Anyone shopping for groceries or driving a car in Honolulu in the past year has seen it: the sharply rising costs of food and gasoline. In a state with a cost of living that’s already among the nation’s highest and a large percentage of households living paycheck to paycheck, the changes are especially hard to endure.

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Groceries in Honolulu cost 11.7% more in March than they did in the same month in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Items like cereal, meat, poultry and fish rose nearly 15%. Gasoline prices were up just less than 40%.

Altogether the bureau’s consumer price index, covering a wide range of goods and services, rose 7.5%, 5.3% excluding food and energy prices, which tend to be unusually volatile.

The U.S. Federal Reserve raised interest rates in March to slow down rising costs and indicated more rate increases are coming. Economists with the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization, meanwhile, are expected to issue a report on Monday offering more detail on inflation in Hawaii.

In the meantime, businesses said they’re feeling the pressure and they’re starting to pass costs to consumers.

“We’ve been hearing a lot from our members,” said Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii. “Almost everyone is being affected by it.”

Hawaii Gas Prices April 2022
Rising gasoline prices are increasing the cost of living in a state where many already struggle to get by. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

Among those hit hardest are companies that rely on packaging, which is a big deal for Hawaii food product manufacturers and makers of consumer packaged goods.

Sea Salts of Hawaii is a case in point. The company produces sea salt at a facility on the Big Island and sells it as food seasoning and in spa products like bath salt.

Sea Salts of Hawaii uses glass bottles and tin cans instead of plastic, and the prices of the bottles has gone up significantly, said Sandra Gibson, the company’s owner.

“Tin containers sourced from the mainland went from $0.53 in 2017 to $0.65 in 2021 and then drastically to $0.78 in 2022,” Gibson said in an email. “Our popular mini 2 oz. Glass Bottles went from $0.22 in 2017 to $0.25 in 2021 and now we pay $0.28 each.”

Honolulu CPI March 2022
Like the rest of the nation, prices in Hawaii have risen sharply in the past year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics

The cost of shipping the packaging materials to Hawaii also has increased.

Shipping three pallets of containers from Seattle to Honolulu a few years ago cost $1,554, she said. Now, the same shipment costs almost $2,500.

The result: Gibson has little choice but to increase her prices.

“We really for the most part hadn’t increased our prices at all since we started,” she said in an interview. “But we recently had to.”

For Some, Rising Gas Prices Are The Tipping Point

Wai Meli, a Big Island honey company, is on the verge of doing the same, said Kawika Sebag, the company’s owner and co-founder. It’s not that the cost of producing honey has gone up much, Sebag said. But packaging material has.

“Glass has gone up anywhere from 10% to 35%, and the lids that we use have also gone up in price, some of them twice as much,” he said. Even the price of printed labels has risen.

But the killer has been the cost of filling up the four vehicles Wai Meli has for deliveries and farm operations.

“We did our best to not budge our price for the whole pandemic, and I think that just has to do with how close we are to our customers and retailers,” he said. “But we will be increasing our price soon, and that has to do with the price of fuel.”

“Unfortunately, it’s the gas that’s kicking us in the butt right now,” he said.

Gabriel Sachter-Smith
North Shore banana farmer Gabriel Sachter-Smith said prices of fertilizer, fuel and building materials are driving up his operating expenses, but so are labor costs – far worse is also getting hit by rising costs of food and gasoline. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat /2021

When basic things like gasoline and food cost more, workers need higher wages to get by, said Gabriel Sachter-Smith, a banana scientist and farmer who runs Hawaii Banana Source in Haleiwa. So it’s not just the costs of fertilizer and lumber for a new packing shed that have gone up, he said. Wages have too.

“Inflation affects everybody, and we still pay wages to people,” he said.

If the U.S. central bank’s interest rate increases work as planned, prices should level off some time this year.

On March 22, the Federal Reserve’s policymaking Federal Open Market Committee raised the interest rate banks charge each other for short-term loans by 0.25%. It marked the first increase since 2018, and the Fed signaled more increases this year.

Although Federal Reserve controls only the federal funds rate, the rate increase affects what lenders charge consumers and businesses to borrow money. The Fed’s general goal is to slow down consumer and business spending so the economy lands softly without crashing into a recession.

The question for business is whether their costs will decrease.

Gibson expressed skepticism.

“The vendors all say their prices will go down,” she said. “But it’s rare for things to go down.”

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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