Jon GingerichJon Gingerich

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. For several years now, I’ve found myself wandering my neighborhood grocery store aisles, rubbing my eyes while staring incredulously at the prices, wondering when I’ll wake up.

From what I’ve heard, I’m not alone in experiencing this kind of sticker shock. Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past four years, you probably noticed that grocery prices have been ridiculously high. The reasons for this, we’re told, are manifold: inflation, supply-chain issues, weather events, higher wages, foreign wars, a bird flu outbreak and, last but not least, some good-old-fashioned price-gouging from food corporations that have resorted to the grifty practice of using pandemic-induced inflation as an excuse to overcharge customers.

That last one isn’t a conspiracy theory. As reported in February by the New York Times, a White House Council of Economic Advisers analysis discovered that profit margins at grocery stores are now two percentage points higher than they were before the pandemic, effectively accounting for the highest profit margins in 20 years. While profit margins peaked and dipped for retailers throughout the pandemic, supermarkets have consistently made a killing.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, which tracks the average prices U.S. consumers pay for goods and services, food prices increased by 2.6 percent in January 2024 from the same period a year prior. The price for food at home—that is, groceries—rose 1.2 percent in the last year, while food away from home—or restaurants—rose 5.1 percent. And that’s the good news: The rising prices that characterize the latest CPI report represent a marked improvement if you consider that food-at-home prices jumped 11.4 percent in 2022 and 5 percent in 2023. Those numbers were so high they even outpaced the rate of inflation, which is saying something, considering we haven’t seen inflation like this since the 1970s.

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People are angry. The average American might not follow CPI data, but they do know how much they spend at the grocery store every week and how these sky-high prices have forced them to modify their budgets and shopping behaviors, be it buying less, switching to value brands or hunting for deals. Suffice it to say, these cost-saving adaptations influence their feelings regarding the state of the country. According to a December Morning Consult survey, food prices remain Americans’ top economic concern. A recent Yahoo Finance/Ipsos poll found that two-thirds of voters said food prices are where inflation has hit them hardest. It isn’t a stretch to assume the prices people are paying at the supermarket may play a role in how they vote in November. Food prices have become a top political issue, perhaps more so than any other time in recent memory.

This hasn’t translated into good news for President Biden. Biden enters a reelection year with abysmal approval ratings and inflation as one of his biggest hurdles—and it just so happens the grocery aisle is where most Americans are feeling the economic strain. That’s a shame, because all economic indicators suggest we’re on the rebound. Unemployment sits at a historically low 3.7 percent. Job growth has continually outpaced expectations. The stock market hit record highs in February. Consumer confidence is improving. And not only is overall inflation cooling, but for the first time since early 2022, the rising cost of food has now fallen below it. Even better, as the CPI data suggests, some grocery store items are now cheaper: The price of avocados, eggs, tomatoes and lettuce have all moderated in the last year. In fact, the most recent USDA food price outlook predicts that food-at-home prices are expected to decline .4 percent in 2024. Sounds pretty good, right? But are consumers getting the message?

“News of food-price deceleration is widespread,” said Heddy DeMaria, Chief Insights and Strategy Officer at Hunter, an agency that specializes in food and nutrition. “Consumers are getting the message and appear to be cautiously optimistic that prices will stabilize and, in some cases, decline. However, at the end of the day, they mostly believe what they personally see on the grocery store shelf and how much money they will need to lay out weekly for their food expenses. Until they notice a difference, we can expect them to continue to employ their cost-savings behaviors they have recently adopted.”

DeMaria told me that while she thinks grocery prices will be part of the election conversation this year, she doesn’t believe they will play a significant role in who Americans ultimately vote for at the ballot box. First, we’re not in a recession. Second, both leading candidates have aligned themselves with the everyman who’s been disproportionately impacted by unreasonable food prices and is looking to the government for solutions (one candidate has done it through an “America-First” message, the other by discussing equity and inclusion). Instead, DeMaria believes it’s the typical polarizing issues fueled by deep-seated ideological commitments that will remain at the forefront and drive voter choice in 2024.

“People are deciding how—or if—to vote based on which candidates they feel best reflect their own personal values, and are most aligned on the standards they believe will be in the best interest of the country,” DeMaria said.

So, in other words, business as usual. Maybe grocery prices are the least of our worries?