The pandemic helped me measure my personal inflation

When COVID-19 put what seemed to be a temporary hold on life back in 2020, I changed some behaviors. Three years later, those changes are helping me measure my own personal inflation index.

I’m not talking about the weight I’ve gained since COVID-19 ended most day-to-day activities back in the spring of 2020 (though that is certainly a measurable amount). I’m talking about what my basket of groceries, which has remained more or less unchanged over this period, cost me in the fall of 2023 versus what the same food cost in the spring of 2020.

That’s because back in those early months, I shifted most of my purchases to curbside pickup orders. Since then, I’ve continued to “shop” in this way, with orders for different items split between a small local grocery store, a regional chain, and monthly stops at Walmart. Now, 142 shopping trips later, I’ve put it all together to see what it reveals.

The numbers here by no means reflect my whole weekly shopping list. But when you pare away the occasional indulgences and regular but maybe not-so-usual purchases (does anyone need an index that includes feta cheese, Deglet Noor dates, and shallots?), these are items that show up on the list almost every week.

Overall, my “core basket” of dairy, meat, fruit, and veggies cost $39.27 in May 2020 (the first month in which I could put it all together) and $43.50 in the first two weeks of November 2023. That’s just over a 10% increase in 43 months. Or an annual inflation rate of around 3%.

However, this rate of change was far from smooth. In fact, the highest cost was back in October of 2022, when prices were actually 10% higher than they are now.
 

Here’s what’s in that core basket. If it sounds like a lot for a single week, do keep in mind I’m shopping for two.

Dairy

  • Milk: a gallon of lactose-free skim milk (because I love milk, but the feeling isn’t always mutual)

  • Eggs: a dozen organic, free-range eggs (and yes, I know they’re not actually dairy)

Meat

  • Beef: 1 pound of organic, grass-fed, 93% lean ground beef

  • Chicken: 1 pound of free-range, organic, skinless, boneless chicken breast

Fruit

  • Blueberries: 1 pint of blueberries (local when possible)

  • Strawberries: 1 pound of fresh strawberries

  • Apples: 3 pounds of Ambrosia apples (yes, Ambrosia. Accept no substitutes.)

  • Bananas: 2 pounds of organic bananas

Vegetables

  • Lettuce: one head of butter lettuce

  • Tomatoes: 1 pound of organic tomatoes (usually on the vine)

  • Green onions: one small bunch

  • Spinach: one bag of organic baby spinach

  • Broccoli: two heads, usually about a pound and a half

Obviously, this isn’t a cart that’s shooting for the cheapest items available. It reflects my ability to indulge in food that I perceive as better for me, ones I find more pleasing in taste, and those I think of as somewhat better for the planet. Plus, I’m sure if you eat enough baby spinach, it totally makes up for going through a semi-weekly box of Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts.

Looking across the groups, both the meat and the fruit costs have edged up. That’s mostly in the form of increased cost for the ground beef and for my precious bag of Ambrosia apples. There are things that have moved up slightly, like milk, which was one of the few items that saw small, regular increases. There are a few items that are actually cheaper.

Others, like the eggs, have been on a wild ride. See the point on the second chart where the dairy group reaches nearly $10 a week? That was eggs hitting a peak price locally of $5.47 a dozen. Oddly, this peak came several months after prices had begun to decline nationally, but then, egg prices in this area of the Midwest never approached those seen in some parts of the East and South.

The fruit section is probably the most volatile. Not only are prices affected by seasonal availability, there are also some inexplicable movements, such as when blueberries nearly doubled in price last month before dropping back to where they had been in September.

The veggie group comes out as the bargain. That’s because a slow decline in the price of broccoli over the last six months actually dropped the whole group below what it cost at the beginning of my “study.” That’s right: I had veggie deflation over the last three plus years.

Here’s something else weird. As the egg prices were high, producers blamed the high cost on the effects of avian flu, which resulted in the death of millions of birds. But just as egg prices hit their peak, the price of chicken dropped significantly. It’s almost as if …

Naw. Couldn’t be. That’s free-range, organic chicken. Surely, the farmers wouldn’t lie about something like that.

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