This year’s Passover seder meal is expected to be the most expensive since the 1970s, with food costs plagued by inflation, bottlenecked supply chains, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Resignation and even the war between Russia and Ukraine.
The cost of chicken is up 10% or 15% in some places, and poultry is scarce. Eggs, too. Wine prices have increased by double-digits. And matzoh — the centerpiece of the seder and the unleavened bread of affliction that Jews are commanded to eat throughout the eight-day holiday — is costlier than in generations.
“Right now, some of those matzohs are selling for $40 a box. Last year they could have been $32.99. And one box doesn’t do it,” said Howard Hassan, the grocery manager and a buyer at the kosher Everfresh Supermarket in Great Neck. Nearly “every single thing that you can think of” is costlier, he said.
Friday night marks the beginning of Passover, which commemorates the Biblical Israelites’ freedom from bondage. According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of American Jews say they participate in a seder, the communal meal celebrated in most places the first and second nights.
During the holiday, observant Jews avoid any food or beverage with grains that have risen or are fermented, including bread, pasta, liquor and beer. Religious supervision to certify that products are free of these prohibitions leads to increased costs every Passover. But this year, costs have risen even beyond usual, said Timothy D. Lytton, a professor at Georgia State University College of Law, who studies kosher food.
Lytton said this Passover is the most expensive since the 1970s, when the U.S. saw its highest rates of inflation in recent history.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Labor Department said that prices consumers pay for everyday items rose 8.5% in March from a year earlier — the biggest year-over-year increase since 1981.
“I think people are feeling a shock in food prices in general. And that generalized shock is being felt within kosher food consumers,” Lytton said, adding, “There are extra costs for Passover supervision. And there’s this poultry shortage and egg shortage, and poultry and eggs are probably two of the greatest staples, next to matzoh. What are your core Passover foods? They’re either made with eggs or, you know, chicken soup is made with chickens.”
Businesses closed when the pandemic started, in 2020, which catalyzed a destruction of flocks and a shortage of breeder chickens. Now, after two years of few or no orders, big caterers are rebounding, ordering in bulk and are gobbling up chickens that would otherwise go to local supermarkets and butchers.
Labor costs are also higher due to the Great Resignation — the unprecedented mass exodus from the workforce caused by the pandemic — not just for farmworkers but for kosher supervisors and others as well.
There’s also an Avian flu outbreak at certain non-kosher farms that’s having a residual effect on kosher-chicken prices.
And since exports of chicken feed from Ukraine have been disrupted by the war, there’s less global supply to go around.
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, head of the Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement on Long Island, said there is a shortage of matzoh this year in his community because bakeries in Ukraine that supply it have shut down since the Russian invasion. He said that a smaller amount of Ukrainian matzoh was shipped to the states — before the invasion — causing “a tremendous shortage.”
Ronnie Dragoon, owner and founder of Ben’s Kosher Deli Restaurant and Caterers, said he had to increase what he charges for prepared holiday meals — food prices rose, as did foil, paper and boxes — but he’s kept the cost for customers lower than his expenses.
A meal for 10 — including gefilte fish, chopped liver, matzoh ball soup, with a choice of chicken, turkey, brisket, plus coleslaw, gravy and more — was $379.99 in 2021 but $399.90 this year.
“I’m trying to understand the marketplace, at the same time have — there’s a Yiddish word called rachmones, which means pity — so I have some rachmones for all the people that are buying food,” said Dragoon, who has restaurants on Long Island in Carle Place, Greenvale and Woodbury, with more than 500 Passover orders so far.
Rachmones notwithstanding, “there’s also a limit to how much we can charge” before customers forgo catering altogether and just cook at home, he said.
At Shop Delight, another kosher supermarket in Great Neck, last-minute preparations for the holiday were underway.
Maxine Ahmed, of Great Neck, said she is preparing to celebrate in person with her family. Last year, she said, “we all did Zoom.”
Making her way through the store, Ahmed had beets, chicken and other food in her cart.
“I’m trying to stay within $200” worth of items, she said, but “the prices have gotten out of control.”
Adam Neustadter, who sells kosher wine at Spruce D'vine, a liquor store in Cedarhurst, said that his prices are typically stable.
Not this year, 5782 in the lunar calendar used in Judaism.
For example, a bottle of Gilgal cabernet sauvignon, imported from Israel, is up about 13% over last year, to $17.99 from $15.99, said Neustadter, the store manager. He sells about 800 variations of kosher wine, and costs are up for all spirits.
“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. This is probably the biggest increase I’ve seen,” he said.
According to the tradition of the seder, each person drinks four cups of wine, symbolizing freedom, over the course of the meal.
“It’s generally a bottle per person per night,” he said, “but it depends on your glass size.”
With Bart Jones