Grocery price hikes hit Muslims during Ramadan

Food prices across the U.S. are up by around 4 percent since January 2020, due to pandemic demand and supply chain issues, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index.

After consumer food prices spiked from March to June last year, with meat prices in particular soaring 10 percent, food prices are no longer increasingly as rapidly. They’re also not going down.

White House economists have acknowledged that inflation will continue to rise, albeit more slowly, with the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending moves keeping borrowing costs at near zero to stimulate the economy.

Grocery price inflation has affected all Americans. But it’s especially noticeable to halal food markets in the U.S. — a grocery sector worth an estimated $13.8 billion, according to estimates by the research group DinarStandard — during the month of Ramadan, where food plays a key role.

There are over 3.4 million Muslims in the U.S., according to Pew Research Center estimates. (Because the census doesn’t ask about religion, there is no official government figure for the U.S. Muslim population.)

Nearly 40 percent of them have incomes at, or below, the federal poverty level, according to polling by the Institute for Social and Policy Understanding. About 60 percent are immigrants or refugees, according to Pew. The groups at higher risk for food insecurity are immigrants and people with lower incomes, researchers have found.

During Ramadan, which this year is expected to end May 12 in the U.S., Muslims honor the first revelation of the prophet Muhammad in a month of sacrifice, prayer and charity. Part of that sacrifice means abstaining from all food or drink, including water, from dawn to sunset. The daily fast is broken with a nightly communal feast, known as iftar. Many will choose to eat only foods considered halal, or permissible under Islamic law.

“The Quran celebrates the act of eating, so long as it’s done in moderation and so long as believers acknowledge divine benevolence,” Boğaç Ergene, professor of history at the University of Vermont and co-author of “Halal Food: A History,” said in an email. “The obligatory Ramadan fast, then, historically existed as a reminder of restraint and moderation towards food, as a way for the pious to become more aware of those who are less fortunate.”

Meat was historically too costly for believers to consume on a regular basis, so it developed an important role during Ramadan to show generosity, Ergene said.

Boxes of dates, a fixture of nightly iftar meals during the holy month of Ramadan, are displayed in the halal grocery store Fertile Crescent in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 5, 2021.Julius Constantine Motal / NBC News

Dishes vary by culture, but first there are often dates and soup, partly to slowly warm up the stomach after fasting. Stews with chunks of meat swimming in tomato or okra may be served, or spiced rice and meat dishes like biryani; or a tajine, a slow-cooked dish of meat and vegetables; or sayadieh, a fish and rice dish made with warm spices. Tharid, a meat and vegetable stew over crispy bread, is another popular recipe.

“It’s a cuisine based in poverty, for farmers,” said Reem Kassis, author of the cookbook “The Arabesque Table.” “It’s not difficult to figure out how to stretch a meal.”

Kassis said her own weekly grocery bill has grown to $200, from $170, in the past year.

“Thirty dollars more, it’s not a big deal,” for her, she said. “But if you’re a family struggling to make ends meet, every cent counts.”

Key U.S. metro areas with large Muslim populations have seen price increases above the national average, according to checkout data tracked by NielsenIQ.

Managers at halal grocers in these cities say prices are up considerably: In Dallas, lamb is up from $6.99 to $8.49 per pound, an increase of more than 20 percent, and managers said that because of meat processor worker shortages they couldn’t order as much as they wanted. Flour prices are set to rise 20 percent in Chicago, one halal grocery manager said. Fish is up a dollar a pound, from $2 to $3, in Atlanta, a 50 percent increase. And beef prices are spiking in New York.

Hamed Nabawy Hamed talks with a customer at his halal grocery store Fertile Crescent in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Wednesday.Julius Constantine Motal / NBC News

“When the prices go up, they never come back down,” said Hamed Nabawy Hamed, owner of the Fertile Crescent grocery store in Brooklyn, New York.

Some customers shrug off the price increases, managers say. They’ll make what they usually make for Ramadan. But those struggling to make ends meet are forced to adapt.

“Instead of buying five pounds of chicken, they buy four pounds of chicken,” Hamed said. And they’re also more actively seeking out charity food distribution boxes.

ICNA Relief, which operates halal food pantries in 13 states open to anyone in need, said demand has spiked during the pandemic, and the need is great during Ramadan this year.

“Halal meat has become too costly,” said Zahid Hussain, national director of hunger prevention at ICNA Relief USA. “It’s increasing day by day.”

Because clients come from different cultural backgrounds and food heritages, the food boxes they distribute for Ramadan typically contain staples that can be adapted to multiple dishes. A typical box might contain a 10-pound bag of basmati rice, 48 ounces of cooking oil, a bag of chickpeas, a bag of lentils, a 5-pound bag of flour, a 4-pound pound bag of sugar, and canned vegetables and fruit.

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