WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — Despite sharp deceleration in food inflation since a post-pandemic peak, US consumers deem current food pricing as unpalatable, according to new research from the Purdue University College of Agriculture’s Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability (CFDAS).

In the Purdue CFDAS May 2024 Consumer Food Insights (CFI) survey, 56% of more than 1,200 US shoppers said food prices rose the most over the past 12 months versus other common household expenses. Just 10% cited housing and utilities as rising the most in pricing, while other respondents named insurance (9%), transportation (5%), entertainment/leisure (4%), health care (3%) and household items (3%).

That perception isn’t borne out by inflation data, however. The May 2024 Consumer Price Index for food shows a year-over-year gain of 2.1% (+1% for food at home, +4% for food away from home), compared with 20.3% for vehicle insurance, 4.9% for child care, 4.7% for utilities, 4.6% for housing, 4.3% for home insurance, 3.1% for health care, 2.9% for transportation, 1.3% for entertainment/leisure and -2.5% for household items, based on US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.

Similarly, 84% of shoppers surveyed by Purdue CFDAS said food prices “increased a lot” (51%) or “increased a little” (33%) over the past 12 months. That topped the aggregate percentages of respondents who said prices escalated for household items/supplies (76%), transportation (71%), utilities (70%), insurance (68%), entertainment/leisure (64%), health care (52%), housing (52%) and child care (41%).

“While food inflation has slowed in 2024, consumers are feeling the cumulative effect of the high inflation we’ve experienced,” CFI lead author Joseph Balagtas, professor of agricultural economics and CFDAS director at Purdue, said in comments on the latest research.

“We also wanted to understand how perceived changes in food prices compare with perceived price changes for other common household expenses,” he added. “Consumers were more likely to report price increases for food than for any other good or service in the economy.” 

The Purdue CFDAS report noted food price inflation peaked at 11.4% in August 2022, while BLS pegged 12-month food inflation at 6.7% for May 2023. And even with the rate at 2.1% annually for May 2024, consumers in Purdue’s poll estimated food at home inflation at 6.2% during the past 12 months and expect that to decline to 3.6% over the next 12 months.

“Consumer estimates of food inflation over the past year of 6.2% and expectations for the coming year of 3.6% continue to remain higher than the CPI estimate,” stated Elijah Bryant, a survey research analyst at CFDAS and co-author of the study.

“Consumers’ inflation estimates continue to hover around 6%, showing that the dramatic increase in food inflation in previous years may still be affecting consumer food price sentiment,” Bryant explained. “However, consumers have been consistently more optimistic about future food prices relative to their inflation estimates over the past 12 months.”

The top strategy employed by shoppers to mitigate higher food prices was searching for more sales and discounts, cited by 27% of consumers, the Purdue CFDAS’ survey showed.

Other strategies included buying fewer non-essential foods like ice cream (cited by 20%), switching to less expensive brands (20%) and/or generic brands (19%), using more coupons (17%), shopping at stores with lower pricing (16%), saving money for food purchases by spending less on discretionary items like apparel or electronics (13%), buying fewer premium foods like meat or fruit (12%), purchasing more bulk foods (12%), buying more staple foods like pasta or beans (11%), and spending more time online to find better prices (11%).

As of May 2024, weekly household expenditures for food at home averaged $131, up from $123 in July 2023, Purdue reported in its study, indicating that some of those extra dollars spent came from food away from home, where average weekly spending dipped to $66 as of May 2024 from $69 in July 2023. Still, when it comes to the chief factors in food purchasing decisions, Purdue found consumers ranked taste first and affordability second, followed by nutrition and availability.

“One area where we see bigger generational differences when asking about recent consumer experiences is the source of funding that consumers reported relying on to purchase food,” Balagtas also observed. “Around 37% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers report drawing on savings or going into debt to finance their food purchases over the past year, compared to 28% of Gen X and only 13% of Boomer-plus consumers. It is concerning to see over a third of young adults needing to stretch their finances to afford food.”