After a year of decelerating, overall inflation ticked up two months in a row in July and August, fueled largely by rising gasoline prices.
Although inflation remains well below last summer’s peak, economists say increased transportation costs could put upward pressure on other prices – including food.
In Baltimore, school cafeterias are still dealing with higher-than-normal food costs spurred by the pandemic.
“We are trying to be as fiscally responsible as we can, given that we are already set up with a limited budget,” said Elizabeth Marchetta, executive director of food & nutrition services for the Baltimore City Public Schools System.
Since the start of the pandemic, the school system has seen higher food costs across all sectors, said Monique Rolle, BCPSS’s manager of meal planning and procurement. Their biggest jumps in expenses have been from meats and grains.
Prices of breaded chicken breasts and drumsticks for Baltimore schools are up 5% and 10%, respectively, in September 2023 compared to the 2022-2023 school year.
Many popular grain-based snacks saw large price hikes too, with the cost of a strawberry snack bar climbing 28%, a granola pouch up 30%, and graham crackers up 56%.
The cost of 16-inch and 9-inch pizzas rose 7-8%. But if the school system did not allocate for “commodity” items that are distributed by the federal government, like cheese, flour, and tomato paste, those prices would be even higher, Rolle said.
Causes of food inflation
What’s the reason for the food inflation we’ve seen these past few years? Well, it’s complicated.
Supply chain issues and changes in demand during the pandemic have each played a role.
“During the pandemic, you had quite a few supply disruptions – in some cases quite severe,” said Steve Reed, an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “There were sort of supply side increases in food and other categories as well. Meanwhile, you had people not really able to go out to eat much.”
While restaurants welcomed fewer customers earlier in the pandemic, grocery stores saw booming demand from people cooking at home.
Some of that pressure has eased, Reed said, and food inflation has gradually decelerated over the past several months. But we’re not out of the woods yet.
Nationally, food prices in August 2023 were 4.3% higher than a year ago. That’s down considerably from August 2022, when prices were 11.4% higher than a year before that.
Still, the 12-month percentage change is higher than the average 2% yearly increase of food prices prior to the pandemic.
“It’s a little bit of a mixed bag,” Reed said. “There’s certainly been deceleration. We’re not in the same period of really historically high inflation that we were for a while…. But we’re still well above the level of inflation that we typically had in the years before the pandemic.”
Schools have had to account for the cost of packaging materials, Marchetta said, as they have prepared more to-go meals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We weren’t just serving meals on trays,” she said. “We were packaging them up. We were putting them in bags. We were serving three days worth of meals at a time. People really had to have something to hold all of those meals and so there was just a lot more stuff that we were adding to it.”
Higher labor costs have been a contributing factor as well, with school systems striving to offer competitive wages, Marchetta said.
“We’ve seen the other industries outside of school districts increasing their wages for things like Amazon or courier services or door-to-door things like DoorDash, so we now have to pay higher wages as well to really get people to come and work and fill our vacancies,” she said.
How Baltimore school cafeterias are dealing with inflation
Baltimore cafeterias are continuing to feel the effects of inflation, Rolle said. As they reintroduce certain items, workers are trying to balance planning meals that are cost-efficient, nutritional, and pleasing to students.
Students have favorite foods they look forward to at mealtimes, even if they have become more expensive to stock. Rather than removing those menu items altogether, food and nutrition staff reduce the frequency they serve them. Instead of offering shrimp poppers two or three times per month, they now might offer them once or twice a month, Rolle said.
Other items, however, are difficult to reduce or replace because school kitchens must adhere to nutritional standards to have the meals federally reimbursed.
“In order for us to serve a reimbursable meal, we don’t really have a lot of wiggle room as far as certain substitutions,” Rolle said.
For example, there are a limited number of suitable options under leafy green vegetables, including broccoli, spinach, collard greens, and fresh greens like a spring mix or chopped Romaine lettuce.
“When you have supply chain issues with those items, it’s very hard to make those changes and still be compliant,” she said.
Inflation affecting food insecure families
One in three Marylanders face food insecurity, the Maryland Food Bank estimates. And about 600,000 families in the state rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to help stock their home fridges and pantries. But in March, the end of increased SNAP benefits placed heavier burdens on family food budgets.
Marchetta encourages more Baltimore families to make use of City Schools’ free meals for students to free up household funds for other expenses.
“In Baltimore City, we serve all meals to all students for free,” she said. “So if parents can let us take care of that for them, that will take money that is otherwise coming from their household budget and put it back so that they can spend that on other things.”
All Baltimore City Public School students are eligible to receive a free breakfast, lunch, supper and after-school snack.
During the 2019-2020 school year, 64% of enrolled students participated in the free lunch program. That number took a hit at the beginning of the pandemic but is regaining ground, with 55% of enrolled students getting a free lunch in the 2022-2023 school year.
While SNAP benefits have been cut back, Marchetta said families can stretch their benefits through the Maryland Market Money program. Participating farmers markets, farm stands, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs will provide a dollar-for-dollar match to customers using federal nutrition benefits, allowing families to effectivley double their benefits.
Families who do not already receive SNAP benefits can check their elegibility and file an application on the Maryland Department of Human Services website.
Rolle also suggested shopping for foods that are in season in order to find the best deals.
“We’re moving into apple season, so that’s primarily one of the items that you’re going to see during this time,” she said.
Other fresh produce items that are currently in season for Maryland include pumpkins, sweet potatoes, pears, raspberries, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and spinach, among others.
Communities find support in food pantries
Families can also find a nearby food pantry through the Maryland Food Bank. One participating food pantry site is at Henderson-Hopkins Partnership School in Baltimore’s Middle East neighborhood.
Henderson-Hopkins has worked with the Maryland Food Bank for many years to host food pantries, including a monthly pantry before the pandemic. But in March 2020 the school expanded their services to provide food to the wider community, said Annie Weber, community school coordinator at Henderson-Hopkins.
“We knew that food insecurity was a challenge in our community before COVID-19,” Weber said. “Previously, our school, Henderson-Hopkins Partnership School, served over 1,000 meals a day to students. Now, we see an even greater need, so we’ve continued our services to our neighbors and families.”
Henderson-Hopkins has partnered with Johns Hopkins University, the Maryland Food Bank, Baltimore City Public Schools, World Central Kitchen, Fund for Educational Excellence, Baltimore’s Promise, and other organizations to host their weekly food distribution site.
Every Friday starting at noon, a line of cars wraps around the corner from Ashland Avenue to North Patterson Park Avenue. Anyone can receive pre-packed food, no questions asked.
Families pick up anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of food each week, and the distribution continues until the food runs out.
“Nearly every week, we give away all of the food we pack,” Weber said.
Over the past three and a half years, the school has distributed more than 1.2 million pounds of food to more than 60,000 families.
The pantry stocks canned goods, breakfast items, meats, produce, and frozen meals. Fresh produce is always the first to go, Weber said, because Henderson-Hopkins is located in a healthy food priority area where there is lower access to healthy foods.
She said the best way for community members to support food access is by donating through their Giving Tuesday fundraiser on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving to help the school purchase food from Maryland Food Bank, or by donating directly to the Maryland Food Bank. The school pantry does not accept food donations from community members.
A spotlight on school meals
For Rolle, the pandemic has underscored how vital schools are for feeding local communities.
“The school meals programs are the largest food chain in our city,” she said. “We have more school cafeterias and kitchens than we do any McDonald’s or Burger King or any Chick-fil-A that’s out there in the city.”
Ultimately, Marchetta wants more money provided to schools to serve meals through the National School Lunch Program.
“Less than $5 a meal really isn’t adequate to cover the cost of food and labor, especially when you’re really trying to provide a high quality and nutritious meal to students,” she said.
She also would like to see more states adopt universal meal programs. While Baltimore City has provided free meals to all students, regardless of individual family income, since 2015, not all Maryland school districts do.
“Since then, our families have not been paying the cost of lunch for their students, but that’s not applicable in all counties in Maryland and it really should be,” Marchetta said. “Hopefully, that will pass in a future legislative session.”