By Clark Gerhartsreiter, Contributing Writer
For incarcerated persons, soups carry a significance that extends far beyond mere culinary delight. Psychologically, soups mean comfort; financially, soups represent a medium of exchange; and nutritionally, soups are a necessary staple for a full stomach on days on which the dining hall fare just will not suffice.
What would happen if canteens suddenly stopped selling soups? At San Quentin, that unthinkable possibility came to pass and left many residents in a state of shock: In July, San Quentin’s canteen declared soups — that is ramen-style dried noodles soups — as “Out of Stock.” No Beef soups. No Chicken soups. No Chili soups. What brought on this catastrophe?
San Quentin’s soup shortage is simply a symptom of a global soup shortage, brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Headlines like “Ramen, Cup Noodles Shortage Hits Market” and “Ramen Prices Heat Up as Wheat Supply Goes to Pot” have appeared worldwide ever since the beginning of the pandemic. Additionally, since the war in Ukraine began, headlines describe a supply chain crisis.
On June 16, the Guardian reported on high prices of noodles, blaming the increase on “surging wheat, energy and transportation costs.” Ramen-style noodles consist mostly of wheat, and the world is currently experiencing a shortage of that critical commodity. The Guardian listed the price of wheat as having risen from $260 per ton in November 2021 to $475 by mid-May, an increase of $215 or 83%.
“The price of wheat had already risen sharply due to the coronavirus pandemic and snarl-ups in the global supply chain. But the war in Ukraine has seen the price almost double from November,” the Guardian said.
This massive increase drove up the price of ramen soups. An August 3 search on Amazon.com listed a 12-pack of chicken-flavor Top Ramen for $11.95 — almost one dollar per soup. Since few customers felt like paying such exorbitant prices for soups, some stores stopped selling them.
The news hit the whole planet: “Now, Top Ramen noodles to be withdrawn from market,” cried BrandEquity.com about India, one of the company’s biggest markets. Similar news came from China and Japan, all big soup markets. San Quentin is experiencing the distant, trickle-down impacts of a much greater soup shortage.
The fallout of the soup shortage has had far-reaching consequences in San Quentin: In the cash-less, quasi-barter economy of prisons, soups play a critical role as a prison-currency, valued parallel to the dollar. Incarcerated persons use soups as an informal medium of exchange for goods and services.
In April, the canteen at San Quentin raised prices on soups from 25 cents to 30 cents each. Folks on the yard barter their goods all the time — soups that once traded at 25 cents, now have to deal with the markup to 30 cents that makes the economics of a once-simple four-soups-per-dollar trade much more awkward.
A creator of handmade greeting cards, who requested anonymity, said he has had to change the soup-prices of his creations, complaining that the new price of 30 cents made calculations difficult. “I guess I raised my prices,” he added, perhaps not realizing that he was contributing to inflation.
Some see an opportunity for package companies to step in. Package companies often use “loss leader pricing” — offering discounts on staple goods — hoping that customers buy other goods that make up the loss.
“I would order all my packages from companies that have 25-cent soups,” said Alex Ross from North Block.
Another North Block resident said that soup unavailability would force him to use other goods for transactions. “I would use candy bars or soda,” he said. “Everything has got so expensive that one soup alone does not buy much, anyway.”
Some soup-faithful incarcerated persons refuse to believe that soups will forever disappear. “They can’t take that away from us,” proclaimed education worker Darryl Farris, a resolute soup consumer who eats about five soups a week. “They fill me up and they taste great.”
San Quentin’s “Great Soup Shortage” has eased since July and the critical commodity has once again appeared in stock — though limited to one case per customer and still at elevated prices — giving San Quentin’s gastro-economic barter system a necessary injection of beef- or chicken- or chili-flavored liquidity.