U.S. bakeries, many of which are passing on higher costs to customers, are anxiously watching the price of world wheat soar as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine adds to supply chain shakeups for the staple food.
After nearly two years of pandemic-related disruptions, war between the two agricultural powerhouses is ratcheting up fears of ripple effects beyond Europe. The threat of halts to Black Sea trade, which includes millions of barrels of oil a day and about a quarter of the world’s grain exports, has sent grain and edible oil prices surging and could also wreak havoc on energy and fertilizer markets around the globe. That’s raising the specter of higher food production costs and, in turn, bigger grocery bills at a time when global hunger emergencies are on the rise.
In Chicago, Dinkel’s Bakery is raising prices. For example, paczki, a deep-fried doughy treat native to Poland and eaten in parts of the U.S. on Mardi Gras, are more expensive to make because soybean oil used in shortening shot up about 80% in the past 14 months, Dinkel’s general manager Luke Karl said. That’s on top of all the other supply-chain woes faced by the 100-year-old bakery, like worker shortages, packaging problems and hard-to-find ingredients. The pre-Lenten specialty pastry will be 10% more expensive this year for customers.
Now, the turmoil in the Black Sea is driving up futures tied to U.S. wheat used to make cookies and cakes and other common foods. Prices on Tuesday reached the highest since 2008. Grain varieties prized for making all-purpose flour and pizza dough have also surged. Soybean oil reached its loftiest level on record amid supply concerns. Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of edible oils, a market where prices were already near record highs. While wheat from Russia and Ukraine aren’t typically sought by U.S. millers, there’s concern about how much the war will disrupt markets “that were already under strain,” said North American Millers’ Association President Jane DeMarchi.
“It may be weeks, it may be months, but I definitely think we’re going to see further food inflation across the board, particularly anything that’s got grains in it,” said Robb MacKie, chief executive of the American Bakers Association.
Both DeMarchi and MacKie stressed that their overarching concern is the safety of Ukrainians.
Not everyone is in agreement that Americans will see higher food costs stemming from the Russia-Ukraine war. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said late last week that while it’s “too early” to assess the impact of the conflict on global agricultural markets, he doesn’t expect the crisis to add to food inflation for U.S. consumers.
Meanwhile, Dinkel’s has to prepare as best it can for Paczki Day on March 1, which grew in popularity during the 20th Century in U.S. cities and towns with large Polish communities. Along with higher food costs, another concern is soaring natural gas prices.
“It’s not like we can use less,” he said. “You can try and be more efficient, but it’s not like you can stop using the oven.”
Amy Scherber, founder and owner of Amy’s Bread in New York City, said just in the last week vendors have started adding fuel costs to their invoices, a charge she hasn’t seen in about five years. The cost of a pallet of unbleached white flour is 36% higher than before the pandemic.
Scherber so far hasn’t passed the higher costs onto customers, though she expects she’ll have to boost menu prices between 3% and 5% within the next couple months as she and the rest of the world anxiously watch Ukraine.
“It’s overwhelming to see what’s on the news and not knowing how it will play out,” Scherber said.