From matzah and maror to macaroons and cake mixes, there’s something about Pesach food that conveys comfort and continuity. Far less comforting, conversely, is the worldwide inflation and shortage of food that began in mid-2021, stemming from a number of factors, including the Covid outbreak, the Ukraine crisis and a tremendous hike in gas and shipping costs, among others. The good news, according to industry professionals interviewed by Jewish Action, is that consumers won’t suffer from sticker shock when shopping for Pesach foods this year. The not-so-good news is that according to many experts, food prices aren’t expected to decline significantly any time soon.
“In the last one to two years, there probably isn’t one product that hasn’t been affected by inflation,” says Eric Horowitz, president of Nassau Provisions in Holtsville, New York. Founded in 1984 by Eric’s father Scott, Nassau Provisions distributes kosher specialty and general groceries—including brands like Heinz, General Mills and Kellogg’s—to supermarkets, big-box stores, restaurants and delis in the New York Metro area and beyond.
“Many products have experienced cost increases multiple times—some two, some three, some four times during that period,” says Horowitz, who oversees all business functions, including operations, sales, purchasing and accounting. “Most costs have risen more than what you see in the news—as high as 9 or 10 percent. A lot of what we’ve seen over that time period is probably closer to 20 percent.”
In his role as chief operating officer and executive rabbinic coordinator of OU Kosher, Rabbi Moshe Elefant oversees the certification and monthly inspection of 14,000 food facilities in 106 countries, as well as 850 field representatives, 60 rabbinic coordinators and 80 administrative support staff. In the month leading up to Pesach, Rabbi Elefant appears on radio programs, OU webinars and in other venues to respond to callers’ questions about Pesach products and hilchot kashrut. He notes that the high cost of Pesach food is simply a reflection of inflation in general and is largely unrelated to the cost of kosher certification. “People have this misconception that the cost of kashrus is significant for Pesach and that’s what makes the food so much more expensive,” says Rabbi Elefant. “Supervision of food for Pesach can be more costly than the rest of the year; any product bearing the OU-P symbol is made with full-time rabbinic supervision, which is not necessarily the case for food certified with a regular OU. But that cost is not significant enough to affect prices so dramatically. For example, kosher meat by definition is going to be more expensive than non-kosher meat . . . but that doesn’t make kosher l’Pesach meat any more expensive than kosher meat all year round.”
“Finances are a major challenge”—which can be most evident at Pesach time, when holiday food is expensive and even the prices of year-round kosher food traditionally go up.
Menachem Lubinsky is the CEO of Lubicom Business Consulting and founder and co-producer of Kosherfest, the world’s largest annual trade fair for professionals in the kosher food and beverage industry. Close to 3,500 kosher food distributors, brokers and retailers attended the Secaucus, New Jersey, show this past November, which featured various events, including lectures, cooking demonstrations, a culinary competition and new product awards. Lubinsky also publishes koshertoday.com, a bimonthly newsletter with a significant following featuring breaking news and trends in the kosher food industry.
While Lubinsky believes the percentage of food price hikes likely won’t be as dramatic this coming year as in the previous two, he explains that retailers have no choice but to transfer their increased costs onto consumers. “Last Pesach, companies made a concerted effort not to raise prices by too much, but they still had to raise them,” says Lubinsky. “There’s nothing they can do when the price of a dozen eggs goes up to $4.50 or $5.00; they just pass it on. The kosher consumer is more or less swallowing it because they have no choice. But it’s a huge problem. It has created a lot of stress, especially for large families, to be able to afford things.”
Horowitz, however, is confident there will soon be a light at the end of the inflation tunnel. “I think the main brunt of the increases was really felt last Pesach,” he says. “From 2021 to 2022, there was definitely a much bigger jump than we will see from 2022 to 2023. A year and a half ago, the cost of shipping containers from overseas to certain regions likely multiplied by five. Costs have now been coming down significantly week after week. So there are potentially some areas where we’ll start to see decreases on a lot of products, especially imported products. And that always relates to domestic products as well because some of the ingredients may be sourced overseas. So as shipping costs go down, food costs go down. I expect to see more discounts and promotions passed along in the stores.”
Still, potential reductions may hardly make a dent in the exorbitant cost of cooking for yom tov. Industry experts advise shoppers to plan ahead and shop around as much as possible for the best prices. Whereas only one or two companies control the matzah and grape juice markets, for example, other products like sugar, jam, cheese or salad dressing are produced by multiple brands, offering consumers more options.
Rabbi Elefant also encourages people with financial challenges to avail themselves of community organizations, local shuls and others that lend support and help to defray costs. “Almost every community has a local Tomchei Shabbos that assists those in need,” he says. “There is also a North American organization called Chasdei Lev, particularly geared to rebbeim and moros who need help for yom tov. . . . If you look in the Shulchan Aruch, the first halachah that’s spoken about in Hilchos Pesach is not about cleaning our home, it’s not about how to bake matzos, and it’s not about how to kasher equipment for Pesach. The first halachah is to help people in need for Pesach. Particularly in a year like this, where there is certainly inflation and high food costs, those who have, baruch Hashem, have a greater obligation to help those who don’t. We can’t change the economic realities, but we can think about each other.”
Aviva Engel is an award-winning journalist living in Jerusalem.