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Rising Costs

A look at 3 households

Stacey Harris shares her family's shopping habits. Stacey Harris shares her family's shopping habits. (Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / May 28, 2008

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Anyone who does the grocery shopping knows that food prices are on the rise-- up 6.9 percent thus far this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In April, the average US price of a pound of all-purpose flour was 52 cents, up from 35 cents in April 2007. In the same time period, white bread went from $1.20 to $1.37 per pound, whole milk from $3.14 to $3.80 per gallon, spaghetti products from 93 cents to $1.12 per pound, and a dozen eggs from $1.62 to $2.07. The good news? Iceberg lettuce is cheaper.

How are consumers dealing with the rising costs? Some aren't yet feeling the crunch. Some find themselves shifting eating habits, cutting back on other expenditures, or doing complicated bits of household math: With gas now approaching $4 a gallon, how far is it worth driving in order to buy something that's on sale?

Here are the stories of three Massachusetts families and how they're shopping now.

STACEY HARRIS

AGE: 35

LIVES IN: South Boston with children Christina, 6, and Joshua, 4.

OCCUPATION: Salon manicurist and entrepreneur; she has side businesses selling baked goods and hosiery.

COST OF GROCERIES ON A RECENT WEEK: $137.17

SHOPS AT: Stop & Shop, Shaw's, BJ's, Wal-Mart, Target.

STAPLES: Chicken, pork chops, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, salad, string beans, broccoli, strawberries, apples, nuts.

SPENDS THE MOST ON: Vegetables, sugar, flour, eggs, and butter.

HER STORY: Harris is a single mother, and on one income, she says, "we're really struggling." Since Christina was born, she's received assistance from the WIC Program, but that ends in July when Joshua turns 5, the cut-off point for eligibility. "I don't want to say it's a habit being broke, but I've been doing it for seven years," she says. "It will be new to me now having to pay for milk and cheese and eggs."

Still, Harris is a savvy shopper: She's been clipping coupons since she was a child, when she helped her mother, and she checks circulars and compares prices from store to store. On a recent shopping trip, she paid $70.61 for groceries that would have cost $91.22 without coupons and her Stop & Shop card. She also buys many things in bulk, particularly the supplies she uses to make the cakes and pies she sells by word of mouth. During the holidays, for example, she'll buy almost $50 worth of cream cheese when it's on sale for $1 per package. "Because I buy in bulk, I notice the food prices going up, but I don't really feel it until I have to replenish. Then I notice, ouch, this is a difference from when I bought it in bulk the last time." She steers clear of generic brands for the most part. "I was raised on Tide, raised on Scott," she says. "I'm not going to buy Fruit Rings, I'm going to continue buying them Froot Loops. I'm used to it, and the other products sometimes don't taste the same." She'll also drive to the suburbs for a bargain - she's noticed the prices at the Taunton Wal-Mart are lower, for example.

"You can cry over spilt milk," she says of the increased food costs, "but everybody's feeling it. You bite the bullet - you have to eat."

JULIE AND DAVID REILLY

AGES: 42 and 47

LIVE IN: Mansfield with children Samantha, 12, and Jack, 10.

OCCUPATION: She works at a local health club, he's a respiratory therapist and clinical coordinator at Sturdy Memorial Hospital.

COST OF GROCERIES ON A RECENT WEEK: $121.26

SHOP AT: Stop & Shop and Shaw's.

STAPLES: Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken, ham and cheese sandwiches, milk, eggs, bread, cereal, Diet Coke.

SPEND THE MOST ON: Cold cuts, fruit, and dairy items.

THEIR STORY: The Reilly family is starting to feel the rising food costs. "Financially we're fine," says Julie Reilly, "but I notice everything is more expensive, which is a little frustrating." They've started buying some generic products, particularly pasta and cereal. Instead of Trix, for example, they now buy the store brand. "Real Trix are better," Samantha says, "but Shaw's Trix can be compared." They also comparison shop, check circulars, and look for sale items. They eat a lot of chicken and ground turkey, and Julie Reilly takes advantage when these items go on sale. On a recent shopping trip at Shaw's, for example, she spent $121.26 and saved $34.89 with her preferred savings card, manufacturers' coupons, and store coupons. She takes a list when she shops and tries to stick to it, "though sometimes extra items end up in the cart that I'm not aware of," she says. Jack giggles.

The kids don't like the food at the school cafeteria, so Julie Reilly packs their lunches every day. This is becoming more expensive. Samantha and Jack take sandwiches, usually ham and cheese; one likes white bread and the other likes wheat, so they have to buy both. Bread, cheese, apples, and other such lunch items have all seen significant percentage increases over the last year. Julie Reilly says she's noticed this and notes that cold cuts have gotten more expensive, too. On one shopping trip, she spent $14.51 on a pound of turkey, a pound of cheese, and a half-pound of ham. At home, the family goes through a lot of milk, and Diet Coke for David Reilly.

In season, the Reillys buy corn from a local farm stand, and Samantha has a vegetable garden. She grows tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. But most of the family's shopping is done at the conveniently located Shaw's and Stop & Shop. On Fridays, they get takeout pizza, and they occasionally eat out at area chains.

ILANA GREENSTEIN AND MANUEL MACIAS

AGES: 38 and 47

LIVE IN: East Boston with children Jesse, 4, and Izel, 1.

OCCUPATION: Attorneys

COST OF GROCERIES ON A RECENT WEEK: about $400

SHOP AT: Whole Foods.

STAPLES: Shrimp, red meat once a week, peas, fruit, sweet potatoes, rice, organic milk, organic yogurt.

SPEND THE MOST ON: Lamb, shrimp, fruit.

THEIR STORY: Greenstein and Macias are selling their home in East Boston and hope to buy a house in Brookline, for the "parks and the schools, all the things I never thought I'd care about" before having children, Greenstein says. Also more of a priority since they had kids, Macias says, is eating organic.

The family shops at Whole Foods, has a community garden plot, and frequents farmers' markets in season. They avoid stores like Shaw's and Stop & Shop because the kids see the junk food and then they want it. "We're going through our kitchen throwing out all the plastic, trying to minimize the toxins the kids have," Macias says. "We mostly eat organic when possible. You want to give the kids the best chance and minimize the harm that can come to them through chemicals or growth hormones."

Greenstein and Macias eat a lot of sweet potatoes and rice, as well as shrimp, lamb, and salmon. The last three are new for them, as they were vegetarians before Greenstein became pregnant with Izel. Although they used to eat out a lot, they do so less now that they have kids. ("We get the hairy eyeball from people," Macias says, laughing.) They'll cook spaghetti with shrimp, homemade pizza, salmon, and lamb once a week. Fruit, both fresh and dried for snacks, is a big expense. Macias is lactose-intolerant, so they buy regular milk and lactose-free milk, both organic. "If there's organic, we buy it," Greenstein says.