Respect Poverty

Food prices skyrocketed in January, putting a heavy burden on the poorest

Aleksandr_Vorobev/ iStock

Story at a glance

  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a global index of food prices.
  • It found the prices of meat, dairy and cereals went up from December, while the price of oils reached their highest level since 1990.
  • Much of the burden of inflation falls on residents of emerging and low-income countries, where food typically makes up a third to half of consumer spending.

As record rates of inflation hit the U.S. and countries around the world, one thing that’s hit people’s wallets the hardest has been food prices, which could create a dangerous situation for the world’s poorest. 

A global index released on Thursday by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization revealed that certain food prices in January hit their highest levels since 2011. The prices of meat, dairy and cereals ticked up from December, while the price of oils reached their highest level since the index began tracking food prices back in 1990.

There was a small morsel of good news: The price of sugar was down 3 percent from December, marking the second consecutive monthly decline and the lowest level in the past six months.

The reasoning behind the price increases included persistent drought conditions in Argentina and Brazil, rising crude oil prices, transportation delays due to COVID-19 and labor shortages.


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The International Monetary Fund (IMF) visualized how price pressures were varying across the world, with U.S. inflation mostly stemming from the energy sector, while in Europe food was the second largest driver of inflation.

The IMF noted that last year food prices rose about 23 percent and are expected to take on a more moderate increase of about 4 percent in 2022.  

However, much of the burden of inflation falls on residents of emerging and low-income countries, where food typically makes up a third to half of consumer spending. Here in the U.S., food accounts for less than one-seventh of household shopping bills.  

The World Bank conducted rapid phone surveys in 72 countries and found that a significant number of people are running out of food or reducing their consumption. Between 720 million and 811 million people in the world went hungry in 2020, which the World Bank estimated to be around 118 million more people than in 2019. 

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates about 10 percent of the U.S. population is food insecure, defined as households that obtain enough food to avoid substantially disrupting their eating patterns or reducing food intake by using different coping strategies, like eating less varied diets, using federal food assistance programs and getting food from community food pantries. 

In 2020, the USDA estimated household food insecurity affected about 15 percent of households with children, affecting about 6 million kids.  

A Gallup poll found that most Americans expect inflation to stick around over the next six months, with 79 percent predicting inflation will go up and 50 percent saying they expect it to go up “a lot.” 

Current rates of inflation in the U.S. hit 7 percent, an increase that hasn’t been seen in nearly four decades, and for now it’s not completely clear when prices will begin to fall. 


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