Families struggle with climbing food prices
Rebecca Reveles could hold her entire grocery order in her hands at Shaw’s in Weymouth: a package of Lunchables, a loaf of bread, a six-pack of fruit cups and cookies. “I shop daily,” the Weymouth resident and mother of two girls, 13 and 19, said this week. “I can’t afford to shop for the week. It’s more expensive, so I go store to store. I have more time than money.”
Reveles was buying for her two daughters’ school lunches, and the Lunchables were 75 cents off that day.
Reveles is not alone. South Shore residents finding themselves pinched by high food prices are hunting for sales, doing more meal planning and avoiding expensive foods.
Food prices increased 4 percent in 2007 – the highest annual increase since 1990 – and they are expected to climb another 4 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture consumer price index.
The dairy and meat sections of the grocery store have been hit the hardest.
“I can’t afford to buy eggs or meat,” Reveles said. “We’re eating a lot of pasta for dinner.”
In January, egg prices were 34.7 percent above the January 2007 level. Milk prices are 17.7 percent higher, beef is up 4.7 percent and fresh fruits up 6.6 percent, all from the previous year, according to the Department of Agriculture.
That’s why shoppers like Patty Kelly of Weymouth are tackling the grocery aisles differently.
“It’s easy-does-it on the meats,” she said. “We have more sauces, fruits and vegetables. The dinners are not as balanced as they used to be.”
Like Reveles, Kelly said she shops at several stores and watches for sales and specials. Her weekly grocery order for the four people in her home comes to about $200 a week, she said. That’s about $50 more a month than she spent last year.
The surge in food prices is driven by across-the-board increases in raw product prices, like corn, and processing and transportation costs, said Julie Caswell, chairwoman of the Department of Resource Economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Worldwide demand for corn is up because it’s used in different foods and as a biofuel, she said. And hikes in commodities and gas prices have finally trickled down to affect the consumer’s wallet.
John Beady, a father of five, says his shopping routine is worth the extra gas. He buys his meat, fish and produce on Friday at the Haymarket farmers’ market in Boston, buys items like milk and juice in bulk from wholesale stores and visits Wal-Mart and supermarkets for sale-priced grocery items.
On Tuesday, Beady stood in the produce section at Shaw’s with an empty carriage, surveying the flier for deals.
“I only came in for hamburger rolls, but I’m still checking to see what’s on sale,” he said.
With a family of seven, Beady watches for the “10 for $10” sales. “We’ll buy 10 of everything,” he said.
The Whole Foods at the Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham plans to bring back its “Shopping on a Budget” store tours this spring, said Tina Barber, the store’s marketing team leader.
The hour-long tours, which will be advertised in the store and on the company’s Web site, give shoppers tips for meal planning, buying in bulk and how to find value items, Barber said.
Debra Wein, president of Sensible Nutrition Inc. in Hingham, said food shopping on a budget is a hot topic these days.
“This is a conversation we have often,” Wein said. “You have to be really knowledgeable about prices. Just because it’s a bargain on your wallet doesn’t mean it’s a bargain on your health.”
Wein said she tells her clients to look for locally grown food, or buy frozen produce.
“The price of broccoli, for example, has skyrocketed because we’re not growing it locally,” she said. “Buying it frozen is a great way not to waste food and save money.”
Wein also suggests that families think more like vegetarians.
“Beans are a great low-cost protein,” she said. “If people are eating meat most nights, they should try eating meat one day a week.”
That’s advice that Kathleen McDonald says works. Shopping at the Whole Foods in Hingham, the South Weymouth mother of three said her family eats a lot of beans and tofu with meals. They’re less expensive and healthier, she said.
“My kids’ nutrition is number one,” McDonald said. “But I tell my kids, you buy what you need and not what you always want.”
Caswell, the UMass economist, said there may be relief in sight. Lower demand or higher supply leads to lower prices, and farmers often react to price increases by producing more than consumers demand.
“Farmers do respond a lot to higher prices,” Caswell said. “We’re going into a planting season in the U.S. That industry reacts to higher prices. In fact, they have a history of overreacting.”
CLICK HERE to see the "Dollar Drain" special report.