Less wheat means more dough

Fernando Padilla checks loaves of freshly baked sourdough bread. Bread makers are being forced to raise prices as the cost of flour has nearly tripled in the past year.

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Scott Jagow: Today, we continue to look at the world's food situation. Our series is called "Food Fight." That sounds like what happens in a college cafeteria, but no one's having any fun in this battle over food.

For so many, getting even the most basic food on the table has become a struggle. What could more basic than bread?

Ashley Milne-Tyte begins our story inside a New York bakery.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: Tom Cat Bakery in Queens is humming with activity. Huge mixers fold the dough in steel vats. Pale, freshly formed loaves glide by on conveyor belts while workers sprinkle them with poppyseeds. After the bread rises, it goes into the oven -- and not just any oven, as president Noel Labat-Comess explains:

Noel Labat-Comess: These ovens are a modernized version of a stone village oven that you'd see hundreds of years ago. So you've got a stainless steel outside but inside there's actual stone decks and the bread, you'll see, will go directly onto the deck.

This artisanal approach to baking comes at a price -- Comess's wholesale customers pay more for Tom Cat's products than they would for a regular loaf -- and then there's the escalating cost of flour, which has forced him to raise his prices twice in six months.

Bennet Orfaly buys Tom Cat's ciabatta bread for Pita Grill, his chain of healthy-eating restaurants. He says he'd love to raise his own prices, but he's afraid the competition would eat his lunch.

Bennet Orfaly: You're price-fighting with these people. You know they need the business, you need the business, so they're lowering prices. More people are offering specials. We haven't offered specials since we opened. Now we're starting to offer lunch specials, you know, just to be competitive and to be able to get more people in the door.

Making matters worse, more notoriously cooking-shy Manhattanites seem to be rediscovering their stoves. They're ordering takeout from his restaurants less than usual.

Orfaly: I would say our sales have gone down, depending on the location, a minimum of 10, as high as 20 percent.

Of course, many New Yorkers can't splurge on regular takeout. Jose Cepeda works as a porter at Zaro's Bakery in Grand Central Station, though he doesn't shop there.

Jose Cepeda: I'd rather go where I live at and buy a cake for 25 cents than spend $3.50 at Zaro's for a little cake.

But his neighborhood isn't immune from the effects of high flour prices either. Cepeda says he can't afford Wonder Bread anymore now that it's selling for $2.79 at his local supermarket.

Cepeda: I go to the 99 cent store and I buy a full loaf of bread for $1.50. It's cheaper, it's cheaper bread, cheaper quality, but it's more to feed my kids.

New Yorkers of means are rethinking their shopping habits too. Robert Taylor is an executive recruiter. He grabs breakfast on the way to work a few times a week -- usually coffee and a bagel.

Robert Taylor: And the price of even bagels has gone up quite a bit.

He says he and his wife have started buying less milk each week since those prices have jumped and they're considering further changes to their diet.

Taylor: I think if bread continues to go up as much as it has, we're going to have to be more careful about purchasing as much bread as we had in the past.

Bread is one thing, but what about those little indulgences that ease you through the day like a mid-morning Danish or scone? In Brooklyn, mother of two Tamar Smith just stopped by her local bakery with baby daughter Arielle.

Tamar Smith: I bought a chocolate roll and an iced coffee and these two things were $3.50, which I think is expensive.

Smith works part time for a local government official. Her husband is a social worker. Their grocery bills have shot up lately. She says she half-wondered whether she should stay home this morning, but the promise of freshly baked goodies was too enticing.

Smith: It's the small luxuries that you kind of feel that you don't want to give up, so I still get these things and I get treats for my kids, but it's making a difference.

At Tom Cat Bakery, Noel Labat-Comess says it's the worst possible time to hike prices. He recognizes the accelerating cost of living is forcing everyone to tighten their belts.

Labat-Comess: I mean, we don't like to put price increases through -- it's not fun -- but you reach a point where it's like we can't bleed anymore otherwise we just won't be here tomorrow.

Comess says farmers are expecting to plant more wheat this year than last. He hopes that could be a sign that the worst is over for bakers and bread lovers alike.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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