‘It’s all embarrassing for parents’: Sharp hike in lunch meat prices adds to back-to-school stress for parents


By Zoe Han

The simplest and once most economical packed lunches are getting more expensive, at a time when parents have faced high inflation for 40 years

Back to school wears on parents’ nerves – and their wallets. And they now face another financial challenge: deli meats are getting more and more expensive.

The price of lunch meat rose 18% in July from a year earlier, according to the Labor Department. That’s more than the 13% annual increase in grocery prices, which marked the biggest increase since 1979.

The price of ham rose 9.2% in July year-over-year, while bacon, breakfast sausages and similar products were 11.7% more expensive.

As the school year begins, parents start buying more deli meats, said Brian Earnest, chief animal protein economist at CoBank, a private credit provider for the rural economy.

A typical breakfast sandwich with two ounces of ham and one ounce of cheese costs about $1.65 in July, up 39% from the same time last year, Earnest wrote in a research note.

What’s behind the price spike?

Charcuterie is a labor-intensive industry, requiring many workers to process raw meat, while labor shortages in the domestic pork industry have had a huge impact on supply , Earnest said.

An outbreak of bird flu earlier this year that affected all kinds of poultry products – including eggs and turkey breast – also hurt the lunch meat market.

“All of this embarrasses parents,” Earnest wrote in the report, as many parents consider ham and turkey sandwiches to be the most economical and convenient lunchbox options.

While alternatives like peanut butter and jelly may be cheaper, peanuts are banned in many schools due to allergy concerns, he added.

Prices are generally on the rise. The consumer price index rose 8.5% year on year in July, from 9.1% in June, the government announced earlier this month.

Inflation is making back to school more difficult, with parents already stressed by the rising cost of school supplies and clothing.

Rising childcare costs are also putting additional pressure on the budget of working parents, as many companies call their employees back to the office.

Many low-income families said they changed their diets to accommodate rising costs, while others dipped into their savings to pay the bills.

Parents are changing their shopping habits

Consumers are buying items like canned tuna, chicken and even beans instead of deli meats, Walmart (WMT) chief financial officer John David Rainey said on an earnings call last week.

“As the year progressed, we saw more pronounced shifts in consumption and business activity,” he said Aug. 16. “For example, instead of higher priced deli meats, customers are also increasing their purchases of hot dogs like canned tuna or chicken.”

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.

Two days later, Robert Eddy, CEO and chairman of BJ’s Wholesale Club (BJ), told investors that prices for their own deli meats were holding up, even though customers were also buying alternatives.

“As the year progressed, we saw more pronounced shifts in consumption and declining business activity,” he said. “As an example, instead of higher priced deli meats, customers are increasing their purchases of hot dogs as well as canned tuna or chicken.”

BJ’s did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The hike in lunch meat prices also comes at a time when many parents are facing the end of universal school meal programs.

In March 2020, Congress authorized a series of school lunch waivers, allowing public schools to provide free breakfasts and lunches, even during summer vacation.

ParentsTogether, a national parent and family advocacy group, issued a warning to its 3 million member parents in June about the end of the scheme.

While part of the program was extended by a bill President Biden signed into law this summer, universal free school meals were not extended and ended before the next school year. This means that the system will return to the way it worked before the pandemic.

“Schools had flexibilities during COVID so they could serve free meals to all children. Some of those options have expired, so many schools can no longer serve all meals for free,” according to the website of the The Minister of Agriculture. “Instead, families will do what they did before COVID. Schools will accept applications and use family income to qualify children for free, [reduced]-price, or paid meals.”

New challenges for the start of the school year

In 2019, nearly 68% of students received free lunches through the National School Lunch Program, and 5.7% had discounted lunches, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Food prices remain a major concern for many households, especially since the universal school meals program has helped so many families, said Allison Johnson, campaign manager for ParentsTogether.

As schools reopen after the summer, “making sure kids don’t go hungry in school is a top concern for many families,” Johnson told MarketWatch.

Now only eligible families – whose annual household income is at or below 130% of the poverty line – are eligible for free school meals for their children.

Johnson said many families don’t know they need to fill out paperwork first, while families whose annual income is only slightly above the threshold also struggle to feed their children.

“Food prices being what they are, they are worried about covering the cost of these meals now for the first time in several years,” she added.

The cost of school meals adds up

It can cost up to $140 a month to feed just one child with breakfast and lunch every day, wrote Rachel Cox, a Democratic candidate running for a seat in the Arkansas state House of Representatives. , citing information provided during an open house at her home. son’s school.

“I saw the look of panic in the eyes of many parents who didn’t realize the free lunch program was over,” she tweeted.

Several state legislatures are working to expand their own version of the free school meals program. California this month became the first state to provide free school lunches to all public school students.

At the federal level, Republican lawmakers blocked a bill to expand the national version, citing concerns about fiscal responsibility.

As the father of a 3- and 6-year-old, Earnest said it’s been quite stressful figuring out what to pack for this back-to-school season.

“You just have to add to that higher prices at the deli counter,” he said.

-Zoe Han


(END) Dow Jones Newswire

09-04-22 0618ET

Copyright (c) 2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


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