of expiry, and people aren’t buying the same volume as they used to. Some foods, like nosh, go very quickly, especially when on sale.”

Many people are using their cars less — or choosing not to buy one to begin with. Yaakov K. told Hamodia that he’s close to getting his driver’s license, but has no plans on driving anytime soon. “I use an electric bicycle,” he said. “Even though I’m almost finished getting my license, I’m not going to lease or buy a car — gas is way too high, insurance will be exorbitant too. My bike needs to be charged once a week, and it’s all I need right now.”

Without a car, there are other expenses; families that would rely on the occasional car service are facing difficulties.

“I don’t own a car, as my job is within walking distance, and parking is impossible in this area,” Yisroel said. “But car service prices have gone up very significantly, and it’s really hurting. Especially in the very hot weather, when walking to a doctor or visiting in-laws who are located 30 minutes away just isn’t feasible. My father is buried in Eretz Yisrael, but with the current international ticket prices, I didn’t even consider going there for his yahrtzeit.”

‘Kol perutah u’perutah …’

Small savings can go a long way. Aryeh, a father who lives in Midwood, has found innovative ways of dealing with gas price issues. “Hashem decreed on Rosh Hashanah that gas would be expensive; still, I need to drive every day, and I don’t have any other options. I stopped leaving my car idling, and when I’m stuck in heavy traffic for a few minutes, I’ll turn my car off. One of my Rebbeim turns off his car by every traffic light! I also drive with the windows open instead of the air conditioner, even though I don’t like driving with the noise and the AC is a lot more comfortable. I also look for chances to carpool when I can, even though I prefer the privacy of my own car.”

Yisroel sums up the attitude of an ehrlicher Yid who’s having a difficult time:

“We are definitely davening harder for parnassah than we used to; and trying to strengthen our bitachon. At the end of the day, that is the most important hishtadlus we can do.”n

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