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As Grocery Bills Skyrocket, Chicagoans Skip Takeout, Cancel Gatherings And Ditch Meat: ‘The Prices Are Concerning’

Consumer grocery prices are up 12.2 percent over the last year, forcing Chicagoans to buy fewer groceries, grow their own food or simply eat less.

A shopper picks out vegetables at the Garfield Park Grocery Pop-Up
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CHICAGO — Chicagoans are trying to combat rising grocery prices and inflation with gardening, eating out less and strategic purchasing — but many are worried about how long they can keep up.

Consumer prices have risen 9.1 percent in the past year — and food prices are up even higher. The Consumer Price Index showed a 12.2 percent increase in grocery prices over the last year, the highest bump since 1979, according to Fortune.

Luis Santiago, of Humboldt Park, picked out plantains Tuesday at his neighborhood store. His average grocery bill has gone up $150 in recent months, he said. 

“We have to buy less food, and try to save as much of it as possible,” Santiago said.

Santiago said he understands why meat prices have risen, but “other basic stuff” like fruits and vegetables, “shouldn’t be this high, because people need this to survive.”

Jamie Cernek, 25, of Rogers Park, said she wants to see local officials “do more to deal with this” and hopes they’re able to find a “long-term solution” to increasing costs. 

“This is something you notice right away,” Cernak said. “You have to buy food. If that’s not taken care of then you have a lot of other things to worry about.”

‘I Try To Take Better Stock Of What I’m Buying And Using’

Snacks, desserts and meat are among the items Chicagoans feel more hesitant about putting in their shopping carts. 

Virginia Thomas, 38, of Portage Park, said she and her husband are eating mostly vegetarian because meat is just too expensive.

“We’ve been trying to reduce our meat consumption anyway, but it’s really easy when you can hardly afford it,” Thomas said. “We’re eating more tofu because it’s cheaper. Lentils and quinoa are big ones for us, too, because you can get those in bulk for a good price.” 

When the two do buy meat, they buy it in bulk when it’s on sale and keep it in the freezer, Thomas said. 

“When I was a kid, I lived in a trailer, and [I] have been on different forms of government assistance throughout my life,” Thomas said. “We’ve always been able to make something out of nothing.” 

To save money, Meara Brady, of Lakeview, said she’s also cut back on meat and has been buying more frozen food and staples in bulk to make her groceries “stretch as much as possible.” 

“Sometimes, I used to let that bag of spinach just die because you forget about it and it’s too late,” said Brady, 33. “But now, that bag of spinach goes in breakfast, lunch, dinner, smoothies.

“I try to take better stock of what I’m buying and using.” 

Ordering Food ‘Would Just Be Too Much On Top Of Groceries’

The increased costs of food have also affected people’s ability to go to restaurants and order takeout because restaurant prices are higher and because they don’t have as much extra money to support local businesses.

Lesly Ramos, of Bucktown, said she used to be able to get everything she and her fiance wanted from Aldi for about $50 per week, but now just the bare essentials cost her about $75. 

“I’ve had to think more critically about what I’m buying, sticking to my grocery list and using all of the ingredients in my fridge and cabinets before buying more,” said Ramos, 24.

Ramos and her fiance used to eat at restaurants or order takeout twice a week, but recently they’ve been focused on making meals stretch at home, she said. 

“We’ve been more intentional about making interesting foods at home,” Ramos said. “If we want Chipotle, we’ll try to make a version at home we’re able to eat throughout the week. We’re thinking a lot about buying the foods and ingredients that will last us a bit longer.” 

Maria, a teacher from Rogers Park who asked that only her first name be used, has watched her grocery bill increase from about $700 a month to $1,200, which has caused her to “cut back on ordering food.” She used to eat out three or four times a week, but she now cooks at home most nights instead. 

Ordering food “would just be too much on top of groceries,” Maria said. 

A father and son in Rogers Park are experiencing the same thing — so they simply “don’t eat as much,” said Brian Williams, 42.

Williams has stopped buying as many snacks and is trying out recipes as he makes more of an effort to cook at home, he said. 

“I would say [rising prices] impacted grocery shopping a little, but it’s impacted eating at restaurants a lot,” Williams said.

Brady said she’s been making an effort to avoid eating out, as well, which has been “time-consuming.” 

“It’s a lot more dishes,” Brady said. “It’s a lot more planning ahead. Sometimes that can be really difficult when you just want to order something, but that costs an extra $40.”

‘I’ve Seen The Invitation Is Not There Anymore’

Other Chicagoans have been limiting gatherings with friends and families due to the cost of feeding everyone. 

Jazmine Lozada filled her trunk Tuesday at Armitage Produce, 3334 W. Armitage Ave., with less groceries than she usually gets. She now has to do “just a little bit of shopping at a time” as prices “feel like they’ve tripled,” Lozada said. 

Lozada used to enjoy feeding her extended family of 15 together around the table — but she’s had to cut back to her more immediate household. 

“Food is just super expensive,” Lozada said. “And there’s no way around it. We pay what we pay.” 

Matthew Silver, a psychotherapist from Rogers Park, said he loves having people over and used to host for friends and family every week. But recently, he’s started buying smaller portions, limited his trips to farmers markets and gotten more serious about avoiding food waste, Silver said.  

“I used to go all out. I do less of that,” Silver said. “I still entertain, but I won’t be making beef barbacoa for six people or a rack of lamb.”

Leslie Gomez lives with her family of seven in Rogers Park and used to be able to fill her entire grocery cart with just $100. Now, that gets her “just three bags,” the 24-year-old said. 

As a result, her family also hasn’t been a part of as many gatherings, Gomez said. 

“I’ve seen the invitation is not there anymore,” Gomez said. “Gatherings are down for the simple fact that it’s more expensive.” 

‘Every Little Thing You Can Make For Yourself Instead Of Buying It From Somewhere Helps

To minimize the strain of increased costs, Chicagoans said they’ve tried venturing to different stores than they usually would in search of deals. Others tend gardens to grow their own food. 

Stores that accept government food assistance like WIC Grocery, 3110 W. Armitage Ave., have seen “an influx of customers” as food costs — especially those for fruits and vegetables — have inflated, said Gus Caballero, assistant site director for the store. 

“The prices are concerning,” Caballero said. “Because the people who come here live paycheck to paycheck.”

Cernek said she’s shopped exclusively at Devon Market since noticing price increases at the big chain stores when she returned from a trip abroad in April. 

Though Cernek’s groceries still cost about one-third more than they used to, visiting her local grocery store has been significantly cheaper than frequenting grocery chains, she said.

“Everyone should support their local neighborhood grocery store because they will be there through thick and thin,” Cernek said. 

In addition to traveling further to stores advertising sales and shopping at places that sell items in bulk, Thomas has expanded the garden in her small backyard in Portage Park. She grows fresh vegetables and herbs in 5-gallon buckets from hardware stores so she doesn’t have to buy as much produce. 

“Every little thing you can make for yourself instead of buying it from somewhere helps,” Thomas said. “But, the issue is all those things take time and space.” 

Thomas also makes an effort to donate any extra food she has to local food pantries — which are struggling to keep up with an increased demand for food as more people become unable to afford groceries — since produce from the garden “comes in waves.” 

“I’m fortunate enough to be able to contribute right now, but I want to know that those are there if I ever need to get things out of them as well,” Thomas said. 

‘I’ll Spend My Time Making Chicken Stock Since I Can’t Afford To Buy It Anymore’

Though people are finding ways to get by, many said the stress of rising prices has taken a toll. 

Ramos said rising costs have been “frustrating” and she “can’t imagine how much more things will cost in a couple of months.”

Amidst a pandemic, a climate crisis and now, inflation, Thomas said she’s sometimes afraid to look back on how much life has changed in the past few years. 

“I don’t think it’s talked about enough how many big stressors there are affecting our mental health,” Thomas said. “It’s difficult to face a lack of control.” 

Thomas talks frequently with her therapist about how to “shift perspectives in order to be comfortable, in any way, with the new environment we’ve been thrust into,” she said. 

“When it’s in your face that, prices are rising and your wages aren’t, it’s an uncomfortable squeeze,” Thomas said. “I think it’s important for me to recognize that we’ve been through crappy times before and we can handle it, instead of wallowing in it. Instead of looking up what I used to spend on groceries … I’ll spend my time making chicken stock since I can’t afford to buy it anymore.” 

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