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Commentary: Food is Not Getting More Expensive


By: Gary Truitt

This is the beginning of the holiday food buying binge. Family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas baking extravaganzas will send shoppers to the store with long lists.  Most will get sticker shock at the end of the checkout line when their total is higher than last year. In fact, this has already been happening as beef prices have increased all year long sparking howls of protests from shoppers. According to one report, beef and veal prices have gone up 6.5% so far this year versus the same period in 2020, with prices in September up 17.6% from a year ago. Pork prices are up 6.3% so far in 2021 versus the same period in 2020.  The media has been quick to jump on this story and blame farmers, corporate consolidation, China, and the pandemic for the rise in food costs. But one Purdue economist sees things differently.

Headlines have claimed that this will be the most expensive Thanksgiving dinner in decades.  If you simply compare year on year prices, this is true. But Jason Lusk, head of Purdue’s Department of Ag Economics, said that is not the best way to measure food costs. He said inflation makes the price of all goods go up year after year which includes food. “What we want to know is whether food prices are rising at a faster rate than other items that we might care about. One key economic variable many households care a lot about is their income. Income and wages also increase over time because of inflation. But, by comparing prices to income, we can get a sense of whether food items are, in fact, more expensive for a worker.”

Lusk compared average income with food prices and found that many traditional Thanksgiving items are actually more affordable today than in 1980. “Back in 1980, a worker earning the median weekly salary would have to work about 175 minutes (almost 3 hours) to earn enough money to buy a 20 lb turkey. By 2019 (this is the latest data available because the BLS unfortunately stopped reporting retail turkey prices in 2019), shows the median worker only had to work about 80 minutes (1 hour 15 minutes) to buy a 20 lb turkey,” said Lusk. A similar trend was observed for other holiday items.

So this holiday season when your non-farm friends and relatives sit down to a food laden table for a feast and complain about the high cost of food and how big farmers, big ag, meat industry consolidation, and demand from China are driving up the cost of food, remind them of these facts. Even at higher prices, food today is more affordable than it was 4 decades ago, and our modern agriculture system provides the most abundant and safest food supply in the world.