Rumors of shortage prompt rush on rice in Anchorage area

Posted: Monday, May 05, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Rumors of a possible rice shortage are causing a rush on the staple in Anchorage stores.

About 200 shoppers on Thursday were lined up at a Costco store 15 minutes before opening, looking to buy rice in bulk.

Rice has flown off the shelves at warehouse retailers Costco and Sam's Club and both have set limits on rice purchases. Neighborhood stores and specialty groceries that serve the city's rising immigrant population were just as busy.

A buyer at New Sagaya in Midtown said his store sold about 15,000 pounds of rice in a single week. Red Apple in Mountain View sold 20,000 pounds in four days, according to manager Claude Anaruk.

"Right now," he said, "rice is crazy."

Depending on where they're from, people may prefer jasmine, long grain, short grain or basmati, but a full bag of rice is a symbol of security, particularly for immigrants with a memory of shortages back home, said Theo Wong, who runs International Marketplace on 36th Avenue.

"(Having rice) is showing you're not poor. It's a mental thing," he said. "My mom, she's Chinese, she compares it to money. I got rice. I got money."

Rice is readily available in Anchorage for shoppers willing to pay $1 to $3 a pound. While the least expensive brands sold in large bulk amounts were not available Wednesday at some stores, there were ample supplies of small packages of brown rice and instant rice.

Buyers expect to receive more shipments soon of bulk medium-grain CalRose white rice from California, a somewhat stickier rice popular in sushi restaurants.

Elsewhere in the world, the rice picture is more perilous. Global stocks of rice have fallen by half in recent years, partly due to droughts and higher demand. Rising fuel prices have added to shipping costs. Shortages of affordable rice in China, India, Vietnam and Thailand have led to restrictions on exports, which have caused price increases in consumer nations.

The flow to the United States of certain preferred varieties of foreign rice is slowing while the price has more than doubled, according to local buyers.

On Monday, Doug Perfetto bought Red Apple's three-bag limit of Dragon Fly Thai at $54.91 per 50-pound sack, plus a couple of extra bags of sticky rice for dessert, paying $189. In volume, the purchase was not highly unusual for his Filipino-American family of 10.

"There is almost always 200 pounds of rice in our house," he said. "They eat it for breakfast, they eat it for lunch. ... This is their main, everyday food."

Perfetto believes there is a growing global rice shortage, partly because it's all that the poorest people in the world can afford these days and partly because they're storing it for their own food security.

"They're not eating steak, and they're not eating out - that's expensive food," Perfetto said. "So they're going back to basic staples. And now these people are starting to stock it up. You can store rice; you can't store steak. You can live on rice."

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