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Indonesians seek out cheaper food ahead of Ramadan as prices surge

Straits Times - March 8, 2024

Linda Yulisman, Jakarta – Across the nation, Indonesians are queueing for rice, sugar and other staples to try and beat rising prices ahead of Ramadan, which is expected to begin on March 12.

A poor rice harvest has caused prices to spike, prompting the government to import the staple to ensure sufficient supplies during the fasting month. But that has not stopped people from queueing at traditional markets and government-subsidised food bazaars, looking to save money.

The price of premium rice hit an all-time high of 18,000 rupiah (S$1.50) per kg at the end of February, according to traders.

In Jakarta, residents, mostly women, have been queueing at government offices and fields used as distribution centres by state logistics agency Bulog and the Agriculture Ministry, where staples are sold at below market price.

A 5kg bag of rice is sold at 59,500 rupiah, or 11,900 rupiah per kg, at these centres, while at traditional markets, the price is around 14,000 rupiah per kg as at March 7.

A litre of cooking oil costs 14,000 rupiah, around 14 per cent cheaper than in traditional markets.

Queues form hours before deliveries arrive at the government-run distribution centres, where residents are limited to one bag of rice, 1 litre of cooking oil and 1kg of sugar. At some supermarkets, shoppers are limited to one 2.5kg pack of rice.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and food prices typically rise during the fasting month as consumption peaks.

But the situation has become more difficult in 2024 as it coincides with a smaller rice harvest, triggered by the El Nino phenomenon, causing uneven distribution of rain across the vast archipelago with some areas experiencing harvest failure due to floods.

The government has called on people to avoid panic buying, saying there are sufficient food stocks.

"The supply of food commodities is completely secure. The people do not have to worry about rice," said Trade Ministry director for domestic trade Isy Karim in a talk show on March 4.

The government has also been importing other key food items such as garlic, soya bean, sugar, beef and rice. Bulog has bought 300,000 tonnes of rice from Thailand and Pakistan, part of the import quota of two million tonnes for 2024.

The Straits Times visited three places in Jakarta selling subsidised staples.

At one location in South Jakarta, a group of people waiting for their turns protested at a food bazaar, demanding purchases should be based on the number of coupons the organiser had collected hours before the distribution, instead of the queue.

The coupons were numbered, and people were called based on the order of the coupons. But many were already in the queue, hoping their turn would come in line with the queue.

Security officer Hanafi said he and his wife have gone to many such food bazaars to buy staples, particularly rice.

"It's quite a hassle to queue like this. I've never faced this kind of situation in the past. But prices of food nowadays are too high. I have no choice," the 54-year-old father of three told ST. "When we hear information about food bazaars like this one, we just go."

Housewife Murti, 51, who has three children, said: "When we have the money, buying rice becomes our priority. The most important thing is for us to have rice."

She added: "We can take everything – salted fish, tempeh, or even sambal – as the side dish. It depends on how much money we have."

Ms Murti, whose husband works as an air-conditioning technician and driver, said she is keen to secure enough rice for the whole fasting month through the food bazaars.

"Even to feed my whole family is tough because everything is expensive now. So I won't think of getting new clothes," said Ms Murti, who, like many Indonesians, has a name with only one word.

Mr Normanto, in his 50s, an officer at the Agriculture Ministry, said enthusiasm from buyers for more affordable food items this year is high, especially for beef, which is sold at 105,000 rupiah per kg at food bazaars, compared with 140,000 rupiah in traditional markets.

Some residents who usually eat modest meals see Ramadan as an opportunity to enjoy good food with their family when breaking fast.

Ms Pripat Rosiana, 47, bought one kg of beef, along with eggs, chilli and shallots, to cook rendang – which she described as a "special dish" – for her family of four and her sister's family of five during the first day of Ramadan.

"We can eat beef only twice a year because it is expensive," she said. "So when we begin our fasting month, we want to eat rendang. We can eat other food like chicken, eggs or fish on the next (fasting) days."

Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/indonesians-seek-out-cheaper-food-ahead-of-ramadan-as-prices-surg