Why migrant communities are hit harder by rocketing food prices

The price of minority community staples such as noodles, the root vegetable Mukhi taro or the Lithuanian agurkas pickle has risen sharply. We explore the hidden cost of food inflation

Items from the Baltic going up in price include 'Dark Bread', Lithuanian Agurkas and Sakotis Pic: Morgan Ofori

The past year has been an eventful time for the UK’s food market. From tomato shortages to egg scarcities, the UK’s grocery business has experienced widespread instability.

For East London’s migrant communities, the cost may be even higher.

“Food for immigrants is more than nutrition and body energy – immigrants often maintain their cultural identity and emotional security through the consumption of cultural foods,” says nutritional psychiatry researcher Sarah Elshahat.

The strong link between the diet of migrants and their mental health is the subject of Elshahat’s current study and there is growing evidence to support her claims.

New data from the Office for National Statistics says that the price of UK food imports has increased by 63 per cent in the last five years. Food from outside the UK has become increasingly expensive, bringing knock-on effects for migrant communities and the business owners that serve them.

How much do you need in your pocket to frequent the bazars on Whitechapel and Bethnal Green Road these days? How are business owners coping, and what are they doing to help customers during these difficult times?

‘Prices are better this year than the last, owing to some relative stability after the tumultuous Covid period’ Pic: Morgan Ofori

From Lithuanian delis to South Asian markets, shop owners speak about the diversity of challenges they face in the current climate.

In Stepney Green, Zak Hussain, 45, owner of Fodal Supermarket is honest and upfront. “A customer spending £20 would have been able to more or less fill up their shopping basket around six months ago,” says Hussain. “Now that same basket is costing more or less double the amount.”

Hussain set up Fodal to cater to the growing East Asian community of international students brought to the area by local institutions such as Queen Mary University and the University of East London. He sells everyday Chinese, Korean, Malaysian, and Japanese products. A cursory look around the shop reveals that a 500ml bottle of premium light soy sauce, a cooking staple, is going for £5.49 – having cost £2.99 only six months ago.

Hussain took the decision to open Fodal shortly before the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, which threw up its own challenges.

Money was sunk into renovating a shop that wasn’t allowed to open for months, and he operated with a skeleton staff. Now he believes the major problems are mostly out of his control. “Our biggest selling product is noodles. It is Asian, but the wheat it is made from comes from Ukraine,” says Hussain. “Our suppliers have had to rely on this. Now they don’t get enough, and they have made goods more expensive to compensate.”

Hussain says he does what he can to help his customers. “It is difficult, you must keep an eye out for newer suppliers,” he says. “We’re constantly on the lookout for cheaper deals. If we make that saving, we will push that on to the customer and keep prices low.”

Then VS Now Pic Morgan Ofori

Up the road in Whitechapel, the heart of Tower Hamlet’s Bangladeshi community, traders have been conducting business as usual during the busy Ramadan period, in preparation for Eid.

Koyes Ahmed, 50, owner of Mr Sweet, a Bangladeshi grocery shop, is in good spirits. He speaks enthusiastically about every product potential customers enquire about. Mukhi taro, a staple vegetable commonly eaten with cooked fish, is getting more expensive, he says. If a customer bought 1kg of mukhi taro now it would set them back £20, having cost half that amount only six months ago. The South Asian radish, usually accompanied by a cut of cooked meat or chicken, is also going up in price.

Ahmed says he expects business to remain steady over Ramadan. “People are still buying the essentials for breaking fast like dates,” says Ahmed. “People are budgeting for less, even the spices are double the price. We can’t go on like this.”

His fellow businessman, Imran Chowdury, 26, who is the manager of Grameen Bazar, says he feels like prices are better this year than the last, owing to some relative stability after the tumultuous Covid period. He says although there have undoubtedly been struggles, marketeers know how to ensure their customers feel supported and it is reciprocal. “Bills have gone up, for example, the electricity for the shop, but still, we are trying to help the customer. We are reducing so many prices,” says Chowdury. “We are doing a buy one, get one free deal on prawns and fish. For spices, if you buy two, we are giving one free. This helps families stock up during the Ramadan season.”

For the Eastern European community, this year has presented more and more difficulties. For Ingrida Lenciauskiene, manager of Gabija in Mile End, the struggle seems to have been going on for much longer. “Lithuanian people buy the amount they can afford, they have been forced to,” says the 47-year-old. “If they don’t have the money, then they will purchase whatever sustains them.”

Lenciauskiene and her co-manager, Pranus Gribauskas, started Gabija in 2015. The original goal was to sell Eastern European food products to a large customer base that had settled here from countries like Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Estonia. Some of their most popular products are familiar favourites such as herring and mackerel. Products from their homeland include the Lithuanian cucumber or pickle, agurkas, often eaten with smoked meat or fish.

Gribauskas, also 47, says after Britain left the European Union he knew that it would be difficult to survive. He even tipped the business to have a maximum five-year lifespan after 2016. “We have survived for longer than I thought,” says Gribauskas. “Many of my compatriots have gone home. We came here to work for money, to better ourselves, but if you cannot save what is the point.”

They arrived here in 2004 after the EU directive for freedom of movement was passed but are in despair about how far the country has changed and seems to have gone in the opposite direction.

Both Lenciauskiene and Gribauskas don’t believe they will be here this time next year, but they have temporary solutions to feed the community they have left. “We are serving real home-cooked food to offer choice to the customer. It is popular and has given us a chance,” says Lenciauskiene. “If this does not work then we say we tried and we will say goodbye to the UK and go home.”

This article is part of our series, Food Without Borders: Taste of East London, check out more stories here. #ELLFoodWithoutBorders

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