Miami Herald, April 28, 2008: Seniors feel the pinch of rising food prices

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Over breakfast and Bingo there’s only one topic of conversation for Lucy Polito: the rising cost of food.

”Just to buy a lousy loaf of bread” is getting expensive, said the 93-year-old Southwest Ranches resident who depends on Social Security to get by. “Many of my meals need to come from that loaf because I can’t afford to buy other things I want.”

The United States is seeing the fastest run-up in food prices in almost two decades — and food costs in Florida are up 6 percent versus a year ago.

It’s those on a fixed income, like Polito, who are truly feeling the squeeze.

Fourteen percent of Broward County and Miami-Dade County residents are over 65. And according to the U.S. Census, 22 percent of Miami-Dade seniors and 11 percent of Broward seniors live below the poverty line.

But it’s not just those on the bottom rung who need help, said Marti Forman, executive director of the Cooperative Feeding Program in Broward, a food kitchen that hands out 560 hot meals a day.

”We have gone from feeding the poor to feeding the middle class,” she said. With each new rise in insurance and property taxes, Forman said she’s seen the ranks of elderly who visit her organization swell. Now, rising fuel and food prices are complicating matters.

”People are shifting the way they eat and how often they eat,” Forman said. “And it’s having the most disastrous impact on the kids, the elderly and the sick.”

Anyone who has filled their gas tank lately understands why food prices are rising. Skyrocketing fuel costs make it more expensive to produce and transport food.

And as energy costs soar, corn and soy growers are increasingly enticed into the biofuels market, which, in turn, pushes up the cost of those commodities. Poor weather also has ravaged crops in Europe and Australia.

All of this comes at a time when global demand for food is surging.

AgResource, a Chicago consultancy that analyzes commodities and livestock, expects to see overall food costs register ”low double-digit increases” over the next few years.

In particular, beef, pork and poultry prices could see a significant spike as feed prices soar.

”Cattle producers are losing money hand over feet right now, and ultimately many of them will be out of business,” said AgResource Senior Commodity Analyst Greg Wagner. “This is probably the lowest price of beef we will see in awhile.”

Credit Suisse Bank expects livestock prices to increase 14 to 15 percent over the next year.

Many staples are already seeing double-digit hikes. The price of bread has risen 16 percent since last year, and eggs are up 35 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The international price of rice has risen 50 percent in recent months, forcing wholesale outlets Costco and Sam’s Club to limit per-customer sales.

Kimberly Jaeger, manager of community relations for Miami’s 235 Publix grocery stores, said the chain is not facing any such rice pinch. However, the company is seeing customers starting to adapt to the new reality.

”We have noticed an increase in prices for items that involve commodities — flour, corn and baked goods,” she said. “And we are seeing people buying more private label brand products, because you can save 10 to 30 percent compared to national brands.”

Jos̩ Aguila, a South Beach resident and retiree, said he has quit buying fish and steak and instead limits himself to the basics such as soup, rice and beans.

”Everything is so expensive,” said Aguila as he grabbed a packet of Ramen noodles. “I only buy the bare necessities.”

Edith Lederberg is the executive director of the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Broward County — one of 11 agencies in Florida responsible for administering state and federal funds for senior programs.

During her 31 years with the organization, the outlook for the elderly has never been so grim, she said.

”A lot of seniors retired thinking they had enough money to live with dignity and didn’t have to worry about anything,” Lederberg said. “But the rising price of food — which is exacerbated by the cost of fuel — it’s like a domino effect, and many people are cutting back to two meals a day or are not eating appropriately.”

The price of wheat and some grains are already starting to come down, as farmers try to cash in on the market. But it’s unclear if the world can farm its way out of the problem, said Robert Moskow, an analyst with Credit Suisse bank in New York.

Global demand for food is increasing about 3 percent annually, while global crop yields are only increasing about 1 ½ percent, he said.

”I would say two-thirds of this [the price hike] is not going away quickly, because it’s related to emerging market demand,” he said. “As countries like China grow wealthier, they eat more meat and need grain to feed the livestock.”

Polito, the 93-year-old from Southwest Ranches, said she has stopped indulging in prepared foods and baked goods.

”I’m alone and thankfully I don’t need much,” said Polito, who cooks for herself to cut costs. “I feel bad for people with families. How do they do it?”

Miami Herald staff writers Daisey Harris, Andres Amerikaner, Patricia Mazzei, Scott Andron and Bridget Carey contributed to this report.

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