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: ‘I have to do what I have to do for my last child. His siblings never went hungry’: This Detroit mother is forced to choose between her energy bill and groceries

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Tramena ONeil, 50, is making changes to her food budget to accommodate the rise in food prices. The mother of five works as a part-time parent outreach coordinator for Southeast High School in Detroit, and has a 17-year-old son still at home.

“I have to do what I have to do for my last child. His siblings never went hungry,” ONeil told MarketWatch. 

However, surging inflation, especially in the grocery aisle, has made that harder. She already cut back on red meat and changed her eating habits for health reasons, including high blood pressure. Changing again, under economic pressure, feels like an extra burden.

“I just can’t see myself and my son changing our whole eating habits again, just so that we can have enough food in the house,” she said. 

Food inflation rose 0.8% in September, which makes food items 11.2% more expensive than a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s among the highest levels since 1979. 

The price increase for food-at-home items was 13% in September compared to the previous year, rising 0.7% on the month. Dining out was 8.5% more expensive than last year, up 0.9% on the month. 

And food isn’t the only expense hitting some households hard. The rise in the cost of living was 8.2% in September compared to a year ago, among the highest levels in the past four decades. Prices started rising in late 2020 when the global coronavirus outbreak disrupted supply chains and put a constraint on the supply of goods. Russia’s war in Ukraine further squeezed gas prices
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+0.71%

and pushed up prices for fertilizers and feed, resulting in price increases across most agricultural products. 

Tramena ONeil, 50, has five children, and lives with the youngest, her 17-year-old son, in Detroit.

Courtesy of Tramena Oneil

As supply-chain disruptions ease, food prices are likely to follow, said Kayla Bruun, economic analyst at data insight company Morning Consult. Yet, the recent hurricanes in Florida likely contributed to some price hikes in September, she said.

The prices for fruits and vegetables rose 1.6% in September on the month, up 10.4% compared to last year. The price of lettuce rose 6.8% on the month, and 15.7% annually. Heat waves around the country affecting lettuce supplies were likely the reason behind it, a Wall Street Journal report said.  

In September, the prices on some items started to ease. Eggs were still 30.5% more expensive in September than last year, but their price fell 3.5% on the month. The bird flu earlier in the year greatly impacted the production of eggs and an egg producer told MarketWatch that production is recovering. Butter was 26.6% more expensive than last year, but down by 0.4% from last month. 

Food purchased on job sites and schools was 91.4% more expensive in September than the previous year, with prices rising 44.9% on the month. In September, many families resumed paying for their children’s school meals, as the universal school meal program, administered free of charge for the first two years of the pandemic, came to an end this school year.

“One of the realities is that eventually, consumers will have to cut back from other aspects of spending, other areas of retail,” said David Portalatin, food analyst at consumer insights company The NPD Group. 

“Food will take priority,” he said.  

ONeil, meanwhile, uses SNAP benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps her cope with some of the rising food costs, but it’s not always enough. “Sometimes I might not make a payment on my [energy bill] for that moment to make sure that there is enough food in the house,” O’Neil said.

For sure, electricity bills themselves aren’t immune from this inflation story. Electricity prices have jumped roughly 15.8% in the last year, largely as a result of high-priced natural gas
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-7.67%
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which is used to generate nearly 40% of the nation’s power.

ONeil buys food on sale, but those items often need to be eaten ASAP.

“I literally prepared ground turkey that I got for a reduced price for three hours. But I had to cook it because it was expiring today,” she told MarketWatch.

I’m 60, have ‘well into seven figures’ saved and my only debt is a $60K HELOC. Do I need a financial adviser to help, or can I navigate this myself?

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