By Sue Kirchhoff, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Rising food prices are a significant worry for Americans, with 73% of consumers in a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll citing higher grocery bills as a concern, and nearly half saying food inflation has caused a hardship for their households.
According to the April 18-20 poll of 1,016 adults, food prices rank just below record-high gasoline prices in consumer angst. Eighty percent of those polled also noted energy prices as a concern.
"I'll drive farther, even though gas is higher, if there's a bigger price savings at another store," says Anna Thomas of Austin, Ind. She and her husband can handle rising food prices with planning, though it's a pinch. "It's hard on us, but it's harder for families with kids," Thomas says.
Consumer food inflation has been running at a 5.3% annual rate in the past three months, the Labor Department says. The largest price increases are white bread, up 16.3% in the past 12 months; milk, which has risen 13.3%; eggs, up 34.8%; and bananas, which are 17% higher.
Prices are being influenced by several factors, including rising U.S. exports, growing demand in nations such as China and India, poor crops in some important producing countries such as Australia, and the emergence of the biofuels industry. Economists predict a third of the U.S. corn crop will be diverted to government-subsidized ethanol production.
Corn, wheat, soybeans and other grain prices have surged to records this year, though prices have moderated in recent days on expectation of increased planting. While the higher prices have hurt Americans, who devote about 10% of take-home pay for food, they have been devastating for consumers in nations such as Haiti, Pakistan, Egypt and India, who spend a larger share of their budget to maintain a basic diet. The United Nations World Food Program said Tuesday that high food prices threaten to plunge more than 100 million people into hunger.
It's not just consumers feeling the heat. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which oversees futures markets, held a hearing Tuesday to address concerns from farmers and the food industry that increased involvement of Wall Street investors in grain markets has increased price volatility and uncertainty. CFTC officials in opening statements generally didn't call for new trading restrictions.
According to the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, 46% of respondents say higher food prices have caused a hardship, including 10% who said they've created a severe hardship. By comparison, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last month showed high gasoline prices causing hardship for 63%.
"The higher food prices, while noticeable, aren't a hardship for me," says Rick Pabst of Fullerton, Calif. "There're a lot of people who live at the margin. … It's the staples prices going up (for them) that worries me. We're all interconnected."
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