Shopper Wanda Swinney monitors rises in prices at South Bronx supermarkets. Photo courtesy of Banana Kelly/Ian Gray-Stack

Local grocers jacking up prices during Covid-19 pandemic, claims community group

Supermarkets in the South Bronx have been serving a side of sticker shock along with the usual food staples, claims a community organizing group that accuses several stores of “price-gouging” on groceries during coronavirus. 

But supermarkets deny it, say they’ve just stopped sale pricing

Supermarkets in the South Bronx have been serving a side of sticker shock along with the usual food staples, claims a community organizing group that accuses several stores of “price-gouging” on groceries during coronavirus.   

Since the pandemic hit, nine local grocery stores have upped prices on items such as bacon, eggs, milk, and plantains, say organizers with the South Bronx Emergency Action Group, an offshoot of the neighborhood’s Banana Kelly Resident Council.

“It always comes down and trickles down to the most vulnerable communities. We don’t have the greatest healthcare,” said Sonya Ferguson, 59, of Banana Kelly. “Now you want to bother the food? That’s so unfair.”

At Food Fair Fresh Market on E. 163rd St., a 12-ounce pack of Oscar Mayer center-cut bacon that’s listed online at various stores for $5.99 was going for $8.99 last week  — a 50% difference —  according to a shopper’s picture shared with the Mott Haven Herald and Hunts Point Express.

Rosalia Watkins said she frequently shops at the Key Food at 1050 Westchester Ave. and is familiar with her prices. Shopping on the store’s website last week, she saw that prices had jumped in several departments.

“This time I couldn’t afford it. I mean, it was simple things,” said Watkins, 69, who works in education. “Normally if the chicken was 7 dollars, it was $12.99.”

Other shoppers said they found jacked-up prices on eggs, milk, bananas, and rice.

The city has issued over 1,000 violations to businesses for raising prices on items such as hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies since March 5. As for groceries, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection has no authority to bust supermarkets for price gouging, said the department’s Commissioner Lorelei Salas in a statement.

But price gouging on food items is illegal in New York State, according to a state law that was triggered when the federal government declared a national public health emergency on January 31, and the state’s Office of the Attorney General is handling those complaints.

That office says it has issued over 1,100 cease and desist orders to businesses upping their prices during coronavirus, said a spokesperson, but it’s not yet ready to say how many of those are grocery stores. The vast majority of the businesses receiving the orders are in New York City, said the spokesperson.

Those who find abnormally high prices on necessary consumer goods during the pandemic can file a complaint with the state’s Attorney General.

The South Bronx Emergency Action Group on April 9 sent Mayor de Blasio a letter, asking his Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to expand its authority and start looking into instances of alleged price gouging on groceries. The same day the group did a mass-calling to the city’s 311 line to report the alleged overcharging at the Foxhurst supermarkets.

Thus far, both locally and nationally, there have been no disruptions to the food supply chain, so grocery retailers would have no financial need to raise their prices, said Prof. Nevin Cohen, research director of City University of New York’s Urban Food Policy Institute.

“There’s been a great deal of fear, and people have been stockpiling food,” said Cohen. “It’s created an opportunity for unscrupulous merchants to raise prices.”

The median household in the Foxhurst ZIP code makes $27,687, or less than half of the city’s median household income of $60,762, according to Census figures from 2014-2018.

Almost half of New York households making $50,000 a year or less say their ability to get the food they need has been “reduced a lot” or “reduced some,” according to a telephone survey conducted by the Urban Food Policy Institute on March 20.

Managers of Foxhurst supermarkets contacted by the Herald and Express all claimed they have not raised any prices in response to coronavirus. Many said, however, that they have had to eliminate sale prices.

“We have to buy everything in limited [quantities]. So now we’ve been selling in regular [prices],” said the manager of the Key Food on Westchester Ave, who identified himself only as Richard.

The manager of the Food Fair supermarket, where a shopper claimed to have found the inflated price tag on bacon, said the city inspected his store’s pricing a week or two ago and found no problems.

“The meat is the same price [as before]. Maybe the chicken is a little bit up,” said William Gonzalez.

Watkins, who said the price of chicken had jumped on the Key Food website, said price gouging during the pandemic constitutes “abuse.”

“There are a lot of disabled people like me that live in this community, and we’re relying on these stores… to do the right thing,” she said. “And this is not a situation that’s going to change overnight. This is a situation we’re going to be living with for the next several months to a year.”

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