As Americans stayed home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they cooked at home more, driving prices up. Grocery store prices rose 4.1% in April.
DETROIT – As more Americans stayed home in April because of COVID-19, they cooked more home meals.
And they paid the price for it. Literally.
Grocery store bills shot up April, showing the biggest monthly increase in nearly 50 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic's monthly Consumer Price Index report.
Though overall, the April CPI declined 0.8%, consumers on average paid 2.6% more for groceries. It's the largest one-month increase since February 1974. During the past 12 months, grocery prices rose 4.1%.
Price increases in the meat, poultry, fish and egg category were the steepest.
Mary Kay Ash of Clinton Township, Michigan, is among those who noticed their average weekly grocery receipts are on the rise. The 54-year-old mom says she typically spent $100 to $125 a week on groceries for a family of four adults before the pandemic. Now, she says, she spends $140 to $150.
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Her shopping plan means getting to the store early Sunday mornings. She shops in produce first, then heads over to the meat department to see what's available.
Ash says she has noticed grocery prices are up on just about everything, including produce and especially meat.
Regional CPI statistics are reported on a bimonthly basis. The most current report showed consumers in metro Detroit, for instance, paid 3.3% more for groceries from February to April, the Labor Department said.
Increases reflect classic supply-and-demand economics. Disruptions in the food supply linked to meat processing plant closures and slowdowns, along with a shift in production from restaurants and institutions to retail, led to increases. You can also toss in panic buying.
Several food categories had steep increases.
Prices in the meat, poultry, fish and egg category had the biggest monthly increase as consumers paid 4.3% more for those items in April. Prices were nearly 7% higher over the past 12 months.
When broken out into individual products, egg prices had the biggest jump as consumers paid 16.1% more in April than in March for eggs. Prices for eggs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) were as high as $3 a dozen in April.
Now, wholesale shell egg prices are at a level closer to what they are expected to be, says Trey Malone, an agriculture economist at Michigan State University.
"Trend lines in eggs had a massive spike in April, and now, as of May 18, it's down," Malone says.
Regulations by the federal government were relaxed to allow the shell egg industry to shift supply of eggs from restaurants to retail, Malone says.
The USDA's Egg News Report on Monday has wholesale prices of eggs averaging about $1 a dozen.
Though Malone is convinced overall prices have increased, it's not entirely clear how the CPI goes out and looks at prices in the middle of a pandemic.
"What the CPI is telling you here is something that is changing rapidly," he says.
Malone expects price increases to continue at least on the meat side because of a decrease in the supply of animals. Contributing to that is the euthanizing of animals by farmers because some processing plants were down with sick workers and an increase in exports.
Malone cites a jump in demand for pork exports. Before COVID-19, China was hit with an African swine fever in hogs.
Grocery pork prices were up 3% in April. What's also going on is a shortage of certain pork cuts.
"In the U.S., we've gotten very comfortable with this proliferation of options at the grocery stores," Malone says. "Right now, the system is having to flex in a way that we are just going to have to expect there's a limited, smaller number of items in the market while simultaneously the prices will increase."
Uncooked ground beef was up 4.8% in April, beef roasts were up 5% and beef steaks saw a 2.1% jump, the Labor Department said. Year over year, ground beef was up a whopping 9.7%.
Ground beef prices took Ash by surprise. She has seen packages of ground round or chuck selling as high as $9 a pound.
It's become a grocery store game for Ash and her fiancé who try to find a cut of meat that's affordably priced and buy two.
"Then I plan my meals from that," Ash says. "It seems pork was the best buy and still is, so I've been doing many dishes with boneless pork loin."
Though food prices increased, they were offset by lower prices for energy. Year-over-year gas prices were down 32%. Other categories that showed decreases included apparel and transportation.
Here's a sampling of items that increased the most in April:Apples: 4.9% Bread 3.7% Cookies 5.1% Fresh sweet rolls, coffeecakes, doughnuts: 5% Hot dogs: 5.7% Pork chops: 7.4% Poultry: 5.8%
Follow Susan Selasky on Twiitter @SusanMariecooks.