Hawaii Food Prices Rank First in the Nation, Tips on Savings

by Edwin Quinabo

Like families across the U.S., Hawaii is feeling the pinch when it comes to skyrocketing food prices. And relative to mainlanders, Hawaii locals could be experiencing the most severe strain on their food budget according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that places Hawaii at the top in the nation for food costs.

A family of four in Hawaii can expect to spend an estimated annual food cost average of $14,042 in 2022, the highest amount among states. Compare that to number two Massachusetts – a substantial drop off – at $11,674, or last place Kentucky, $8,527. EPI also lists a Hawaii typical family’s income at $97,813 (above the national average of $80,069).

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists food costs as the second biggest (next to housing) portion of household incomes in Honolulu; and it shows food prices have increased by 11% from last year.

Some of the breakdown of rising costs include:  cereal and bakery products were up 14% while meat, poultry, fish and eggs rose 12%. Dairy prices were up over 10%, while both produce and beverages were up 7%.

EPI lists Hawaii’s SNAP (formerly called food stamps) recipients at 11.8% (lower than the national average of 12.1%).

Mark (last name withheld), Kunia, 24, recent graduate from the University of Hawaii, is thinking about enrolling in Hawaii’s SNAP program. Mark lives with his parents and sister and collectively, he believes, they probably would not qualify for SNAP. But as a newbie to the workforce, he thinks he might qualify. (Hawaii SNAP Eligibility Information – Oct. 1, 2021 through Sept. 30, 2022, Net Income and Asset requirement: 1 person $2470 / month, 2 people $3340 / month, 3 people $4210 / month, 4 people $5080 / month)

“I don’t have a problem with anyone making use of SNAP. But I’m not sure if it’s for me because no one in my family has ever got assistance in this way. The cost of food, though, has gone up really high. My mother, retired, does the cooking for the family. She also shops for groceries. My sister and I give her more money for our monthly house food budget. But it’s not just rising food costs. Our utilities have gone up too. I’m trying to save money. This is why I’m still at home, to be able to get a good nest of money before I go out on my own. It’s frustrating, not being able to save as much.

“For me, my situation is about saving less. I imagine others like single parents, whose situation are far more dire, are really struggling with inflation and affording basics like food. Now I am cutting back on my spending. I used to eat out for lunch but now I pack home lunches. It’s rare for me to go out to restaurants now. Even restaurants are charging more too,” Mark said.

According to the 
Food Gurus Hawaii Restaurant Index restaurants raised menu prices as much as 24% during this year’s first quarter.

In the first quarter restaurants customer sales grew by a robust 21% (from 2021), but in the second quarter increased by 3%. The dramatic drop in foot traffic and sales at restaurants between the first two quarters this year showed customers are affected by restaurant price hikes, which is  why in the second quarter of 2022, Hawaii restaurants raised prices by 1%.

On Oahu, the first half of the year saw an average of 5% increase of customers from 2021, showing modest improvement from the pandemic highpoint. Experts believe if it weren’t for rising food prices, restaurants would be performing better.

Common reasons Hawaii restaurants are raising prices: 1) food prices have gone up for them, 2) they need to pay their workers more, 3) utilities have gone up, and 4) they don’t want to go out of business.

Overall inflation in Hawaii, Proportion of income spent on excess inflation
University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) estimates that in March, the Urban Hawaii (Honolulu) Consumer Price Index (CPI) was 7.5% higher than it was one year ago.

Honolulu last saw an elevated inflation rate of 6.0% briefly in mid-2006, but otherwise inflation has not been over 7.5% since 1991.

“The recent surge stands in stark contrast to the inflation experience of recent years: between 2017 and 2020, Honolulu inflation averaged just 1.9%. If we take 1.9% to be the typical inflation rate for Honolulu, then the additional 5.6% inflation for the year ending in March can be thought of as ‘excess inflation,’” wrote UHERO’s Daniela Bond-Smith, Steven Bond-Smith and Carl Bonham.

UHERO pointed out to the varying impact on inflation based off income-earners in Hawaii. It found expenditure shares vary a lot by income quintile. The lowest income households, in the first quintile, earned less than $38,800 in 2020. These households spent 48% of their total expenditures on housing and household utilities. In contrast, the highest quintile earned more than $163,600, allocated only 32% of their total spending to housing and household utilities. This shows lower incomed earners are spending more of their income by percentage than higher income earners.

Pangs of food inflation, affecting cross section of population
Seniors in general because of their fixed incomes, are more susceptible to the financial pressures of inflation.

Teresita Bernales, Ed.D., Kailua, said “we are in a different and difficult situation. My husband and I are retired and on fixed income. Food prices have been going up and yet our income is the same.  We are running on deficit each time new price increases hit the grocery shelves.  Food costs have increased at least 10% for the past 12 months. This is certainly affecting our monthly budget in a very significant way.” While many seniors struggle with managed care of their finances during the inflation crunch, other seniors are in crisis-level situations.

Ludivina Domingo 83, told Hawaii News Now, that she goes to the church (WallyHouse at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Kalihi) for a meal. “I’m here to get the food bank because my Social Security is not enough for me every month,” Domingo said, a retiree from Hawaii’s hotel industry. Domingo said her only income cannot keep up with rising costs.

Charitable food pantries like Hawaii Foodbank said the number of people it’s serving has gone up in the last six months. In the last month, it experienced a 15% increase. Hawaii Foodbank said their estimate of food from meats, poultry, fish and eggs since the pandemic have risen by 30% (rice alone up by 15%).

Ron Iwamoto, Pearl City, estimates he is shouldering about 10% more on food. Like many in Hawaii, he says: “Food prices going up on its own wouldn’t be that bad. But when you’re looking at rising costs of just about everything, it begins to hurt. And suddenly, I think like most locals, we’re all looking at food price tags when shopping.”

Hawaii is the most expensive state for energy in the nation (in 2021), with the highest average monthly electricity bill, according to a report by Finder.com. The average monthly energy bill in Hawaii is $321, or $3,856 a year, according to the platform’s analysis.

Joseph Kent, Punchbowl, said his family’s monthly grocery bill has gone up by 10-15%. But some grocery items, like milk, have gone up by 25%. He’s noticed milk used to be $5.99 a gallon at Safeway, and now it’s $7.49.

Savings tips
Consumer Reports compiled a few tactics from experts to shave dollars off your shopping bill.

1.) Find alternative protein sources. Amy Keating, RD, a registered dietitian who oversees Consumer Reports’ food testing, said beans and other legumes remain a good nutrition bet. She said dried beans, peas, and lentils prices have gone up 10.5%, compared to most animal proteins that have risen by 19.3%. She says eggs are inexpensive protein alternatives.

2.) Frequent low-cost grocers.

3.) Go with store brands. Consumer Reports finds store-brand foods and beverages, they can cost 20 to 25% less than name brands of the same product.

4.) Use a cash-back credit card.

5.) Use your freezer right. Freezing large quantities of sale and seasonal food could save the average family of four $2,000 per year.Kent says his family plans their family dinners according to what’s on sale for the week. He recommends using store coupons that can be found on apps (besides cut out coupons). He’s found Costco and Sam’s Club helpful for bulk buying.

As for shopping tips, Bernales recommends using reward cards, signing up for loyalty programs and avoiding impulse buying by making a shopping list. She says farmers markets are great for fresh produce.

Bernales has tips on savings outside of grocery shopping. She said trying out canning and food preservation methods such as making your own salted eggs, making apple sauce, pickling cucumbers. She recommends making a broth or stock from chicken, meat, fish and excess vegetables like carrots, onions and celery for making sauces and soups.

As for eating at restaurants, both Kent and Bernales say they’ve cut back on the number of times they eat out.

“We used to eat out 3-4 times a week and due to the pandemic and inflation we have limited eating out for the last three years.  If we do (very rarely), we look for a restaurant with outdoor seating or we do take-out. No weekend outings now or socializing over food with friends,” Bernales said.

Drivers of higher food prices
Mainstream economists cite various reasons for the rise in price of food. Some believe the global market is still in pandemic recovery mode; that every part of the food supply chain – production, processing and retail – is catching up. Besides bottleneck supply chain, economists cite supply-demand issues, labor turnover.

Experts also believe the war in Ukraine aggravated pandemic recovery by causing energy prices to soar as many Western countries sanctioned Russian oil and gas. Although gas prices have been going down for about a month now, there is expected lag time for other adjustments in the global market, experts say.

While the pandemic is mostly controlled in the West, China’s current surge of COVID-19 has slowed down recovery. As China is the world’s largest exporter of goods, China’s lockdowns are putting additional strain on the global supply chain.

Economists describe these conditions – pandemic, bottleneck food supply chains, supply-demand, labor turnover, war and energy price hikes, China’s slow recovery – all as having contributed to the perfect storm for high inflation and rising cost of food.

Monopolization of the food industry, systemic driver of high cost
Then there are other economists who look to market concentration or monopolies as systemic culprits driving up food prices.

Robert Reich, UC California Berkeley professor, economist, attorney and author, said,  “Just four firms control 85% of all beef66% of all pork, and 54% of all poultry. This degree of monopolization is hurting farmers — and you.”

Monopolists control nearly every part of the food production process, from selling feed to farmers, to packaging the meat and poultry for supermarkets. Half of all chicken farmers report having just one or two processors to sell to.

Farmers are essentially forced to buy from and sell to monopolies at whatever price the corporation wants – often taking on crushing debt to do so. They are trapped in long-term binding contracts, with no way out but losing their livelihood altogether,” said Reich.

He adds, “in 1980, 62 cents of every dollar consumers spent on beef went to ranchers. Today, only 37 cents do. Most of the profits are going into the pockets of the monopolists.  And here’s the kicker: Even though farmers are getting squeezed, the ag monopolists are also charging you higher prices. During the pandemic, beef prices rose nearly 16% — and the four biggest beef companies’ profits rose more than 300 percent.“

These corporations are using their monopoly power to fix prices. Just recently, beef giant JBS settled — without admitting guilt, of course — a beef price-fixing case for $52.5 million. Monopolization is happening across the food sector. In corn, soybeans, dairy, pesticides, and farm machinery. The result is the same: lower pay to farmers, bigger profits for the monopolists, higher prices for you,” Reich said.

Bernales agrees with some of the economic experts. “Monopoly in all areas of doing business drives prices up and the same is true in the food industry. Food monopolies have undue influence over what farmers grow and how much they are paid.  Weak enforcement of regulation and unconstrained mergers and acquisitions have led to the rise of food monopolies.  Government intervention and help are needed when the situation endangers food security.  We need an emphasis to promote and help small businesses, local farmers, and food co-ops as well as more public funding to boost sustainable food systems to take root.”

Bolstering Hawaii agriculture and farming
Since Hawaii’s food security vulnerability was exposed during the pandemic, there is renewed political will to make a serious effort at bolstering Hawaii’s ability to produce sufficient amount of food, at least far more than what is currently produced.

Where does Hawaii stand on imports and locally grown food? Estimates have Hawaii importing between 80-90% of food.

According to the State of Hawaii’s Office of Planning Department of Business Economic Development & Tourism and the Department of Agriculture, Hawaii is self-sufficient in some vegetable and fruit crops but has become less self-sufficient in eggs, milk, livestock, hogs and pigs. In the 1970s, Hawaii was self-sufficient in eggs and milk with 240 eggs farms and 120 milk operations. Today there are about 100 egg farms and only two dairies. Livestock and hog and pig production have also declined since the 1970s.

More than half the fish consumed in Hawaii is caught locally. Hawaii farmers grow a majority of the cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers. Papaya is so plentiful that it’s one of the State’s top agricultural exports.

Does local grown mean more affordable?
Would a larger local agricultural and livestock farming help with keeping prices lower?

Experts believe that largely depends on economic principles of supply and demand, scale of production, cost of production. First, locally grown food would not have to be shipped which saves on shipping costs. But that alone doesn’t guarantee cheaper prices. Second, the high cost of production in Hawaii often means that local products are more expensive than imported ones. But if production costs can go down (with better technologically advanced equipment for farming, better irrigation systems and infrastructure) and farmers get the support they need from the state to establish the right scale of production of certain goods (meaning enough is produced to be price competitive), then costs could eventually go down.

Locally produced milk and eggs cost higher because there are too few local dairy farms. Inversely, because some vegetables and fruits are more plentiful, some locally grown vegetables and fruits (commonly found at Farmers markets) tend to be cheaper. There are exceptions.

Specialty food items produced locally are also pricier for the same reason milk and eggs are. Unique items and items where there are shortages in supply, as an economic principle, tend to be more expensive. Increasing supply (ag boost, livestock farming) and having the right amount of demand could in theory lower select food items.

Experts believe improvements in price and availability can be made on certain food products if grown locally under certain conditions of production cost and scale, but staple foods — like wheat and rice (carbohydrates) — that make up the bulk of Hawaii people’s diets, these items would be difficult to produce because of a lack of land base in the state. So even if there were smaller farms producing them in the future, it could contribute to food security on the islands, but it wouldn’t be at the right scale for their products to be cheaper than imported wheat or rice.

Bernales said, “Having local grown food for local consumption has been a perennial topic to bolster agri-business in Hawaii but there has not been a significant rise in production, consumption and revenue for farmers. People tend to eat and consume what is familiar to them.  For the Filipino community, we like a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, the prices right now are high.  If there are more harvests, prices should come down but they are not.   Bringing back livestock farming will benefit producers and consumers alike.”

Jones Act
Kent said lawmakers should make it less expensive to import food products, such as by urging reform of expensive shipping regulations such as the federal Jones Act and many state maritime regulations as well. 

The Jones Act requires that all vessels carrying goods between two U.S. points be American-built, -owned, -crewed and -flagged. It is believed by some that the Jones Act increases the cost of shipping to Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico that rely on imports by restricting the number of vessels that can legally deliver goods. Lifting the Jones Act would allow more vessels to enter Hawaii.

Proponents of the Jones Act cite protecting jobs in American shipbuilding and better control that every consumable item is shipped on schedule. They say eliminating the Jones Act would allow foreign-built ships to operate in our domestic trade and rewards countries like China, at the expense of U.S. businesses and jobs. And that timely delivery wouldn’t be as effective with foreign operated vessels.

Stevedores often complain that they are wrongfully blamed for the high cost of shipping goods. They say whether the Jones Act is lifted in Hawaii or not, their job remains the same. Rather, some say it is the punitive tax and regulatory policies that burden the American operator when compared to foreign “flag of convenience” shipowners that affect prices. On the mainland, the Jones Act is said to spare infrastructure of highways and roads on the continent from deterioration with excessive ground transportation. Delivery by shipping is also believed to save on fuel and pollution.

Opinion on the Jones Act: in Hawaii Business Magazine’s July 30, 2022 issue, the results of its most recent “BOSS Survey and 808 Poll” showed business executive/leader’s responses to the ‘scrapped entirely’ and ‘modified’ options of the Jones Act combined totaled 89% in 2022 as compared to 82% in 2020 an increase of 7 points with the greatest increase of 8 points in favor of modification.

The general public’s responses to the ‘scrapped entirely’ and ‘modified’ options to the Jones Act totaled 87% in 2022 as compared to 85% in 2020 an increase of 2 points with the greatest increase of 5 points in favor of scrapping entirely.

Among both executive leaders and the general public, there is wide support for either scrapping or modifying the Jones Act.The BOSS Survey and 808 Poll asked 396 Hawai‘i business leaders and 444 members of the public.

When will food prices drop?
There’s no clear consensus among economists and think tanks as to when food prices will go down. There is some consensus that the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes could slow down the economy enough to lower inflation. This would have almost have an immediate impact on some industries like real estate and car sales. But it could take longer for food.

Alan Blinder, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton and former vice chairman of the Fed, suggest that inflation will not last for years. “One day, hopefully soon, food and energy prices will level off and the supply chain problems will dissipate,” Binder writes in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. When that happens, says Binder, ”…inflation will fall as quickly and dramatically as it rose. We’ve seen it happen before.”

Forbes Advisor notes that key food commodity prices, including wheat, corn and soybean, have decreased from their recent highs. Wheat prices, in particular, are down 253% since mid-June of this year. But the question then is when will these lowered prices in trade trickle down to average consumers.

Paul Hughes, chief agricultural economist and director of research at S&P Global Commodity Insights, notes the Federal Reserve’s recent interest rate hikes have played a role in the decline by cooling demand—but it doesn’t mean consumers can expect to see lower prices at the grocery store next week.

“There is a lag effect between commodity prices and the impact the consumer sees,” says Hughes. “It will take a while for that to all funnel through to the consumer.”

In the meantime, Hawaii residents must work with stretching their budget as far as possible with a combination of smart shopping, accessing resources and doing with less.

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