Relief at the pump meets increases in the aisle

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — While WNY residents are likely happy with what they’re seeing at the pump, the opposite could be true at their local grocery, well beyond double-digit increases thanks to events in 2015 and beyond.

But while people are getting a break at gas stations, food staples at the grocery are what’s making up the difference.

That’s a big change say experts with the Food Systems Planning and Health Communities Lab at the University at Buffalo.

“Historically, food prices are actually going down,” said Jennifer Whittaker with the food lab. “But recently, they’re going up across the country, primarily because of environmental stresses, but also disease because our food system is very interconnected across the country.”

But many don’t think about environmental factors in the west affecting food prices in Western New York.

“Really, it’s the most intimate connection people have to the environment and it’s a main driver for all the other activities that go on in our lives,” said Kelley Mosher, a project assistant with the food lab.

The biggest stress on the environment in 2015 — and technically months before — is the ongoing drought in California, which has affected produce prices across the board. There’s a price for convenience.

“Right now, you can buy strawberries and it’s February, so obviously, those are being shipped in from somewhere else,” Whittaker said.

The choking supply of water is hurting produce farmers. But it’s also affecting dairy and meat farms, many of which were already decimated by disease in 2015.

“If you think purely from a numbers standpoint, conglomeration is making things cheaper, but disease is a side effect of that,” Whittaker said.

In other words, massive farms keep costs down, but once disease takes hold — as it did last year, costing millions of beef cattle and chickens — it could lead to the price increases we’re experiencing now.

Western New York is actually in a good place when it comes to the increase in basic items. Thanks to the regions competitive local dairy market, experts say it now makes more sense to buy local.

“A lot of people are unaware of what’s going on, or they don’t necessarily see the interconectedness of the food system because we’ve done such a great job creating this web within our industrialized food system,” Mosher said.

Those problems aren’t the end, experts say. The next issue — or increase — is likely around the corner.

“I think those problems are going to continue to be problems as long as our food system stays as large and industrialized at the moment,” she said. “It’s really a matter of taking a step back and looking at the way things are right now and evaluating how we can make positive change to prevent those things from happening to begin with.”

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