What’s going on with frozen fruit and vegetables?
Food prices rose 0.2% on the month in July after remaining unchanged in June, and they rose 4.9% on the year, while the cost of food at home rose 3.6% on the year, government data released Thursday showed. Prices of fresh fruits and vegetables rose just 1.2% year over year.
However, there were some big — even alarming — outliers: Frozen fruit and vegetable prices increased by 11.8% in July over last year, frozen vegetable prices rose 17.1% and frozen noncarbonated juice and drink prices rose 16.3%.
Those price rises are at odds with overall inflation figures. U.S. consumer prices rose to 3.2% in July from 3% in the prior month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said this week. It was the first increase in 13 months.
Why have the prices of frozen fruits and vegetables shot up over the past 12 months, while the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased so little?
Climate change and extreme weather conditions — from heavy rainfall to drought, particularly in California — have led to big problems for farmers. This has been compounded by issues related to the war in Ukraine and an ongoing increase in the cost of labor, experts said.
As a result, a large proportion of the fruits and vegetables grown were destined to be sold as fresh produce — which led to a shortage of ingredients for frozen goods, said Brad Rubin, sector manager at Wells Fargo Agri-Food Institute. “Because of the late crop, lots of produce is being pushed to the fresh market to keep up with demand,” he said.
California has experienced some drastic weather conditions over the last 12 months. Some 78 trillion gallons of water fell in California during winter 2022 and early spring 2023, according to data from the National Weather Service, delaying planting. And all that snow and rain was followed by a months-long drought in the region.
What happens in California is felt by consumers across the country.
“California produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables,” according to estimates from the Sciences College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. “California is the only state in the U.S. to export the following commodities: almonds, artichokes, dates, dried plums, figs, garlic, kiwifruit, olives, pistachios, raisins and walnuts,” it says.
The subsequent price rises hit ingredients like strawberries and raspberries especially hard, Rubin added. Inventories of frozen berries are “near five-year lows” after winter storms in Watsonville flooded agricultural fields, damaging and delaying the strawberry crop. Most of the strawberries in the U.S. are grown in California.
Frozen fruits and vegetables have a longer supply chain than fresh produce, which can make them more vulnerable to disruptions in inventory, experts say. Rising energy prices are also pushing up the cost of cold storage.
In addition to those issues, U.S. farmers are dealing with increased labor costs and fewer migrant workers, partly due to changes in government policies and the closure of borders during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a February 2023 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
“Immigration has traditionally provided an important contribution to the U.S. labor force,” the report said. “The flow of immigrants into the United States began to slow in 2017 due to various government policies, then declined further due to border closures in 2020-21 associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. This decline in immigration has had a notable effect on the share of immigrants in the U.S. labor force.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also continues to affect agricultural production in the U.S., said Curt Covington, senior director of institutional business at AgAmerica Lending, a financial-services company providing agricultural loans. Because the war disrupted supplies of commodities like wheat and corn — also pushing up prices for those goods — farmers have been prioritizing planting those crops over vegetables.
“These escalating frozen-vegetable prices present a challenge for farmers as they grapple with increased production costs and labor pressures,” and that presents a long-term challenge for farmers, “potentially impacting their profitability,” Covington said.
All of these factors — from international supply chains to extreme weather conditions — will have an effect on the cost of frozen goods in U.S. supermarkets. Ultimately, experts said, consumers will end up paying the price.