Published On: Fri, Apr 3rd, 2020

Pandemic drives up food prices

Supermarket Aisle

PHILIPSBURG – Price increases in supermarkets trigger a storm of complaints on social media. Food shoppers post pictures of items that cost a lot less two weeks ago than they do now. “They are killing us with these prices,” one customer writes. The owner of a supermarket in Philipsburg says that this also applies to retailers. “Our margins are only half, or less, even.”

The landlord of the building where the supermarket is located came to collect the rent on March 31. Staff had been paid before. At the beginning of this month, the retailer does not have much money left. “The big question now is what GEBE will do.”

Many prices of products in the store have been set by the government. From behind the counter, the woman brings out a product list with maximum prices. “I wonder if the government has any insight into the prices that importers charge. For example, the price that the government has set for powdered milk is not enough. And while there was a margin of twenty percent for us when selling rice, now that margin is only ten or even five percent.”

She shakes her head. “You understand that if you lose half or more of your income on many of your products, you’re going to be in trouble,” says the woman, who wants to remain anonymous for fear of supplier problems. She pulls out a product list. “Look here, a box of ginger: well over $72. That is more than 7 dollars per kilo. And then we have to put a percentage on top of that.”

She has seen posts with complaints about price increases on social media. “Many people complain about the price of eggs. This concerns the Jumbo brand. Importing this American brand has become a lot more expensive. The problem lies with the distributor in Miami: if he drastically increases his prices, the importers here also have to charge us a higher price.” She takes a calculator. 6.65 (guilder) appears on the screen. “That is the purchase price per carton of eggs.” This shopkeeper puts 20 cents on top of that. “Because the price is already so high,” she says. “So we hardly make any money from it.”

Supermarket Shopping Cart Groceries in Aisle

The St. Maarten Consumers Coalition did not fail to notice complaints about higher prices for food and cleaning products. “We have received many messages via Facebook and email,” says Raymond Jessurun, who closed the Consumers Coalition’s office in Backstreet in connection with COVID-19. “I answer questions from my home. When I go to the supermarket to do some shopping, people talk to me about the prices in the stores. After more than two weeks, the situation has become dire for many.”

According to Jessurun, there is a lack of control in supermarkets as well as with importers. “On the one hand, the basket of products that the government controls is too limited, as a result of which consumers are forced to also buy products whose price is not regulated by the government and can be irresponsibly high. On the other hand, importers can increase their prices uncontrollably.” That importers are also confronted with higher costs is no excuse, according to Jessurun. “It is true that importers suddenly have to pay much more for certain products, such as eggs from the United States. But they should be able to moderate their margin for those specific products. Because their average margin on imports of food products is already much higher than you can reasonably expect: Importers buy cheap stocks, often of inferior quality, just before the expiry date, and then sell them with high profits on St. Maarten. Consumers on the island pay way too much for low-quality food.”

Especially at this time of risk of infection with the coronavirus, the population needs high-quality food to boost their immune system, says Jessurun. “The Consumers Coalition proved last year with a pilot project for the import of fresh fruit and vegetables that it is possible to sell good quality products at a reasonable price on St. Maarten. The fresh products we got from the Dominican Republic were class A, the best quality. We would like importers to follow suit and let the interests of the population prevail over profit. These businesses will make enough money to sustain themselves.”

If the prices of food remain at the current level, Jessurun foresees major social and health problems. “The government must intervene. Aruba has expanded the basket of price-regulated food to 200 products. St. Maarten should do the same: we only have about forty products in the basket. By expanding the number of basic products and making them affordable, the government can guarantee the daily meal for the majority of the population.”

The condition is that the government also ensures that people do not lose their income, says Jessurun, who believes that everyone in the Kingdom should be able to count on retaining ninety percent of their salaries. “Within the Kingdom there should be equal rights. The relief packages that the BES islands can count on, must also be provided for the other islands. The government of St. Maarten must make an effort to achieve this. Part of the population is already living below the poverty line, when thousands of people suddenly join them, the misery is incalculable.”

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Related links:
In Dutch: Pandemie drijft de prijzen van voedsel op op Sint Maarten
Product list with maximum prices
Jessurun: Important to boost people’s immune system