Category Archives: food

The Escalating Price of Wheat

The price of bread in the U.S. is rising to all-time highs. One of the top contributing factors to its increase is the 2022's rising price of wheat.

The following chart shows the price per bushel of wheat grown in the U.S. from 1866 through 2021, with a preliminary average for 2022 based on available prices reported from January through May.

Wheat, Price per Bushel, 1866-2021, with Preliminary Estimate for 2022

During 2022, the average monthly price of a bushel of wheat has ranged from a low of $7.45 in January through a high of $11.40 in May, with an overall average of $9.36 during those months. That's 25% higher than 2012's nominal record peak of $7.48 per bushel. It's also more than double the 2019 pre-pandemic low of $4.08 per bushel.

Adjusting the prices for inflation, the price of a bushel of wheat is returning to levels last seen in the high inflation years of the 1970s and 1980s. The next chart shows the available inflation adjusted history for wheat prices in the U.S.

Wheat, Inflation-Adjusted Price per Bushel, 1866-2021, with Preliminary Estimate for 2022 (Constant 2022 U.S. Dollars)

With inflation factored in, 1917 represents the year with the highest wheat prices thanks to the prolonged impact of World War I and a low wheat harvest in 1917. It wasn't until after World War II when the introduction of widespread irrigation and other improvements in agricultural technologies greatly increased the productivity of American farmers and the amount of wheat they produced. Those improvements led to generally falling prices outside periods of high inflation, and particularly, outside periods with high petroleum prices.

Update 3 August 2022

From Reuters: Analysis: As wheat prices soar, the world's consumers vote with their feet

References

U.S. Department of Agriculture. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Quick Stats: Survey > Crops > Field Crops > Wheat > Price Received > Wheat - Price Received, Measured in $/BU > Total > State > Kansas > 2020-2021 > Annual > Marketing Year. [Online Database]. Accessed 22 July 2022.

Measuring Worth. The Annual Consumer Price Index for the United States, 1774 - Present. [Online Database]. Accessed 22 July 2022.

Breadflation

Bloomberg finds another familiar consumer good whose price is rapidly rising and hitting Americans where it hurts in their wallets: bread.

People really begin noticing inflation when it shows up in things that they regularly buy. That’s why gasoline and milk get so much attention. Add bread to a growing list of basics that are rising in price and crushing consumer sentiment.

Amid the highest US inflation in four decades, bread prices have soared this year, pushing more premium options to an unheard-of $10 a loaf and beyond.

“It’s kind of like a punch in the nose,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. These are prices “nobody has seen before” and have the same impact as gasoline hitting $5 a gallon, he said.

The Bloomberg article features a chart showing the retail price of a pound of white bread over the past 10 years. But since we're talking about the highest inflation in the last 40 years, we wondered how the price of bread has changed since January 1980. In the following chart, we visualize all the Bureau of Labor Statistics' available data at this writing, showing in both nominal (the prices people actually pay) and in terms of constant June 2022 inflation-adjusted dollars.

U.S. White Bread Retail Price per Pound, January 1980-June 2022

In nominal terms, we can see the price of a pound of white bread in the U.S. has never been higher. It is nearly 3.4 times what it cost in January 1980.

But we find something different when we account for inflation. Here, we find the average cost of a pound of white bread has ranged from a low of $1.391 in June 1987 to a high of $1.994 in December 2008. At June 2022's average price of $1.691 per pound, the relative cost of bread is in the middle of the range Americans have paid over the last 42+ years. One might reasonably wonder why Bloomberg's writers are choosing to make the big deal out of it that they are.

If you dig deeper into the Bloomberg article, you'll find its three authors are strangely focused on a "premium" bread price of $10 per pound as some kind of talismanic threshold in which they find meaning. As you'll see in the following excerpt, that price applies for a "luxury" two-pound loaf being aimed at consumers with a lot of discretionary income:

In Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, husband-and-wife team Taylor and Brian Bruns are trying to stay profitable at their mountain-themed restaurant, Flat & Point. This spring, they ramped up their baking to begin selling loaves of sourdough and whole wheat at farmers markets across the city.

The couple priced their 2-pound loaves at $10, hoping to offset higher flour costs, but also because of surging prices for eggs and butter. While the price tag has turned off some shoppers at the farmers market, it’s fair because they use pricier organic ingredients, according to Taylor Bruns.

“We’ve definitely gotten pushback,” she said.

Comparing apples to apples, the Bruns are asking farmers market customers to pay $5.00 per pound for their gourmet bread product, which is 2.96 times what those same consumers would pay for plain white bread. That's deeper analysis than the three authors have done, so lets consider what it really means by asking some questions.

With money getting tighter because of President Biden's not-so-transitory inflation, which kind of bread do you think these consumers will be more likely to buy when they go shopping six months from now? If you're an investor, would you invest money in the opportunity to expand production of a high-end barbeque restaurant's gourmet bread product in today's economic climate?

Ultimately, it's the answers to the questions we've asked that will determine what the future will be for all those involved. The first question asks you to put yourself into the shoes of a typical consumer. But the second question is the deeper one, because our hypothetical investor might be the small business owner using their own money to expand their business, or perhaps a loan underwriter at a bank, who has to decide if investing in that scheme is worth the risk. Whether it is hinges on how the consumer will answer their question.

They're all being affected by what we'll call "breadflation", even though its a lot more about the "flation" than it is about the "bread". In today's economic climate, all Americans are facing similar questions because of it.

2022 Cost of Fourth of July Summer Cookout Increases by Double-Digit Percentage

Last year, President Biden made news when he boasted how Americans were saving 16 cents in the cost of a summer Fourth of July cookout under his administration compared to the $59.66 they paid for the same meal in the summer of 2019.

Here's the White House's tweet announcing President Biden's accomplishment:

Biden White House Tweet, Savings on Summer Cookout, 1 July 2021

A year later, we were curious to find out what Americans might pay for the same meal in 2022 now that we're living with the worst inflation in the last four decades under the workings of the Biden economic plan. So we took the Farm Bureau's summer cookout menu and shopped for the items on it as closely as we could at Walmart. The following table presents our shopping results from our virtual shopping trip to America's largest grocery-selling retailer on 11 June 2022.

Comparison of Cost of Summer Cookout Menu from 2021 to 2022
Summer Cookout Items 2021 AFBF Summer Cookout Prices 2022 Walmart Prices Change from 2021
Two pints of strawberries $5.30 $4.48 15.5% decrease
13-ounce bag of chocolate chip cookies $4.02 $3.58 10.9% decrease
8 hamburger buns $1.66 $2.58 55.4% increase
2.5 pounds of homemade potato salad [1] $2.75 $3.74 36.0% increase
2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts $6.74 $9.48 40.7% increase
32 ounces of pork & beans [2] $1.90 $2.48 30.5% increase
2 pounds of ground beef $8.20 $9.14 11.5% increase
Half-gallon of vanilla ice cream $4.69 $7.44 58.6% increase
3 pounds of center cut pork chops $11.63 $15.12 30.0% increase
2.5 quarts of fresh-squeezed lemonade [3] $3.65 $4.18 14.5% increase
1 pound of sliced cheese $4.05 $4.98 23.0% increase
13-ounce bag of potato chips $4.93 $4.78 3.0% decrease
Totals $59.52 $71.98 20.9% increase

Assuming we've come reasonably close in matching the actual products on the Farm Bureau's shopping list, we find that the cost the summer cookout menu has risen by $12.46 from 2021 to 2022. That is a 20.9% increase. Do you think President Biden will be as excited to claim credit for that year over year increase as he was in claiming credit for a $0.16 decrease last year?

About How We Shopped

The prices we show for 2022 are those we found by shopping online at Walmart on 11 June 2022. The links for the 2022 prices will take you to the specific items we included in our shopping trip so you can see for yourself both what the item is and how the price may have changed from the day we shopped for them.

The specific items we added to our cart represent our best guess at the national brand name items the Farm Bureau's grocery shoppers put into their shopping cart when compiling their annual summer cookout costs. When a specific quantity of an item wasn't readily available at Walmart, we substituted the next closest item we could find for it. For example, in the case of the homemade potato salad, we substituted a ready-to-eat potato salad product since we didn't have the Farm Bureau's recipe for making their homemade version, which also meant getting less potato salad. The notes below describe where the quantity of items in our Walmart shopping trip differs from the Farm Bureau's shopping list:

[1] 2 lbs (32 ounces) of ready-to-eat potato salad (vs 2.5 lbs, or 40 ounces, of homemade)
[2] 28 ounces of pork and beans (vs 32 ounces)
[3] 2.8 quarts of ready-to-drink lemonade (vs 2.5 quarts of "freshly squeezed")

Finally, there's no question that a thrifty shopper could easily beat the Farm Bureau's costs while shopping in either 2021 or 2022. If that's you, a good strategy would be to substitute store-brand versions of the products, assuming you're okay with any differences in quality. You could also shop at other grocery stores that may offer lower prices.

The Farm Bureau should report their 2022 summer cookout cost within the next few weeks and we're curious to see how closely their results match our single online shopping trip results. We'll update this article when their 2022 summer cookout cost is available.

Update 28 June 2022

The American Farm Bureau Federation has released their 2022 Fourth of July summer cookout cost. They find the cost rose by 17%, which is in line with what we found in our previous single-store shopping trip several weeks earlier. Here's their infographic showing how the cost changed from 2021:

Farm Bureau July 4, 2022 Summer Cookout Cost

The biggest difference is they found a cheaper price for cheese, which they found for $1.45 less than what we had. If you're shopping at Walmart, that means you're buying a one pound package of Velveeta cheese slices instead of the one-pound package of Kraft's cheese slices we found in our original shopping trip.

At $5.16 per half gallon, the Farm Bureau also bought cheaper ice cream than we did. The closest we could get to that price at Walmart was $4.74 for Blue Bunny ice cream, which comes in a 48-oz container, and which is 16 ounces shy of a half gallon. The 64-oz container of ice cream we found was one of just two flavors Walmart carries in that size.

On the other hand, at $5.56 per pound, they paid more for ground beef than we did. We think they opted for an 80-20 ground beef chuck instead of the slightly fattier and notably cheaper blend we found.

If we run through this online shopping trip next year, we'll switch out the ground beef and sliced cheese selections to more closely match the results from the Farm Bureau's 2022 shopping list, but will keep the half gallon ice cream because of the lack of options available for ice cream in this size container at Walmart.

Please do click through for the details from the Farm Bureau's summer cookout shopping list in their press release!

What’s the Substitute for Sugary Soft Drinks?

Coca-Cola Photo by Omar Elmokhtar Menazeli via Unsplash - https://unsplash.com/photos/6STZ9m3PUfE
Miller High Life Photo by Waz Lght via Unsplash - https://unsplash.com/photos/ifB8j7QoWe8

Imagine this scenario. Public health advocates campaign for your city to impose a tax on sugary beverages. They claim it will improve the public's health through fighting obesity by making soda and other soft drinks made with sugar more costly to buy, forcing budget-minded consumers to substitute much lower calorie containing beverages. Your city's politicians, always happy to get more tax revenue, go along with their scheme. How do you think consumers of sugary soft drinks in your city will respond?

If you answered they will drink more calorie-laden alcohol-based beverages, you're right!

The latest proof that consumers substitute beer and liquor for sugar-sweetened soft drinks comes to us from Seattle. In December 2017, the city imposed a unique $0.0175 per ounce tax on beverages containing calories from sugar, but not on beverages made with non-calorie-laden sweeteners. For example, consumers buying a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola would pay an additional tax of $0.35 that consumers of the same size bottle of Diet Coke or Coke Zero would not.

At first glance, you might think consumers of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages (SSB) would choose to switch to the sugar-free versions of their previously preferred soft drink or to water to avoid having to pay so much more for it.

But that's not what happened according to a peer-reviewed study published in PLOS ONE, which found that the tax "induces substitution to alcoholic beverages". More specifically, the consumers preferred substitute wasn't sugar-free beverages. It was beer, whose sales rose by 7% relative to those of the demographically similar city of Portland, Oregon, which didn't impose a soda tax:

There was evidence of substitution to beer following the implementation of the Seattle SSB tax. Continued monitoring of potential unintended outcomes related to the implementation of SSB taxes is needed in future tax evaluations.

How many competent public health advocates do you suppose would push for new or expanded soda taxes knowing that real life consumers are more likely to shift to alcohol-based beverages with equivalent levels of calories instead of water or low-calorie sugar-free soft drinks? Not only do they miss any benefit from reducing calories consumed among the public, higher alcohol consumption comes with the "higher risk of motor accidents/deaths, liver cirrhosis, sexually transmitted diseases, crime and violence, and workplace accidents" to the public's health.

Then again, if you're a long-time reader of Political Calculations, you could have easily predicted that from our analysis of what happened to alcohol sales in Philadelphia after that city's soda tax went into effect.

Image credits: Coca-Cola Photo by Omar Elmokhtar Menazeli on Unsplash. Miller High Life Photo by Waz Lght on Unsplash.

References

Lisa M. Powell, Julien Leider. Impact of the Seattle Sweetened Beverage Tax on substitution to alcoholic beverages. PLOS ONE 18 January 2022. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0262578.

Baylen Linnekin. Study: Seattle's Soda Tax Has Been Great for... Beer Sales? Reason. [Online Article]. 12 February 2022.

Previously on Political Calculations

Major Grocers Continue Hiking Tomato Soup Prices

Price increases promised by Campbell Soup (NYSE: CPB) CEO Mark Clouse back in December 2021 continued to take hold at grocery stores around the United States since our previous update.

Here is our summary of prices we surveyed at ten major grocery-selling retailers for March 2022. The most important thing to note is that the discounted sale price per 10.75 ounce can ranges from $0.99 to $1.50 per can, as discounted sale pricing below $0.99 per can has nearly all but disappeared in American grocery stores. Our personal finance tip for tomato soup lovers is that if you find it at $0.99 per can, buy it, because you won't see it at that price for long with President Biden's inflation:

  • Walmart: $1.17/each, unchanged
  • Amazon: $0.99/each, unchanged
  • Kroger: $1.25/each, unchanged
  • Walgreens: $1.50/each, unchanged when you buy 2 cans
  • Target: $1.19/each, increase of $0.20 (+20.2%)
  • CVS: $1.79/each, increase of $0.30 (+20.1%)
  • Albertsons: $1.00/each, decrease of $0.25 (-20.0%)
  • Food Lion: $1.00/each, unchanged but discounted from $1.48, an increase of $0.19 (+14.7%)
  • H-E-B: $1.21/each, increase of $0.20 (+19.8%)
  • Meijer: $1.00/each, decrease of $0.29 (-22.5%)

The most notable price increase in this month's update is the 20.2% price increase at Target, the third largest grocery-selling retailer by annual revenue in the U.S. The biggest surprise is the apparent sale of Campbell's Tomato Soup at Albertsons, where shoppers should act quickly to buy soup at the temporary $1.00 per can price level.

But the most interesting price change happened at Food Lion, which didn't change its discounted sale price of $1.00 per can, but did increase its regular shelf price from $1.29 to $1.48 per can. Here's a screenshot of the new higher regular price:

Food Lion: Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup Discounted Sale Prices 9 March 2022

Act quickly, Food Lion shoppers. This stealth price hike is your grocer priming you for what to expect when soup stops being on sale!

As expected, the trailing twelve month average for a can of Campbell's condensed tomato soup rose above the one-dollar per can threshold in March 2022, reaching $1.01 per can and matching its previous record high. American consumers should recognize that all 2021 and 2022's price changes to date for Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup have had nothing to do with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. They've been in the pipeline for an extended period of time now, where you can thank President Biden's inflation for today's escalating prices.

Speaking of which, Campbell Soup's CEO Mark Clouse indicates that inflation is negatively impacting the company's business, though it is still benefiting from the shopping habits consumers developed to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Campbell Soup fell short of market expectations for quarterly revenue on Wednesday, in a sign that demand for its sauces and broths is slowing from the pandemic-led surge.

With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting restaurants across the world, packaged food makers benefited from customers stockpiling at home on frozen meals, snacks, sauces and soups.

However, consumers are now returning to restaurants and former food-ordering habits, which has hit demand for Campbell’s products in recent months.

The company’s organic sales were down 2% in the quarter, as it also wrestled with industry-wide supply chain shortfalls and labor shortages.

Our second quarter was challenging as we lapped a difficult comparison and navigated labor and supply constraints, made even tougher by the Omicron surge,” Campbell Chief Executive Mark Clouse said.

The company indicated it will be able to maintain its full year profit target for 2022, benefitting from more stable levels of worker productivity.

Previously on Political Calculations

Political Calculations' analysis of Campbell's Tomato Soup dates back to 2015, when we first posted historic prices for a No. 1 can of Campbell's condensed tomato soup going back to January 1898! Since then, we've filled in the gaps we originally had in the historic price data and have explored America's second-most popular soup from a lot of different angles. We most recently updated our entire history in January 2022:

That article provides links to our previous coverage, if you want to journey through the tomato soup rabbit hole!