People tighten purse strings as cost of vegetables and fruits escalates

Many residents are now rethinking using even staple vegetables and are changing their menus to manage cost overruns

Published - May 19, 2022 10:19 pm IST - Chennai

The skyrocketing prices of vegetables and fruits determine what people can afford to put on their plate these days. As people tighten their purse strings in their struggle to make ends meet, nutrition often takes a backseat.

It’s mostly only simple gravies during the week at M. Vijaya’s house of late, as several vegetables are out of her reach. “I can only cut down expenditure on vegetables and fruits in the monthly budget to manage other increasing expenses like transport, medical and rent, which are unavoidable. I cook side dishes on a few days a week,” said Ms. Vijaya, the president of a women’s self-help group and a resident of Nungambakkam.

Compromising on the purchase of vegetables and fruits that have turned costly was her only option to avoid taking loans, particularly after the severe blow dealt to her family income by the COVID-19 pandemic. “I buy two kg of tomato instead of five kg earlier, and vegetables that are affordable,” said Ms. Vijaya, who has also reduced her fruit intake and opted for those that cost less.

Many residents like her are now rethinking using even staple vegetables and are changing their menus to manage cost overruns. Household budgets for vegetables and fruits have doubled.

Anbumani Mohan, a resident of Mogappair, said, “I plan menus that won’t hurt our weekly budgets, and manage with what’s available. I use less tomatoes. I avoid some vegetables like beans, and also get smaller quantities than in the past. We sometimes compare vegetable prices in different stores and go for the cheapest option.”

The popular and affordable summer drink, lemonade, too, has turned into a luxury due to the soaring price of lemon. The citrus fruit is priced at a record high of ₹120 a kg in the wholesale market and up to ₹160 in retail. While inflation and the rising fuel cost play a major role, heavy unseasonal rain and a mismatch between high demand and supply are also reasons for the jump in prices, according to traders.

M. Mallikarjuna, a lemon wholesale merchant at Koyambedu, said rain in many producer States like Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh had led to a supply shortage. The stock from Andhra Pradesh, meant for Tamil Nadu, got diverted to northern parts of the country, such as Gujarat, Jaipur and Delhi. “The State, including Chennai, gets most of its stock from Gudur, Kadapa and the Nellore belt. Though other places in the State like Tiruchi, Madurai and Coimbatore get harvest from local areas, they also receive a major share from Andhra Pradesh,” he said.

This summer, mangoes also arrived in fewer quantities. The freight charges have been increased by a minimum of ₹20 per bag, depending on the distance.

The cost of tomatoes, which were sold for ₹10-₹20/kg in February, has also hit the roof, with one kg costing up to ₹85. Heavy rain in neighbouring producer States and in some parts of Tamil Nadu had affected the arrival of vegetables, including drumsticks, and sent the prices soaring. While it was normal for prices to increase every summer, the rain and a minor, yet steady, increase in transportation cost had also contributed to the price rise, traders noted.

G.D. Rajasekaran, president, Federation of Koyambedu Vegetables, Fruits, Flowers and Food Grains Traders' Associations, said sales had dropped as customers were becoming more frugal.

The slow, yet steady, rise in transportation charges also reflected in the minimum price at which vegetables were available. Until four or five years ago, vegetables were sold at a minimum price of ₹5 a kg. Now, it is ₹10/kg. Freight charges have gone up by 20%, based on the distance.

P. Sukumar, a vegetable wholesaler at Koyambedu, noted that when the price of a vegetable goes up, some alternative vegetables, too, become costly. For instance, when beans become expensive, the cost of other vegetables like broad beans and brinjals also rises. Transporters have increased charges by ₹5/₹10 per bag.

There may be a slight variation in prices in different places like Madurai and Tiruchi, depending on their proximity to crop-producing areas, he said. While traders are optimistic that prices would begin to drop in a fortnight, nutritionists have raised concern about poor nutrition due to people’s purchasing decisions.

“Dietary diversity is the need of the hour for ensuring good health,” said Meenakshi Bajaj, Dietician, Tamil Nadu Government Multi Super Speciality Hospital. “We need to include different food groups on a day-to-day basis – cereals, pulses, milk and meat products, nuts and oil seeds – and also fibre, micro and phyto nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. A multi-vitamin mineral supplement cannot be equated with fruits and vegetables since they are devoid of fibre and phytochemicals,” she said.

“No single fruit or vegetable is a superfood, but a combination of them reaps maximum benefit. In other words, a handful of green leafy vegetables are compulsory, and one to two handfuls of any naturally-coloured vegetables and half a cup of a variety of beans need to be consumed daily. A handful of preferably seasonal and local fruits also have to be taken,” she said.

Sheba Jeyaraj, assistant professor, Department of Home Science, Women’s Christian College, said the World Health Organisation’s recommendation for Indians was four to five servings of fruits and vegetables per day (of each). But Indians were consuming only 3.5 servings a day. “Reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables increases the incidence of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease and the risk of nutritional deficiencies of Vitamin A, iron and Vitamin C. Vitamins and minerals are known as protective food and body regulators,” she said.

"The consumption of commonly-used vegetables in daily cooking, like onions and tomatoes, which are rich in antioxidants, has considerably declined due to the escalating prices," she noted.

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