Column: Cereal for dinner? It's one way to beat supermarket inflation

SHERMAN OAKS, CA - MARCH 7, 2024 - - Shardreata Moore, 67, looks over canned foods on sale while looking for bargains at Ralph's market in Sherman Oaks on March 7, 2024. Moore visits the Alicia Broadous-Duncan Multipurpose Senior Center in Sherman Oaks during the week where she can get a free meal. "It's tough over the weekend," Moore said about getting something to eat when the senior center is closed. She buys a foot long sandwich from Subway from time to time. She cuts it up in three pieces and says she's able to get three meals out of it. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
Shardreata Moore looks for bargain canned foods at the grocery store. (Genaro Molina /Los Angeles Times)

Every once in a while, Shardreata Moore gets a Subway coupon in the mail, and she knows she won’t have to worry about her next three meals.

“I get a $7.99 footlong and have them cut it in threes,” the retiree told me.

Moore, who was having lunch at the Sherman Oaks East Valley Senior Center, says she goes to Subway to order a chicken sandwich on whole grain bread, with spinach, cucumbers and tomatoes. That way, she gets some protein and at least a few fresh vegetables without a trip to the grocery store, where inflation is a killer.

On a tight budget, Moore said, “It’s difficult to eat healthy.”

Ann Picanza, another retiree, was in full agreement and happy to share her cost-cutting strategies, one of which is to take advantage of the daily free lunch at the senior center. On Thursday, the offering was chicken, brown rice, vegetables and fresh fruit.

Two older women look at merchandise on shelves marked "great deals" and "last chance"
Shardreata Moore, 67, left, and Ann Picanza, in her 70s, look for bargains on the deal racks at a market in Sherman Oaks. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

When she does go grocery shopping, Picanza said, it’s not as simple as taking the bus to one store and filling a basket. She ricochets around from store to store, coupons in hand, seeking bargains as if on a treasure hunt.

“It’s difficult, and I have to buy things I didn’t use to,” Picanza said. “I used to enjoy buying a piece of meat in the Pavilions, but now, what can you do? I still want meat, and so I buy these pies that have meat in them, for $1.49.”

According to the AARP, food insecurity among older adults is on the rise, and “one out of 10 seniors is at risk of going hungry.” The consumer price index, compiled monthly by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicates a bit of inflation relief at the supermarket, but still, prices are up about 25% over the last four years. In January of this year, prices for sugar, oil, fruits and vegetables ticked up slightly, bakery products declined slightly, and meat, fish, poultry and egg prices were flat.

Even amid signs that inflation is on the decline, it’s a central topic in the presidential campaign, and people on fixed incomes are particularly hard hit by rising utility, housing and food costs.

Of course, when it comes to grocery prices, a president can’t just wave a wand at the checkout stand. Inflation is tied to rising labor costs, continued post-pandemic supply chain interruptions, avian flu and the impact of extreme weather — heat waves, wildfires and flooding — on global food production.

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So prices rise and fall, mostly the former, and none of the changes escape the notice of older adults I spoke to over the last few days. At the Vons in Eagle Rock, Sylvia Millis and Vernon Bowman grabbed a hunk of tri-tip, a cheaper cut of meat, and considered some fresh fruit, eyeballing price tags.

“I do watch prices, because we have other things to pay for,” said Millis, a retired teacher. “We had a whole new gas line put in last month, and the month before that, it was a whole new water line. You’re not quite sure what’s coming down the line.”

Kris Gaine had a pack of ground beef in her cart, with a 30%-off sticker.

A woman in large sunglasses sits with her hands clasped in front of her
Shardreata Moore visits a senior center during the week where she can get a free meal. "It's tough over the weekend," Moore says. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“I shop the specials and use a club card,” said Gaine, who is no rookie when it comes to collecting coupons. “Oh, I used to be the queen. Remember when they had double coupons?”

Gaine said that when she retired several years ago from 40-plus years in ticketing and subscriptions at downtown L.A. arts venues, she was financially set.

“Not now,” she said. “Inflation has overtaken my pension and Social Security. I stand here and shake my head on most of my visits to the grocery store.”

For thousands of low- and moderate-income older adults, the food offerings at the centers run by Valley InterCommunity Council (VIC) are a lifeline. In partnership with the L.A. Department of Aging, free hot, healthy lunches are served Monday through Friday at the Sherman Oaks East Valley location and the Alicia Broadous-Duncan Multipurpose Senior Center in Pacoima.

VIC also distributes care packages from the Los Angeles Food Bank, delivers to homebound seniors and connects clients to the state’s CalFresh program, which offers monthly stipends for nutritious food at supermarkets.

Beverly Ventriss, VIC's president and chief executive, said female “solo agers” are particularly hard hit by inflation. They often outlive their husbands, who take their pensions to the grave. And traditionally, women earned lower salaries than men, so their retirement benefits often don't measure up.

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“Basically, I don’t shop. It’s cheaper for me to eat out,” Mary Green said at the Pacoima center, explaining that she gets meals priced as low as $5 with coupons from Burger King, Carl’s Jr. and Panda Express. “I live alone, and it’s cheaper for me to not use the utilities, and I don’t have to mess up the kitchen.”

She knows it's not the healthiest way to eat, but she gets balanced meals at the senior center. And a tight budget is a tight budget.

“My gas bill is killing me,” said Sara Guerrero, a regular visitor at the Pacoima center. “I had to give up cooking my delicious pork chops. They’re too expensive now.”

Gail Martin, who was working the front desk at the senior center, told me two food items keep her alive.

“I eat a lot of cereal, I’m not going to lie,” she said, explaining that store-brand cereal — “not the real Cheerios” — has replaced meat for her at lunch and dinner. “And I eat cups of soup, cups of noodles. I eat those a lot.”

At the Sherman Oaks center, Moore said she's been hammered by a rent increase from $1,190 to $1,400 a month. With free lunches served only on weekdays, she doesn’t eat three meals on weekends. Picanza said she’s handling the mortgage on her condo, but she’s getting pinched by rising homeowners association fees.

When Moore and Picanza had finished their lunch, they piled into my car and we drove to a nearby Ralphs to see what was on sale. Just inside the front door, they went straight to a section of big bins heaped with sale items. Ken’s Steak House salad dressing was reduced from $3.49 to $2.49. Classico pasta sauce was knocked down a dollar, to $1.99 per jar. And Progresso soup, regularly $2.79, was $1.79.

Two older women walk in a parking lot, one carrying grocery bags
Shardreata Moore, left, and Ann Picanza leave the market with some of their bargains. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“You have to check the dates,” Moore said, examining a can. She also found some discounted salmon and ground beef, and reminded us that the older it gets, the lower the price.

Smart shoppers also are checking for what’s known as shrinkflation, the sneaky trend called out by President Biden in his State of the Union Speech, to keep prices level but skimp on what’s in the bag.

In the produce section of the store, Picanza was disappointed that a big bag of refrigerated broccoli she has bought for $5.99 had gone up to $6.50.

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In another aisle, she picked up a loaf of whole-grain sliced bread, checked the price and frowned.

“This isn’t on sale, it’s $3.29,” she said. “But it’s the bread I like.”

Picanza said she might ask the manager to mark it down.

“She would do it too,” Moore said.

Picanza scanned the store, looking for help. Fighting inflation is not for the meek of heart. The equity gap only gets wider, and you have to pretend you don't know you're living in the strongest economy in the world and continue to forge ahead.

steve.lopez@latimes.com 

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.