For 17 years, Ana Duran worked full time as a travel counselor. Late last year she lost that job, shortly before seeing the price of eggs rise to $7.99 a dozen and the price of a single avocado rise to $2.99 at her local store. In June, it cost her $94 to fill up her gas tank, instead of the $50 it cost her last year.
Duran has been receiving unemployment benefits and working part-time as a caregiver for a resident at a senior center. To make ends meet, she’s also been selling her own gold jewelry and crushing aluminum cans to recycle for extra cash.
She’s one of many people doing what they can to get by in Riverside, California, part of a region known as the Inland Empire – which saw a 9.4% annual inflation rate in May, one of the highest in the nation. The average inflation rate across all US urban areas, as measured by the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index, was 8.6% for May.
One of the key factors contributing to higher inflation in the Inland Empire is population growth during the pandemic. People moved from big cities to neighboring counties that were relatively more affordable, like Riverside and San Bernardino counties. That spurred demand for goods and services to a region where supply has not quite caught up. In California, where the average gas price was already the highest in the nation, the stunning increase in the price of food and fuel in the area has caused residents like Duran, along with the organizations seeking to help residents like her, to find new ways to make ends meet.
Cutting back, and finding extra cash
“I don’t buy chicken any more. I don’t buy meat any more. I just eat tuna,” Duran told CNN.
While the price of gas has declined slightly in the last month, the average cost of a gallon of regular gas in Riverside on July 25 was still more than $5.60, according to AAA. The cost of groceries and gas have forced her to cut back. Gone are the drives to the mall to walk around or cool off. She conducts errands by phone, where possible, instead of visiting a business or other location.
She also started collecting recyclables to turn in for extra cash. Duran said she gets a better deal from the recycling center by turning it in on Sundays. She gets $1.37 per pound of recyclables, which makes aluminum cans the most valuable, since they weigh more than plastic.
Duran has also sold some of the gold jewelry she bought for herself in better times.
“I think of the hard work that I did to buy myself something that I deserved, and now other obstacles came, and I have other priorities,” she said.
Buying discounted food close to expiration
While Duran needs to stay close to home to save on fuel costs, Riverside resident Lily Yu doesn’t mind driving her hybrid car 70 miles away to Palmdale, California, in search of discounted groceries.
A handful of Vallarta Supermarkets there have partnered with Flashfood, an app that lists grocery items that are close to their sell-by dates at a huge discount. While Flashfood has long partnered with grocery stores in Canada and in parts of the United States, the company only made its California debut in early June.
Yu, who is a social media content creator, was contacted by Flashfood to become a brand ambassador. Through a sign language interpreter, Yu told CNN she often buys chicken, hummus, bread, and other items at 50% off, just because the sell-by date is within a few days.
Food that would be headed for the landfill can now be saved and sold to shoppers looking for a deal, said Flashfood CEO Josh Domingues.
“We have shoppers on an annual basis that’ll save between $5,000 and $10,000 on their grocery bills. We have stories of people buying coolers to put in their basement because they’re saving so much money on things like meat, and they just throw it into the cooler,” Domingues said.
While she’s saving money, Yu said the app also helps her reduce food waste.
“There’s not so much food going into the trash and into landfills. So I’m able to help with the climate as well as save money.”
Food banks relying on neighbors
Every Wednesday morning, Duran goes to the Central Community Christian Fellowship in Riverside to pick up groceries donated mostly by Feeding America Riverside San Bernardino.
“We do get frozen meat, and we do get some vegetables. But lately I guess it’s been really hard for them,” Duran said.
The Inland Empire branch of the food bank told CNN that over the past year, several grocery partners have opted out of campaigns, or removed their donation commitment due to their own supply chain limitations.
That poses a level of uncertainty for the organization, where 90% of food within its warehouse is typically donated, not purchased.
To supplement potential shortfalls in donations, Feeding America Riverside San Bernardino launched a gleaning project – collecting excess produce from urban farms and residents’ backyard gardens.
On a hot Tuesday in July, volunteers with Feeding America joined with volunteers at the Huerta del Valle community garden in Jurupa Valley to pick beets, carrots, onions, lettuce and lemongrass from its urban farm.
“With this gleaning opportunity, it is a supplemental option for us to allocate more produce, more nutritious goods back to the community,” said Annissa Fitch, communications coordinator for Feeding America Riverside San Bernardino. “We understand that there are challenges when it comes to access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and we want to provide an option for families facing hunger.”
Families face highest increase in food prices in 40 years
This all comes at a time when higher inflation has squeezed many household food budgets. For the 12 months ending in June, overall food prices rose 10.4%, the biggest annual increase since February 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Joshua Dietrich, who runs the food bank’s distribution, said the number of families he’s seen over the past few months is 25% higher than the same time in 2021.
For residents like Duran, who said she has always been able to provide for her family, food donations are a lifeline.
“Now I’m very limited. I feel like I’m kind of helpless. You feel like you can’t depend on yourself. You have to depend on others to help survive,” she said.