Image: Michael Lipsitz, grocery shopping
Brian Snyder  /  Reuters file
Overall, food prices rose nearly 5 percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/1/2008 11:28:05 AM ET 2008-04-01T15:28:05

Melissa Marks didn’t used to give much thought to her trips to the grocery store — if she needed a gallon of milk or a carton of eggs, she’d just hop in her car and get it.

These days, Marks, a single mom with three kids, is tying her grocery store trips to the day she gets her paycheck. Instead of making a run for just a few items, she’s thinking up menus and compiling a list beforehand. The kids are eating more generic brands and getting fewer luxury items like sweets. She’s also clipping coupons and choosing which store will get her business based on who has milk on sale that week.

With both gas and food prices rising, Marks, of Brownsburg, Ind., also is cutting back on restaurant trips, sending her kids to school with pre-packed lunches and eating last night's leftovers for lunch the next day.

"Things have been tight before, but we’ve never seen it like this," she said.

Steadily rising food costs aren't just causing grocery shoppers to do a double-take at the checkout line — they're also changing the very ways we feed our families.

The worst case of food inflation in nearly 20 years has more Americans giving up restaurant meals to eat at home. We're buying fewer luxury food items, eating more leftovers and buying more store brands instead of name-brand items.

Record-high energy, corn and wheat prices in the past year have led to sticker shock in the grocery aisles. At $1.32, the average price of a loaf of bread has increased 32 percent since January 2005. In the last year alone, the average price of carton of eggs has increased almost 50 percent.

Image: Rising costs at grocery counter

Ground beef, milk, chicken, apples, tomatoes, lettuce, coffee and orange juice are among the staples that cost more these days, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Overall, food prices rose nearly 5 percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means a pound of coffee, on average, cost 57 cents more at year's end than in 2006. A 12-ounce can of frozen, concentrated orange juice now averages $2.53 — a 67-cent increase in just two years.

And a carton of grade A, large eggs will set you back $2.17. That's an increase of nearly $1 since February 2006.

"The economy is having a definite impact on shopper behavior," said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, a retail trade group. "People are significantly changing what they do."

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Soaring prices are causing shoppers to rethink long-held habits such as store loyalty.

Gina Persinger of Lakewood, Colo., used to stop by Safeway for most food items. Now, she’s buying more food in bulk at Sam’s Club and only hitting the grocery store with a list in her hand.

"I don’t go the store hungry anymore because that easily adds an extra $100 to the bill," she said. "I try to keep track of what I really need and what I don’t need."

She and her husband also have cut back on eating out and no longer peruse Wal-Mart, Best Buy or other retailers looking for DVDs, clothing or things for the house. Still, she is holding on to one luxury — her Starbucks white chocolate mochas — "even though, when I really stop to think about it, I pay more for a cup of coffee than I do for a gallon of milk."

Gina Pierson, a music teacher in Columbia, Mo., buys her family's staples at local grocery stores but makes regular trips to Wal-Mart to supplement the weekly shopping list. Like many families struggling to get by, Pierson and her husband, a public schoolteacher, are adjusting their approach to buying, cooking and eating food. Restaurant meals are now almost a luxury.

"Between food and gas, it's just cheaper to stay home," she said.

In 2007, the FMI survey showed the average number of weekly shopping trips falling below two per household for the first time.

'I can't afford everything'
Paula Curtis, a mental health worker in Montpelier, Vt., said her grocery bill has been steadily climbing by $10 to $20 a week. She has cut back on meat, fruit, vegetables and snack food, and buys milk at the gas station, where she said it's cheaper.

"Every time I go, it's more and more," she said. "I make a list, but I don't necessarily get everything on it because I can't afford everything."

Nationwide, a family of four on a moderate-cost shopping plan now spends an average of $904 each month for groceries, an $80 increase from two years ago, according to the USDA.

Those who can't absorb the added expenses are increasingly seeking help from food pantries. America's Harvest, which distributes nearly 2 billion pounds of food and grocery products each year to more than 200 food banks across the country, estimates that its overall client load increased by 20 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007.

The jump has been even higher at the Central Missouri Food Bank's pantry in Columbia, a college town halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis.

The food pantry served 7,200 people in 2007, an increase of more than 50 percent over two years, said executive director Peggy Kirkpatrick.

Columbia used to be considered inflation-proof because of its high-paying university jobs and proximity to the state capital, 30 miles away in Jefferson City.

"That's not the case anymore," she said.

Shary Auer visits the Columbia food pantry once a month to help extend the family's $800 monthly food budget. The mother of five children, ages 9 to 19, is buying more canned food instead of fresh produce. Portions are smaller around the Auer dinner table, and salads are added regularly to stretch the servings of meat and poultry.

Auer, a part-time postal worker and supermarket cashier, said she fastidiously tracks food prices.

"I watch for sales, save my receipts and highlight what I save," she said.

Not all shoppers are struggling with the changes. At the Whole Foods Market in downtown Seattle, Beth Miller didn't think twice about paying $6.39 for a gallon of organic orange juice, or $4 for a dozen eggs at the store, which specializes in organic and natural foods.

"I'm used to having a small gasp at the cash register," said Miller, who favors local produce and organic food for her husband and 12-year-old son. "We try to be really careful about what we eat."

Among retailers, the surge in commodity prices — from corn, now in high demand because of increased ethanol production, to wheat that has tripled in price over the past 10 months — has some industry observers suggesting that higher food prices aren't a temporary fluctuation but instead may be here to stay.

"We don't exactly have a crystal ball," said Whole Foods' Perry Abbenante, a senior global grocery buyer. "But I'm not sure (prices) are going back. We're preparing for a new threshold."

Marks, the single mom from Indiana, notes that there are some upsides to the new frugality. She’s lost some weight, which she thinks has to do with the fact that the family is going out to eat less often. Also, her family is starting appreciate things they once took for granted. When one of her kids recently brought home a good report card, she decided to splurge on a now-rare restaurant outing.

"It was a real treat, to actually go sit down at the pizza parlor," she said.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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