By now, most Americans have felt the effects of global crises on their grocery bills. Recent research published in the journal Nature Food has found this to be a worldwide phenomenon. As part of a project called Food Prices for Nutrition, professor William Masters at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts and a group of graduate students gathered data on retail prices for diverse food groups around the world, and found that the cost of groceries rose in tandem with COVID-19 case counts across the globe.
“We used big-data techniques to look at prices for these diverse retail food items, across each food group needed in a balanced diet, in as many countries as possible, to understand changes in access to a healthy diet that might be caused by the spread of COVID-19 and other factors,” said Masters, who has a secondary appointment in the Department of Economics at Tufts.
To measure the links between food prices and the spread of COVID-19, Masters and his team compared the retail prices of eight food groups and overall consumer prices in 180 countries between January 2019 and June 2021, making sure to distinguish between the agricultural commodity values reported in the media and the retail prices that consumers pay.
“Bulk rates for wholesale items, like 10,000 pounds of wheat on a boat, are not what people pay when they buy a five-pound bag of flour or a half-pound loaf of bread at their local shop,” Masters said.
They learned that during each country’s successive waves of COVID-19, national consumer price indexes tracking the average prices of all food rose significantly above pre-pandemic levels. Average prices for specific food groups recommended for a healthy diet—fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses (seeds used as dry grains), dairy, eggs, and meats—rose in proportion to COVID-19 cases and deaths.